Margaret Sanger’s “The Pivot of Civilization” Reviewed

Margaret Sanger and the Forced Sterilization of Americans

The people of the United States have recently been called upon to exercise their traditional generosity not merely to aid the European Relief Council in its efforts to keep alive three million, five hundred thousand starving children in Central Europe, but in addition to contribute to that enormous fund to save the thirty million Chinese who find themselves at the verge of starvation, owing to one of those recurrent famines which strike often at that densely populated and inert country, where procreative recklessness is encouraged as a matter of duty. The results of this international charity have not justified the effort nor repaid the generosity to which it appealed. In the first place, no effort was made to prevent the recurrence of the disaster; in the second place, philanthropy of this type attempts to sweep back the tide of miseries created by unrestricted propagation, with the feeble broom of sentiment. As one of the most observant and impartial of authorities on the Far East, J. O. P. Bland, has pointed out: “So long as China maintains a birth-rate that is estimated at fifty-five per thousand or more, the only possible alternative to these visitations would be emigration and this would have to be on such a scale as would speedily overrun and overfill the habitable globe. Neither humanitarian schemes, international charities nor philanthropies can prevent widespread disaster to a people which habitually breeds up to and beyond the maximum limits of its food supply.” Upon this point, it is interesting to add, Mr. Frank A. Vanderlip has likewise pointed out the inefficacy and misdirection of this type of international charity.[1]

Mr. Bland further points out: “The problem presented is one with which neither humanitarian nor religious zeal can ever cope, so long as we fail to recognize and attack the fundamental cause of these calamities. As a matter of sober fact, the benevolent activities of our missionary societies to reduce the deathrate by the prevention of infanticide and the checking of disease, actually serve in the end to aggravate the pressure of population upon its food-supply and to increase the severity of the inevitably resultant catastrophe. What is needed for the prevention, or, at least, the mitigation of these scourges, is an organized educational propaganda, directed first against polygamy and the marriage of minors and the unfit, and, next, toward such a limitation of the birth-rate as shall approximate the standard of civilized countries. But so long as Bishops and well meaning philanthropists in England and America continue to praise and encourage ‘the glorious fertility of the East’ there can be but little hope of minimizing the penalties of the ruthless struggle for existence in China, and Nature’s law will therefore continue to work out its own pitiless solution, weeding out every year millions of predestined weaklings.”

This rapid survey is enough, I hope, to indicate the manifold inadequacies inherent in present policies of philanthropy and charity. The most serious charge that can be brought against modern “benevolence” is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents and dependents. These are the most dangerous elements in the world community, the most devastating curse on human progress and expression. Philanthropy is a gesture characteristic of modern business lavishing upon the unfit the profits extorted from the community at large. Looked at impartially, this compensatory generosity is in its final effect probably more dangerous, more dysgenic, more blighting than the initial practice of profiteering and the social injustice which makes some too rich and others too poor.

[1] Birth Control Review. Vol. V. No. 4. p. 7.


CHAPTER VI: Neglected Factors of the World Problem

War has thrust upon us a new internationalism. To-day the world is united by starvation, disease and misery. We are enjoying the ironic internationalism of hatred. The victors are forced to shoulder the burden of the vanquished. International philanthropies and charities are organized. The great flux of immigration and emigration has recommenced. Prosperity is a myth; and the rich are called upon to support huge philanthropies, in the futile attempt to sweep back the tide of famine and misery. In the face of this new internationalism, this tangled unity of the world, all proposed political and economic programs reveal a woeful common bankruptcy. They are fragmentary and superficial. None of them go to the root of this unprecedented world problem. Politicians offer political solutions,--like the League of Nations or the limitation of navies. Militarists offer new schemes of competitive armament. Marxians offer the Third Internationale and industrial revolution. Sentimentalists offer charity and philanthropy. Coordination or correlation is lacking. And matters go steadily from bad to worse.

The first essential in the solution of any problem is the recognition and statement of the factors involved. Now in this complex problem which to-day confronts us, no attempt has been made to state the primary facts. The statesman believes they are all political. Militarists believe they are all military and naval. Economists, including under the term the various schools for Socialists, believe they are industrial and financial. Churchmen look upon them as religious and ethical. What is lacking is the recognition of that fundamental factor which reflects and coordinates these essential but incomplete phases of the problem,--the factor of reproduction. For in all problems affecting the welfare of a biological species, and particularly in all problems of human welfare, two fundamental forces work against each other. There is hunger as the driving force of all our economic, industrial and commercial organizations; and there is the reproductive impulse in continual conflict with our economic, political settlements, race adjustments and the like. Official moralists, statesmen, politicians, philanthropists and economists display an astounding disregard of this second disorganizing factor. They treat the world of men as if it were purely a hunger world instead of a hunger-sex world. Yet there is no phase of human society, no question of politics, economics, or industry that is not tied up in almost equal measure with the expression of both of these primordial impulses. You cannot sweep back overpowering dynamic instincts by catchwords. You can neglect and thwart sex only at your peril. You cannot solve the problem of hunger and ignore the problem of sex. They are bound up together.

While the gravest attention is paid to the problem of hunger and food, that of sex is neglected. Politicians and scientists are ready and willing to speak of such things as a “high birth rate,” infant mortality, the dangers of immigration or over-population. But with few exceptions they cannot bring themselves to speak of Birth Control. Until they shall have broken through the traditional inhibitions concerning the discussion of sexual matters, until they recognize the force of the sexual instinct, and until they recognize Birth Control as the PIVOTAL FACTOR in the problem confronting the world to-day, our statesmen must continue to work in the dark. Political palliatives will be mocked by actuality. Economic nostrums are blown willy-nilly in the unending battle of human instincts.

A brief survey of the past three or four centuries of Western civilization suggests the urgent need of a new science to help humanity in the struggle with the vast problem of to-day’s disorder and danger. That problem, as we envisage it, is fundamentally a sexual problem. Ethical, political, and economic avenues of approach are insufficient. We must create a new instrument, a new technique to make any adequate solution possible.

The history of the industrial revolution and the dominance of all-conquering machinery in Western civilization show the inadequacy of political and economic measures to meet the terrific rise in population. The advent of the factory system, due especially to the development of machinery at the beginning of the nineteenth century, upset all the grandiloquent theories of the previous era. To meet the new situation created by the industrial revolution arose the new science of “political economy,” or economics. Old political methods proved inadequate to keep pace with the problem presented by the rapid rise of the new machine and industrial power. The machine era very shortly and decisively exploded the simple belief that “all men are born free and equal.” Political power was superseded by economic and industrial power. To sustain their supremacy in the political field, governments and politicians allied themselves to the new industrial oligarchy. Old political theories and practices were totally inadequate to control the new situation or to meet the complex problems that grew out of it.

Just as the eighteenth century saw the rise and proliferation of political theories, the nineteenth witnessed the creation and development of the science of economics, which aimed to perfect an instrument for the study and analysis of an industrial society, and to offer a technique for the solution of the multifold problems it presented. But at the present moment, as the outcome of the machine era and competitive populations, the world has been thrown into a new situation, the solution of which is impossible solely by political or economic weapons.

The industrial revolution and the development of machinery in Europe and America called into being a new type of working-class. Machines were at first termed “labor-saving devices.” In reality, as we now know, mechanical inventions and discoveries created unprecedented and increasingly enormous demand for “labor.” The omnipresent and still existing scandal of child labor is ample evidence of this. Machine production in its opening phases, demanded large, concentrated and exploitable populations. Large production and the huge development of international trade through improved methods of transport, made possible the maintenance upon a low level of existence of these rapidly increasing proletarian populations. With the rise and spread throughout Europe and America of machine production, it is now possible to correlate the expansion of the “proletariat.” The working-classes bred almost automatically to meet the demand for machine-serving “hands.”

The rise in population, the multiplication of proletarian populations as a first result of mechanical industry, the appearance of great centers of population, the so-called urban drift, and the evils of overcrowding still remain insufficiently studied and stated. It is a significant though neglected fact that when, after long agitation in Great Britain, child labor was finally forbidden by law, the supply of children dropped appreciably. No longer of economic value in the factory, children were evidently a drug in the “home.” Yet it is doubly significant that from this moment British labor began the long unending task of self-organization.[1]

Nineteenth century economics had no method of studying the interrelation of the biological factors with the industrial. Overcrowding, overwork, the progressive destruction of responsibility by the machine discipline, as is now perfectly obvious, had the most disastrous consequences upon human character and human habits.[2] Paternalistic philanthropies and sentimental charities, which sprang up like mushrooms, only tended to increase the evils of indiscriminate breeding. From the physiological and psychological point of view, the factory system has been nothing less than catastrophic.

Dr. Austin Freeman has recently pointed out [3] some of the physiological, psychological, and racial effects of machinery upon the proletariat, the breeders of the world. Speaking for Great Britain, Dr. Freeman suggests that the omnipresence of machinery tends toward the production of large but inferior populations. Evidences of biological and racial degeneracy are apparent to this observer. “Compared with the African negro,” he writes, “the British sub-man is in several respects markedly inferior. He tends to be dull; he is usually quite helpless and unhandy; he has, as a rule, no skill or knowledge of handicraft, or indeed knowledge of any kind....Over-population is a phenomenon connected with the survival of the unfit, and it is mechanism which has created conditions favorable to the survival of the unfit and the elimination of the fit.” The whole indictment against machinery is summarized by Dr. Freeman:

“Mechanism by its reactions on man and his environment is antagonistic to human welfare. It has destroyed industry and replaced it by mere labor; it has degraded and vulgarized the works of man; it has destroyed social unity and replaced it by social disintegration and class antagonism to an extent which directly threatens civilization; it has injuriously affected the structural type of society by developing its organization at the expense of the individual; it has endowed the inferior man with political power which he employs to the common disadvantage by creating political institutions of a socially destructive type; and finally by its reactions on the activities of war it constitutes an agent for the wholesale physical destruction of man and his works and the extinction of human culture.”

It is not necessary to be in absolute agreement with this diagnostician to realize the menace of machinery, which tends to emphasize quantity and mere number at the expense of quality and individuality. One thing is certain. If machinery is detrimental to biological fitness, the machine must be destroyed, as it was in Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon.” But perhaps there is another way of mastering this problem.

Altruism, humanitarianism and philanthropy have aided and abetted machinery in the destruction of responsibility and self-reliance among the least desirable elements of the proletariat. In contrast with the previous epoch of discovery of the New World, of exploration and colonization, when a centrifugal influence was at work upon the populations of Europe, the advent of machinery has brought with it a counteracting centripetal effect. The result has been the accumulation of large urban populations, the increase of irresponsibility, and ever-widening margin of biological waste.

Just as eighteenth century politics and political theories were unable to keep pace with the economic and capitalistic aggressions of the nineteenth century, so also we find, if we look closely enough, that nineteenth century economics is inadequate to lead the world out of the catastrophic situation into which it has been thrown by the debacle of the World War. Economists are coming to recognize that the purely economic interpretation of contemporary events is insufficient. Too long, as one of them has stated, orthodox economists have overlooked the important fact that “human life is dynamic, that change, movement, evolution, are its basic characteristics; that self-expression, and therefore freedom of choice and movement, are prerequisites to a satisfying human state”.[4]

Economists themselves are breaking with the old “dismal science” of the Manchester school, with its sterile study of “supply and demand,” of prices and exchange, of wealth and labor. Like the Chicago Vice Commission, nineteenth-century economists (many of whom still survive into our own day) considered sex merely as something to be legislated out of existence. They had the right idea that wealth consisted solely of material things used to promote the welfare of certain human beings. Their idea of capital was somewhat confused. They apparently decided that capital was merely that part of capital used to produce profit. Prices, exchanges, commercial statistics, and financial operations comprised the subject matter of these older economists. It would have been considered “unscientific” to take into account the human factors involved. They might study the wear-and-tear and depreciation of machinery: but the depreciation or destruction of the human race did not concern them. Under “wealth” they never included the vast, wasted treasury of human life and human expression.

Economists to-day are awake to the imperative duty of dealing with the whole of human nature, with the relation of men, women, and children to their environment—physical and psychic as well as social; of dealing with all those factors which contribute to human sustenance, happiness and welfare. The economist, at length, investigates human motives. Economics outgrows the outworn metaphysical preconceptions of nineteenth century theory. To-day we witness the creation of a new “welfare” or social economics, based on a fuller and more complete knowledge of the human race, upon a recognition of sex as well as of hunger; in brief, of physiological instincts and psychological demands. The newer economists are beginning to recognize that their science heretofore failed to take into account the most vital factors in modern industry—it failed to foresee the inevitable consequences of compulsory motherhood; the catastrophic effects of child labor upon racial health; the overwhelming importance of national vitality and well-being; the international ramifications of the population problem; the relation of indiscriminate breeding to feeble-mindedness, and industrial inefficiency. It speculated too little or not at all on human motives. Human nature riots through the traditional economic structure, as Carlton Parker pointed out, with ridicule and destruction; the old-fashioned economist looked on helpless and aghast.

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