Margaret Sanger’s “The Pivot of Civilization” Reviewed

Margaret Sanger and the Forced Sterilization of Americans


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The duty of the educator and the intellectual creator of public opinion is, in this connection, of the greatest importance. For centuries official moralists, priests, clergymen and teachers, statesmen and politicians have preached the doctrine of glorious and divine fertility. To-day, we are confronted with the world-wide spectacle of the realization of this doctrine. It is not without significance that the moron and the imbecile set the pace in living up to this teaching, and that the intellectuals, the educators, the archbishops, bishops, priests, who are most insistent on it, are the staunchest adherents in their own lives of celibacy and non-fertility. It is time to point out to the champions of unceasing and indiscriminate fertility the results of their teaching.

One of the greatest difficulties in giving to the public a book of this type is the impossibility of keeping pace with the events and changes of a movement that is now, throughout the world, striking root and growing. The changed attitude of the American Press indicates that enlightened public opinion no longer tolerates a policy of silence upon a question of the most vital importance. Almost simultaneously in England and America, two incidents have broken through the prejudice and the guarded silence of centuries. At the church Congress in Birmingham, October 12, 1921, Lord Dawson, the king’s physician, in criticizing the report of the Lambeth Conference concerning Birth Control, delivered an address defending this practice. Of such bravery and eloquence that it could not be ignored, this address electrified the entire British public. It aroused a storm of abuse, and yet succeeded, as no propaganda could, in mobilizing the forces of progress and intelligence in the support of the cause.

Just one month later, the First American Birth Control Conference culminated in a significant and dramatic incident. At the close of the conference a mass meeting was scheduled in the Town Hall, New York City, to discuss the morality of Birth Control. Mr. Harold Cox, editor of the Edinburgh Review, who had come to New York to attend the conference, was to lead the discussion. It seemed only natural for us to call together scientists, educators, members of the medical profession, and theologians of all denominations, to ask their opinion upon this uncertain and important phase of the controversy. Letters were sent to eminent men and women in different parts of the world. In this letter we asked the following questions:--

1. Is over-population a menace to the peace of the world?

2. Would the legal dissemination of scientific Birth Control information, through the medium of clinics by the medical profession, be the most logical method of checking the problem of over-population?

3. Would knowledge of Birth Control change the moral attitude of men and women toward the marriage bond, or lower the moral standards of the youth of the country?

4. Do you believe that knowledge which enables parents to limit their families will make for human happiness, and raise the moral, social and intellectual standards of population?

We sent this questionnaire not only to those who we thought might agree with us, but we sent it also to our known opponents.

When I arrived at the Town Hall the entrance was guarded by policemen. They told me there would be no meeting. Before my arrival r executives had been greeted by Monsignor Dineen, secretary of Archbishop Hayes, of the Roman Catholic archdiocese, who informed them that the meeting would be prohibited on the ground that it was contrary to public morals. The police had closed the doors. When they opened them to permit the exit of the large audience which had gathered, Mr. Cox and I entered. I attempted to exercise my constitutional right of free speech, but was prohibited and arrested. Miss Mary Winsor, who protested against this unwarranted arrest, was likewise dragged off to the police station. The case was dismissed the following morning. The ecclesiastic instigators of the affair were conspicuous by their absence from the police court. But the incident was enough to expose the opponents of Birth Control and the extreme methods they used to combat our progress. The case was too flagrant, too gross an affront, to pass unnoticed by the newspapers. The progress of our movement was indicated in the changed attitude of the American Press, which had perceived the danger to the public of the unlawful tactics used by the enemies of Birth Control in preventing open discussion of a vital question.

No social idea has inspired its advocates with more bravery, tenacity, and courage than Birth Control. From the early days of Francis Place and Richard Carlile, to those of the Drysdales and Edward Trulove, of Bradlaugh and Mrs. Annie Besant, its advocates have faced imprisonment and ostracism. In the whole history of the English movement, there has been no more courageous figure than that of the venerable Alice Drysdale Vickery, the undaunted torch-bearer who has bridged the silence of forty-four years—since the Bradlaugh-Besant trial. She stands head and shoulders above the professional feminists. Serenely has she withstood jeers and jests. To-day, she continues to point out to the younger generation which is devoted to newer palliatives the fundamental relation between Sex and Hunger.

The First American Birth Control Conference, held at the same time as the Washington Conference for the Limitation of Armaments, marks a turning-point in our approach to social problems. The Conference made evident the fact that in every field of scientific and social endeavour the most penetrating thinkers are now turning to the consideration of our problem as a fundamental necessity to American civilization. They are coming to see that a QUALITATIVE factor as opposed to a QUANTITATIVE one is of primary importance in dealing with the great masses of humanity.

Certain fundamental convictions should be made clear here. The programme for Birth. Control is not a charity. It is not aiming to interfere in the private lives of poor people, to tell them how many children they should have, nor to sit in judgment upon their fitness to become parents. It aims, rather, to awaken responsibility, to answer the demand for a scientific means by which and through which each human life may be self-directed and self-controlled. The exponent of Birth Control, in short, is convinced that social regeneration, no less than individual regeneration, must come from within. Every potential parent, and especially every potential mother, must be brought to an acute realization of the primary and individual responsibility of bringing children into this world. Not until the parents of this world are given control over their reproductive faculties will it be possible to improve the quality of the generations of the future, or even to maintain civilization at its present level. Only when given intelligent mastery of the procreative powers can the great mass of humanity be aroused to a realization of responsibility of parenthood. We have come to the conclusion, based on widespread investigation and experience, that education for parenthood must be based upon the needs and demands of the people themselves. An idealistic code of sexual ethics, imposed from above, a set of rules devised by high-minded theorists who fail to take into account the living conditions and desires of the masses, can never be of the slightest value in effecting change in the customs of the people. Systems so imposed in the past have revealed their woeful inability to prevent the sexual and racial chaos into which the world has drifted.

The universal demand for practical education in Birth Control is one of the most hopeful signs that the masses themselves to-day possess the divine spark of regeneration. It remains for the courageous and the enlightened to answer this demand, to kindle the spark, to direct a thorough education in sex hygiene based upon this intense interest.

Birth Control is thus the entering wedge for the educator. In answering the needs of these thousands upon thousands of submerged mothers, it is possible to use their interest as the foundation for education in prophylaxis, hygiene and infant welfare. The potential mother can then be shown that maternity need not be slavery but may be the most effective avenue to self-development and self-realization. Upon this basis only may we improve the quality of the race.

The lack of balance between the birth-rate of the “unfit” and the “fit,” admittedly the greatest present menace to the civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. The example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit, and therefore less fertile, parents of the educated and well-to-do classes. On the contrary, the most urgent problem to-day is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon American society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupid, cruel sentimentalism.

To effect the salvation of the generations of the future—nay, of the generations of to-day—our greatest need, first of all, is the ability to face the situation without flinching; to cooperate in the formation of a code of sexual ethics based upon a thorough biological and psychological understanding of human nature; and then to answer the questions and the needs of the people with all the intelligence and honesty at our command. If we can summon the bravery to do this, we shall best be serving the pivotal interests of civilization.

To conclude this introduction: my initiation, as I have confessed, was primarily an emotional one. My interest in Birth Control was awakened by experience. Research and investigation have followed. Our effort has been to raise our program from the plane of the emotional to the plane of the scientific. Any social progress, it is my belief, must purge itself of sentimentalism and pass through the crucible of science. We are willing to submit Birth Control to this test. It is part of the purpose of this book to appeal to the scientist for aid, to arouse that interest which will result in widespread research and investigation. I believe that my personal experience with this idea must be that of the race at large. We must temper our emotion and enthusiasm with the impersonal determination of science. We must unite in the task of creating an instrument of steel, strong but supple, if we are to triumph finally in the war for human emancipation.

CHAPTER II: Conscripted Motherhood

“Their poor, old ravaged and stiffened faces, their poor, old bodies dried up with ceaseless toil, their patient souls made me weep. They are our conscripts. They are the venerable ones whom we should reverence. All the mystery of womanhood seems incarnated in their ugly being—the Mothers! the Mothers! Ye are all one!”

From the Letters of William James

Motherhood, which is not only the oldest but the most important profession in the world, has received few of the benefits of civilization. It is a curious fact that a civilization devoted to mother-worship, that publicly professes a worship of mother and child, should close its eyes to the appalling waste of human life and human energy resulting from those dire consequences of leaving the whole problem of child-bearing to chance and blind instinct. It would be untrue to say that among the civilized nations of the world to-day, the profession of motherhood remains in a barbarous state. The bitter truth is that motherhood, among the larger part of our population, does not rise to the level of the barbarous or the primitive. Conditions of life among the primitive tribes were rude enough and severe enough to prevent the unhealthy growth of sentimentality, and to discourage the irresponsible production of defective children. Moreover, there is ample evidence to indicate that even among the most primitive peoples the function of maternity was recognized as of primary and central importance to the community.

If we define civilization as increased and increasing responsibility based on vision and foresight, it becomes painfully evident that the profession of motherhood as practised to-day is in no sense civilized. Educated people derive their ideas of maternity for the most part, either from the experience of their own set, or from visits to impressive hospitals where women of the upper classes receive the advantages of modern science and modern nursing. From these charming pictures they derive their complacent views of the beauty of motherhood and their confidence for the future of the race. The other side of the picture is revealed only to the trained investigator, to the patient and impartial observer who visits not merely one or two “homes of the poor,” but makes detailed studies of town after town, obtains the history of each mother, and finally correlates and analyzes this evidence. Upon such a basis are we able to draw conclusions concerning this strange business of bringing children into the world.

Every year I receive thousands of letters from women in all parts of America, desperate appeals to aid them to extricate themselves from the trap of compulsory maternity. Lest I be accused of bias and exaggeration in drawing my conclusions from these painful human documents, I prefer to present a number of typical cases recorded in the reports of the United States Government, and in the evidence of trained and impartial investigators of social agencies more generally opposed to the doctrine of Birth Control than biased in favor of it.

A perusal of the reports on infant mortality in widely varying industrial centers of the United States, published during the past decade by the Children’s Bureau of the United States Department of Labor, forces us to a realization of the immediate need of detailed statistics concerning the practice and results of uncontrolled breeding. Some such effort as this has been made by the Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics in Great Britain. The Children’s Bureau reports only incidentally present this impressive evidence. They fail to coordinate it. While there is always the danger of drawing giant conclusions from pigmy premises, here is overwhelming evidence concerning irresponsible parenthood that is ignored by governmental and social agencies.

I have chosen a small number of typical cases from these reports. Though drawn from widely varying sources, they all emphasize the greatest crime of modern civilization—that of permitting motherhood to be left to blind chance, and to be mainly a function of the most abysmally ignorant and irresponsible classes of the community.

Here is a fairly typical case from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. A woman of thirty- eight years had undergone thirteen pregnancies in seventeen years. Of eleven live births and two premature stillbirths, only two children were alive at the time of the government agent’s visit. The second to eighth, the eleventh and the thirteenth had died of bowel trouble, at ages ranging from three weeks to four months. The only cause of these deaths the mother could give was that “food did not agree with them.” She confessed quite frankly that she believed in feeding babies, and gave them everything anybody told her to give them. She began to give them at the age of one month, bread, potatoes, egg, crackers, etc. For the last baby that died, this mother had bought a goat and gave its milk to the baby; the goat got sick, but the mother continued to give her baby its milk until the goat went dry. Moreover, she directed the feeding of her daughter’s baby until it died at the age of three months. “On account of the many children she had had, the neighbors consider her an authority on baby care.”

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