Margaret Sanger’s “The Pivot of Civilization” Reviewed

Margaret Sanger and the Forced Sterilization of Americans

Another apartment in the same house; another of those night-working mothers, who had just stopped because she is pregnant. The boss had kindly given her permission to stay on, but she found the reaching on the heavy spinning machines too hard. Three children, ranging in age from five to twelve years, are all sickly and forlorn and must be cared for. There is a tubercular husband, who is unable to work steadily, and is able to bring in only $12 a week. Two of the babies had died, one because the mother had returned to work too soon after its birth and had lost her milk. She had fed him tea and bread, “so he died.”

The most heartrending feature of it all—in these homes of the mothers who work at night—is the expression in the faces of the children; children of chance, dressed in rags, undernourished, underclothed, all predisposed to the ravages of chronic and epidemic disease.

The reports on infant mortality published under the direction of the Children’s Bureau substantiate for the United States of America the findings of the Galton Laboratory for Great Britain, showing that an abnormally high rate of fertility is usually associated with poverty, filth, disease, feeblemindedness and a high infant mortality rate. It is a commonplace truism that a high birth-rate is accompanied by a high infant-mortality rate. No longer is it necessary to dissociate cause and effect, to try to determine whether the high birth rate is the cause of the high infant mortality rate. It is sufficient to know that they are organically correlated along with other anti-social factors detrimental to individual, national and racial welfare. The figures presented by Hibbs [2] likewise reveal a much higher infant mortality rate for the later born children of large families.

The statistics which show that the greatest number of children are born to parents whose earnings are the lowest,[3] that the direst poverty is associated with uncontrolled fecundity emphasize the character of the parenthood we are depending upon to create the race of the future.

A distinguished American opponent of Birth Control some years ago spoke of the “racial” value of this high infant mortality rate among the “unfit.” He forgot, however, that the survival-rate of the children born of these overworked and fatigued mothers may nevertheless be large enough, aided and abetted by philanthropies and charities, to form the greater part of the population of to-morrow. As Dr. Karl Pearson has stated: “Degenerate stocks under present social conditions are not short-lived; they live to have more than the normal size of family.”

Reports of charitable organizations; the famous “one hundred neediest cases” presented every year by the New York Times to arouse the sentimental generosity of its readers; statistics of public and private hospitals, charities and corrections; analyses of pauperism in town and country—all tell the same tale of uncontrolled and irresponsible fecundity. The facts, the figures, the appalling truth are there for all to read. It is only in the remedy proposed, the effective solution, that investigators and students of the problem disagree.

Confronted with the “startling and disgraceful” conditions of affairs indicated by the fact that a quarter of a million babies die every year in the United States before they are one year old, and that no less than 23,000 women die in childbirth, a large number of experts and enthusiasts have placed their hopes in maternity-benefit measures.

Such measures sharply illustrate the superficial and fragmentary manner in which the whole problem of motherhood is studied to-day. It seeks a LAISSER FAIRE policy of parenthood or marriage, with an indiscriminating paternalism concerning maternity. It is as though the Government were to say: “Increase and multiply; we shall assume the responsibility of keeping your babies alive.” Even granting that the administration of these measures might be made effective and effectual, which is more than doubtful, we see that they are based upon a complete ignorance or disregard of the most important fact in the situation—that of indiscriminate and irresponsible fecundity. They tacitly assume that all parenthood is desirable, that all children should be born, and that infant mortality can be controlled by external aid. In the great world-problem of creating the men and women of to-morrow, it is not merely a question of sustaining the lives of all children, irrespective of their hereditary and physical qualities, to the point where they, in turn, may reproduce their kind. Advocates of Birth Control offer and accept no such superficial solution. This philosophy is based upon a clearer vision and a more profound comprehension of human life. Of immediate relief for the crushed and enslaved motherhood of the world through State aid, no better criticism has been made than that of Havelock Ellis:

“To the theoretical philanthropist, eager to reform the world on paper, nothing seems simpler than to cure the present evils of child-rearing by setting up State nurseries which are at once to relieve mothers of everything connected with the men of the future beyond the pleasure—if such it happens to be—of conceiving them, and the trouble of bearing the, and at the same time to rear them up independently of the home, in a wholesome, economical and scientific manner. Nothing seems simpler, but from the fundamental psychological point of view nothing is falser. ...A State which admits that the individuals composing it are incompetent to perform their most sacred and intimate functions, and takes it upon itself to perform them itself instead, attempts a task that would be undesirable, even if it were possible of achievement.[4]” It may be replied that maternity benefit measures aim merely to aid mothers more adequately to fulfil their biological and social functions. But from the point of view of Birth Control, that will never be possible until the crushing exigencies of overcrowding are removed—overcrowding of pregnancies as well as of homes. As long as the mother remains the passive victim of blind instinct, instead of the conscious, responsible instrument of the life-force, controlling and directing its expression, there can be no solution to the intricate and complex problems that confront the whole world to-day. This is, of course, impossible as long as women are driven into the factories, on night as well as day shifts, as long as children and girls and young women are driven into industries to labor that is physically deteriorating as a preparation for the supreme function of maternity.

The philosophy of Birth Control insists that motherhood, no less than any other human function, must undergo scientific study, must be voluntarily directed and controlled with intelligence and foresight. As long as we countenance what H. G. Wells has well termed “the monstrous absurdity of women discharging their supreme social function, bearing and rearing children, in their spare time, as it were, while they ‘earn their living’ by contributing some half-mechanical element to some trivial industrial product” any attempt to furnish “maternal education” is bound to fall on stony ground.

Children brought into the world as the chance consequences of the blind play of uncontrolled instinct, become likewise the helpless victims of their environment. It is because children are cheaply conceived that the infant mortality rate is high. But the greatest evil, perhaps the greatest crime, of our so-called civilization of to- day, is not to be gauged by the infant-mortality rate. In truth, unfortunate babies who depart during their first twelve months are more fortunate in many respects than those who survive to undergo punishment for their parents’ cruel ignorance and complacent fecundity. If motherhood is wasted under the present regime of “glorious fertility,” childhood is not merely wasted, but actually destroyed. Let us look at this matter from the point of view of the children who survive.

[1] U.S. Department of Labor: Children’s Bureau. Infant Mortality Series, No. 3, pp. 81, 82, 83, 84.

[2] Henry H. Hibbs, Jr. Infant Mortality: Its Relation to Social and Industrial Conditions, p. 39. Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 1916.

[3] Cf. U. S. Department of Labor. Children’s Bureau: Infant Mortality Series, No. 11. p. 36.

[4] Havelock Ellis, Sex in Relation to Society, p. 31.


CHAPTER III: “Children Troop Down From Heaven....”

Failure of emotional, sentimental and so-called idealistic efforts, based on hysterical enthusiasm, to improve social conditions, is nowhere better exemplified than in the undervaluation of child-life. A few years ago, the scandal of children under fourteen working in cotton mills was exposed. There was muckraking and agitation. A wave of moral indignation swept over America. There arose a loud cry for immediate action. Then, having more or less successfully settled this particular matter, the American people heaved a sigh of relief, settled back, and complacently congratulated itself that the problem of child labor had been settled once and for all.

Conditions are worse to-day than before. Not only is there child labor in practically every State in the Union, but we are now forced to realize the evils that result from child labor, of child laborers now grown into manhood and womanhood. But we wish here to point out a neglected aspect of this problem. Child labor shows us how cheaply we value childhood. And moreover, it shows us that cheap childhood is the inevitable result of chance parenthood. Child labor is organically bound up with the problem of uncontrolled breeding and the large family.

The selective draft of 1917--which was designed to choose for military service only those fulfiling definite requirements of physical and mental fitness—showed some of the results of child labor. It established the fact that the majority of American children never got beyond the sixth grade, because they were forced to leave school at that time. Our overadvertised compulsory education does not compel— and does not educate. The selective-draft, it is our duty to emphasize this fact, revealed that 38 per cent. of the young men (more than a million) were rejected because of physical ill-health and defects. And 25 per cent. were illiterate.

These young men were the children of yesterday. Authorities tell us that 75 per cent. of the school-children are defective. This means that no less than fifteen million schoolchildren, out of 22,000,000 in the United States, are physically or mentally below par.

This is the soil in which all sorts of serious evils strike root. It is a truism that children are the chief asset of a nation. Yet while the United States government allotted 92.8 per cent. of its appropriations for 1920 toward war expenses, three per cent. to public works, 3.2 per cent. to “primary governmental functions,” no more than one per cent. is appropriated to education, research and development. Of this one per cent., only a small proportion is devoted to public health. The conservation of childhood is a minor consideration. While three cents is spent for the more or less doubtful protection of women and children, fifty cents is given to the Bureau of Animal Industry, for the protection of domestic animals. In 1919, the State of Kansas appropriated $25,000 to protect the health of pigs, and $4,000 to protect the health of children. In four years our Federal Government appropriated—roughly speaking--$81,000,000 for the improvement of rivers; $13,000,000 for forest conservation; $8,000,000 for the experimental plant industry; $7,000,000 for the experimental animal industry; $4,000,000 to combat the foot and mouth disease; and less than half a million for the protection of child life.

Competent authorities tell us that no less than 75 per cent. of American children leave school between the ages of fourteen and sixteen to go to work. This number is increasing. According to the recently published report on “The Administration of the First Child Labor Law,” in five states in which it was necessary for the Children’s Bureau to handle directly the working certificates of children, one-fifth of the 25,000 children who applied for certificates left school when they were in the fourth grade; nearly a tenth of them had never attended school at all or had not gone beyond the first grade; and only one-twenty-fifth had gone as far as the eighth grade. But their educational equipment was even more limited than the grade they attended would indicate. Of the children applying to go to work 1,803 had not advanced further than the first grade even when they had gone to school at all; 3,379 could not even sign their own names legibly, and nearly 2,000 of them could not write at all. The report brings automatically into view the vicious circle of child-labor, illiteracy, bodily and mental defect, poverty and delinquency. And like all reports on child labor, the large family and reckless breeding looms large in the background as one of the chief factors in the problem.

Despite all our boasting of the American public school, of the equal opportunity afforded to every child in America, we have the shortest school-term, and the shortest school-day of any of the civilized countries. In the United States of America, there are 106 illiterates to every thousand people. In England there are 58 per thousand, Sweden and Norway have one per thousand.

The United States is the most illiterate country in the world—that is, of the so-called civilized countries. Of the 5,000,000 illiterates in the United States, 58 per cent. are white and 28 per cent. native whites. Illiteracy not only is the index of inequality of opportunity. It speaks as well a lack of consideration for the children. It means either that children have been forced out of school to go to work, or that they are mentally and physically defective.[1]

One is tempted to ask why a society, which has failed so lamentably to protect the already existing child life upon which its very perpetuation depends, takes upon itself the reckless encouragement of indiscriminate procreation. The United States Government has recently inaugurated a policy of restricting immigration from foreign countries. Until it is able to protect childhood from criminal exploitation, until it has made possible a reasonable hope of life, liberty and growth for American children, it should likewise recognize the wisdom of voluntary restriction in the production of children.

Reports on child labor published by the National Child Labor Committee only incidentally reveal the correlation of this evil with that of large families. Yet this is evident throughout. The investigators are more bent upon regarding child labor as a cause of illiteracy.

But it is no less a consequence of irresponsibility in breeding. A sinister aspect of this is revealed by Theresa Wolfson’s study of child-labor in the beet-fields of Michigan.[2] As one weeder put it:

“Poor man make no money, make plenty children—plenty children good for sugar-beet business.” Further illuminating details are given by Miss Wolfson:

“Why did they come to the beet-fields? Most frequently families with large numbers of children said that they felt that the city was no place to raise children—things too expensive and children ran wild— in the country all the children could work.” Living conditions are abominable and unspeakably wretched. An old woodshed, a long-abandoned barn, and occasionally a tottering, ramshackle farmer’s house are the common types. “One family of eleven, the youngest child two years, the oldest sixteen years, lived in an old country store which had but one window; the wind and rain came through the holes in the walls, the ceiling was very low and the smoke from the stove filled the room. Here the family ate, slept, cooked and washed.”

“In Tuscola County a family of six was found living in a one-room shack with no windows. Light and ventilation was secured through the open doors. Little Charles, eight years of age, was left at home to take care of Dan, Annie and Pete, whose ages were five years, four years, and three months, respectively. In addition, he cooked the noonday meal and brought it to his parents in the field. The filth and choking odors of the shack made it almost unbearable, yet the baby was sleeping in a heap of rags piled up in a corner.”

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