Margaret Sanger: The Morality of Birth Control Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During this speech, given at a conference on birth control, Margaret Sanger likened the matter to other controversial women’s rights issues. She explained that the use of birth control was not an issue of morality. Rather, it was an issue of necessity, and it was crucial for all people to have access to birth control in order to prevent disease, abortion, and overpopulation. Sanger noted it was immoral to allow those unable to support or care for themselves to have children, who, in turn, had little chance of being well supported or well taken care of. Sanger stated that as people became educated about birth control and responsible in their decisions to procreate, individual morality would increase, and societal immorality would decrease.

Summary Overview

During this speech, given at a conference on birth control, Margaret Sanger likened the matter to other controversial women’s rights issues. She explained that the use of birth control was not an issue of morality. Rather, it was an issue of necessity, and it was crucial for all people to have access to birth control in order to prevent disease, abortion, and overpopulation. Sanger noted it was immoral to allow those unable to support or care for themselves to have children, who, in turn, had little chance of being well supported or well taken care of. Sanger stated that as people became educated about birth control and responsible in their decisions to procreate, individual morality would increase, and societal immorality would decrease.

Defining Moment

During the first few decades of the twentieth century, the roles and rights of women were changing. Women’s rights issues were gaining more mainstream support, as seen in 1919 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. However, the issue of birth control consistently garnered debate and controversy.

Typically, women of this era gave birth to many children, and anything designed to prevent conception was perceived as something a prostitute or other morally objectionable individuals would use. Birth control was not considered a matter of public health, and women who wanted to use contraception bought it from nonmedical retailers. However, the 1870 Comstock Law, which made the distribution or sale of birth control information and devices illegal, often prevented women from accessing any form of birth control whatsoever. Anyone in violation of the law was arrested and jailed. The issue was so embattled, many suffrage advocates were wary of joining forces with birth control supporters.

There remained, however, a growing movement of women, educators, scientists, and social workers who advocated for birth control’s acceptance. Among them were suffragist Mary Ware Dennett, who, in 1915, helped found the National Birth Control League and later the Voluntary Parenthood League. Dennett was inspired by another, albeit more radical, activist: Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League. Sanger had been inspired to pursue legalized birth control after watching her mother die of tuberculosis. Her mother had, like other women, given birth to a large family. Sanger believed that her mother’s deteriorating health and susceptibility to tuberculosis resulted from the fact that she had given birth so many times. Sanger and Dennett disagreed, however, about how the Comstock Law and other laws should be undone. Dennett advocated changing the laws through the legislative process, whereas Sanger openly called for Americans to disregard the laws altogether. In 1914, Sanger’s more radical approach forced her into exile in Europe to avoid prosecution.

After returning to the United States, Sanger convened a conference on birth control in New York City in 1921. The participants consisted of activists, scientists, and members of the highest echelons of society. However, when word got out, the police (who had been encouraged to intervene by New York City’s Catholic leadership) raided the conference during its second of three sessions. Sanger then moved the final session to another venue, and addressing the crowd, she used the raid as an example of moral opposition that was both groundless and counterproductive for women.

Author Biography

Margaret Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins on September 14, 1879, in Corning, New York. Shortly after her mother’s death, she attended Claverack College in the Catskill Mountains. She later studied nursing at a school closer to home. Sanger eventually arrived in New York City after marrying architect William Sanger. Working with poor immigrants, she became passionate about the importance of contraception after seeing the negative impact that large families had on the social, medical, and economic conditions among the poor. Ultimately becoming disillusioned by the lack of support for her radical activity, she sought more mainstream support among health care practitioners and reformers, founding several organizations dedicated to studying and advocating for birth control as a means of promoting public health and economic stability. In 1952, Sanger helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation, where she served as president until 1959. She died in Tucson, Arizona, on September 6, 1966.

Document Analysis

In her speech to the conference, Sanger criticizes the widespread perception of birth control as immoral and points to the strides made by women in recent decades that were also initially met with opposition and touted as immoral. She argues that women should not only have access to contraceptives but that they have the right to the best possible information on and medical counsel for birth control. She states that denying this right based on outdated social traditions is in itself immoral, and she calls upon all societies to abandon reckless and ignorant attitudes concerning birth control and embrace its scientific value and its potential for addressing many of the world’s problems.

Sanger first calls into question a number of prevailing notions on the morality of birth control. She said that during the planning of this conference, she sent a set of questions to scientists, educators, theologians, and medical professionals. Individuals were asked whether they would object to birth control if it were seen as a means to help minimize overpopulation. The survey also asked if knowledge of the facts about birth control would benefit their perceptions on the issue.

Sanger criticizes the notion that birth control is immoral in nature and explains that women have for years been labeled immoral for their pursuits of basic, equitable rights. Society (and, in particular, the church) had placed women in an inferior position to men, which led to a lack of confidence in women’s ability to make independent decisions. Women, however, have the benefit of full knowledge of their own bodies.

Sanger explains that based on this knowledge, the question of morality regarding birth control is irrelevant. She believes that access to birth control should be granted to every man and woman who in turn should be educated on its proper use. Furthermore, laws that ban contraceptive use should be repealed. Meanwhile, scientific information about birth control should be provided by qualified medical professionals and be made available to anyone interested in its use.

Sanger tells her audience that there are three types of people in society: intelligent and wealthy people, who have access to the same type of information about birth control Sanger discussed earlier; men and women who are intelligent and responsible and who want to control their family’s growth but lack information about how to obtain birth control; and irresponsible and reckless people, who lack the necessary information about birth control and, therefore, help contribute to societal ills, such disease, poverty, and overpopulation. The real moral imperative was to combat, through education, the actions and decision-making of this third group.

Essential Themes

Early in her pursuits of legalized birth control, Margaret Sanger was a radical, advocating for women to simply exercise their own right to obtain contraceptives if they desired, even if it was in defiance of the law. Upon her return to the United States, she began to seek the support of medical professionals, whose knowledge of the benefits of birth control could help many others. Her speech represented an amalgamation of these two themes.

On one hand, Sanger argued that it was the right of every woman to have access to both contraceptives and, more important, the knowledge about how to use it. Sanger argued that women had long endured criticism and that their pursuit of fair and equal treatment by society was often considered immoral. The very incident that caused a rescheduling of part of the conference illustrated these points. The church had notified the police of the event, and the event was shuttered because of the perceived immorality of the subject matter. It was time, Sanger said, for the more conservative elements of society to withdraw their antiquated arguments and trust women to make the right decisions for themselves. The risks of not allowing women access to birth control were far too great–perpetuating poverty, disease, and overpopulation–to continue to claim birth control as immoral.

On the other hand, Sanger acknowledged that giving women the right to choose what they did with their bodies was not enough. Men and women alike needed to be educated, she said, and medical professionals were best suited to present the information. Doctors, nurses, and others with medical backgrounds and in-depth understanding of birth control could, Sanger argued, prove the difference between those who make educated decisions and those who engage in reckless and dangerous behavior. Should the latter be allowed to continue their behavior, she warned, the truly immoral issues facing society would continue.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Baker, Jean H. Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion. New York: Hill, 2012. Print.
  • Bullough, Vern L. Encyclopedia of Birth Control. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001. Print.
  • Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon, 2007. Print.
  • Engelman, Peter C. A History of the Birth Control Movement in America. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011. Print.
  • Gordon, Linda. The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 2007. Print.
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