Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose?




Negro Digest, August 1946, pp.3-8.


A summary at the top reads: "Today’s Negro wife need not choose between husband’s love or having a child, says birth control pioneer."


Myrdal, Gunnar
Oxnam, G. Bromley



Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose

Last year 40,000 Negro mothers and babies died in childbirth in this country.

They died, for the most part, as a result of inadequate medical attention, poor living conditions, improper diet and many other ills, which taken together made for mothers who were poor maternity risks from the start.

It is fair to suppose that most of the women who died we re wives who loved their husbands--wives who were eager to live, to make homes and to raise their children. The answer to this love was 40,000 deaths. 40,000 deaths which might have been prevented had these births been planned instead of left to chance.

It has been argued occasionally that Negros do not need birth control. What is needed, it is said, are better living conditions, better working conditions, more medical services, improved diets and schools. Of course they are and by dint of the efforts of all those who believe in justice, these will be achieved.

But in the meantime, in the immediate here and now, Negro parents need birth control to help alleviate some of the needless suffering and heartbreak, to get firmly established on the road to health and better living. Even if the Negros lived in Utopia the need to plan their families would still be an urgent health and social measure.

I heard a story recently, a true story, about a Negro minister in one of the Southern states. He is a man of great faith and leadership. During the week he is a farmer, but on Sundays he preaches in two of the four churches of which he is pastor. He and his wife have had seventeen children. Only ten survived.

We knew we were having too many children,", he told a visitor not long ago, "lots more than we could hope to raise and send to school. After the eighth one was born I went in to see the doctor. I asked him what we could do about it but he just grinned and said the only thing he knew for me to do was sleep in the barn!"

That story reminded me vividly of another story--one that happened thirty years ago in a lower Eastside New York tenement. I was working as a public health nurse at the time and one sticky mid-July day I was sent to care for a young mother who was near death from a criminal abortion. The crowded, airless rooms already held more children than her husband’s meager earnings could support and she had taken desperate measures to avoid the immediate birth of another baby.

It was weeks before we could be sure this mother would live to raise the children she already had, and when the doctor finally pronounced her out of danger, she pleaded with him to tell her what to do to prevent a repetition of this near tragedy.

"What are you trying to do," the doctor laughingly asked her, "have your cake and eat it too? You’d better tell your husband Jake to sleep on the roof."

Three months later I was called back to the same tenement, to the same patient for the same reason. Only this time, the young mother who had loved her husband and wanted to rear her children--died.

That death was the beginning of the birth control movement in this country. I paced the streets that night determined to find a better answer for women than "tell your husband to sleep on the roof."

Why should this same heart-breaking story be repeated over and over endlessly? Why need there be such bitter anguish and misery--so cruel a price on the love of a man and his wife--the love that should be cherished and protected as the most beautiful of all human relationships?

Why should that young mother have been forced to sever one of the most meaningful marriage bonds because she and her husband could not afford to feed and clothe another child? Why should the Southern minister have been forced to choose between sacrificing the warmth and affection of his marriage or creating a life which he could not support?

What kind of reasoning is it that says such human tragedy cannot and should no be prevented?

Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, the great Methodist leader and president of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America gave the answer in his address before the 25th annual dinner of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York this January. Bishop Oxnam said:

"The love of a man and a wife are sacred. Those who insist that there shall be no expression of that loved except for the purpose of procreation are not defenders of the family. They bring to the most sacred of all human relationships a blight of an asceticism that is blasphemous."

Bishop Oxnam added that it is "the sacred right of every baby to be born with a descent chance for health, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

What then of the parents who have babies thoughtlessly, babies born only to die too soon, or to come into the world marked or deformed by disease, to be warped by bad environment? Do these parents not commit a crime against their own children?

I am deeply aware of the needless hazards to which Negro babies are subjected at birth in the United States at the present time. Last year 77 per cent of all white babies were born in hospitals, but less than half of the Negro mothers--43 per cent to be exact--were given hospital protection for themselves and their babies. Some day, if plans of such agencies as the U.S. Public Health Service are realized, there will not be a single section of the country without adequate hospital facilities for all. But until that day is here, Negro mothers should be given all possible protection against needless sacrifice through childbearing.

We may never achieve the goal of having every pregnancy end with the birth of a healthy, normal child, but certainly a vast majority of the 17,000 stillbirths which occur to Negro mothers each year could be prevented if every baby were planned. Mothers in poor physical condition, mothers who are suffering from chronic diseases, who are sustaining themselves on inadequate diets or performing work out of all proportion to their strength, should have the means to avoid childbearing until their own physical situation can be improved. It is wicked that such women should be expected to bear a baby every year or to deny the love of their husbands. The fact that such pregnancies so frequently end in miscarriage or still-birth makes this burden as pointless as it is cruel.

Then there is the matter of housing. Housing is haunting all America today, but to Negro America it is an old familiar story, made more acute by postwar conditions. The fact that 45 per cent of the Negro population lives in sub-standard housing, together with the fact that four-fifths of all Negro babies are born in states that have less than the national average income, helped to swell the total of 12,000 babies who died in 1945 before that were one year old and the other who failed to survive their first month of life.

The real answer, of course, is better housing. All America is now aware of this gnawing need. But until this housing takes shape in wood and stone and indoor plumbing, lets not make physical and emotional casualties of too many innocent children. Dr. Gunnar Myrdal, in his thoughtful study of the Negro America, An American Dilemma, points out that “poverty and slum conditions under which most city Negros live, encourages the formation of criminal gangs. . . . Negro children brough-up under such conditions have two strikes against them before they come of age."

According to the Rev. James H. Robinson, pastor of Harlem’s Church of the Master, less than 35 per cent of all children in our overcrowded juvenile courts and orphan homes are really orphans. Most of them have one or both parents living but these parents are quite incapable of or indifferent to providing them with a wholesome home environment. Our children’s courts are filled with the inevitable victims of poor marriages and broken homes.

For those who argue for a high birth rate at any cost, the birth of these children makes a fine showing--there are thousands and thousands of them and their number is increasing. During the war years both the marriage rate and the birth rate reached all time highs. Only our current divorce rate threatens to top it.

Right now, one out of every four marriages is ending in divorce. By 1960 it is estimated there will be one divorce for every two marriages.

What then of the safety and security of the babies conceived and born before their parents had a chance to test their marriage and be sure it was on a firm and enduring foundation? No one can argue that both society at large and the individual children would have fared better had these parents waited until they were reasonably sure their marriages would last before undertaking the greatest of all human responsibilities, the creation of a new life.

Not long ago I was invited to visit a venereal disease clinic--a place of modern equipment, effective publicity and elaborate follow-up systems. Seven expectant mothers were sitting in the reception room that morning among the dozens of other patients who were awaiting treatment.

“They must be new patients,” I thought, “this is probably their first visit here. I hope they’ve come in time to protect their babies.”

I asked the very efficient nurse about it. Were these new patients who had learned of the clinic’s services after they had become pregnant?

"Oh, no," the nurse replied, "they are all regular patients. Some of them have been under treatment for months."

“But surely,” I said, “you give them advice on planned parenthood. You explain the risks a woman runs of infecting her baby, of having a stillborn or deformed child, if she and her husband aren’t in good physical condition themselves when they start to have a baby?”

"We don’t talk about birth control if that’s what you mean,", the nurse answered. "But we keep a very careful check and if the woman should stop her treatments too soon and have an infected baby, we are sure to catch it and bring the child in for treatments!"

In other words, this clinic doesn’t tell its patients how to postpone having a baby until it is safe for both the mother and the infant, but is eager to help her pick up the pieces after the damage is done and treat the infected child.

Each year there are 60,000 babies born in this country with congenial syphilis. With adequate medical attention many of these babies could grow up into healthy, normal, useful adults. But so far we don’t have anything like adequate medical facilities and the majority of these babies won’t get the treatment they need. Many of them will grow up unaware of what is the matter with them and will in turn hand on this blight to their children.

If, for the sake of a high birthrate, we are going to continue to deny planned parenthood information to married couples suffering from tuberculosis and venereal disease, let us set up the medical services to care for these children first and then have the babies.

Let’s stop talking about better housing and screened windows after the baby has died of a fly-bourne disease. Let’s screen the windows first and then bring the baby home.

I am tired of hearing people clamor for higher and ever higher birth rate because, they say, "America is capable of raising enough food to feed twice her present population."

I don’t doubt it for a moment, but let’s till the soil and raise the food first and then have all the healthy, well-fed babies the country can hold.

This country echoes with the voices of juvenile court judges who say, "It is the parents, not the children who are delinquent." Let us urge those who want and are interested in children to have as many as they desire, but let’s not force parenthood on men and women who regard the greatest of all human privileges with mortal fear or regard children with indifference or as nuisances.

Good parents are not created by chance and accident. Good parenthood is the result of deep love and thoughtful planning. It is closely allied with things of the spirit and the emotions as well as with physical functions. It should come only as the manifestation of the real and enduring love of a man and a woman--welcomed as the tangible evidence of this lasting bond.

For the child the security of love is even more important, for a child needs abiding love above all other things. True, he needs good housing, good food, good care and good schooling, but most of all he needs love and the assurance he is wanted, that his coming meant a valued and cherished addition to the family.

This is every baby’s birthright, the birthright planned parenthood seeks to give him, by making it possible for his parents to plan his arrival when they will themselves be healthy, when they will be able to give him at least the minimum essentials of good care and above all, welcome him with love because they really want him. Babies are too precious to be left to chance.

The Negro race has reached a place in its history when every possible effort should be made to have every Negro child count as a valuable contribution to the future of America. Negro parents, like all parents, must create the next generation from strength, not from weakness; from health, not from despair.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, with headquarters at 501 Madison Avenue, New York 22, N.Y., is endeavoring to aid all parents in planning the birth of their children so that the health and security of each child may be assured.

The Hannah Stone Maternal Health Center in Harlem is now engaged in a demonstration of planned parenthood as a measure of better health. The demonstration was begun after a city-wide survey revealed that maternal and infant deaths and stillbirth rates were twice, and in some cases, three times as high in Harlem as in any other part of Manhattan. To help lower these rates, the Maternal Health Center is taking an active part in the community health program. Its services are available to all married women whose incomes are not large enough to allow for the expense of private medicine. The bi-racial staff provides child spacing service; consultation on infertility, to help one out of every ten married couples who want children but find they do not have them; and marriage counselling, which is an increasingly important part of the planned parenthood program.

Seven states now include planned parenthood in their public health programs, making reliable medical help available to parents who seek to plan their families. In most other states clinics and maternal heath centers are operated by local planned parenthood groups. Their fees are made to fit the individual family’s ability to pay.

There is no longer need for doctors to tell husbands to "sleep in the barn." Today’s wife needs no longer choose between her husband’s love and the health and security of her family. A better answer has been found. Our job now is to make that better answer--planned parenthood--known to all married couples who want and need it.