The Need for Birth Control in America




Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition, Sophia Smith Collections, S71:321.


For handwritten drafts see Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition, Sophia Smith Collections, S71:289-320. This transcription is based on the typed version. The speech was delivered in Madison, WI on March 17, Syracuse, NY on April 8 and Houston, TX on November 14, 1931. For announcement of speech see Birth Control Review, December 1931, p. 360.


Fry, James
Swinburne, Algernon Charles



The problem of population should be considered from the point of view of its influence on the well-being of mankind.

It is a problem from which man cannot escape. It affects the health & happiness of every adult man & woman and consequently individual families; it affects the prosperity and social progress of nations, it affects the peace of the world.

Every gardener knows that if seeds are sown too thickly, the resulting plants will be poor in quality.

Every breeder knows that if healthy stock is to be had breeding matings must be spaced.

So with the production of human beings, unless successive births are adequately spaced and the total number in each family restricted to the available means of maintenance there will necessarily be a low standard of health & happiness, both for parents and offspring.

These consequences cannot no longer be evaded by substituting the benevolence of the State for the responsibility of the parent; for It has been is the provision of social & welfare agencies to women and children which allows and encourages the multiplication of dependents on the State, thereby taxing the healthy and self sustaining members with the result that the self-supporting, productive, independent, creative groups relatively decline.

Under no system of Society is it possible to allow the population of a country to expand more rapidly than the means of subsistence without the resultant effects of poverty, misery, disease and other unhappy conditions where low standards exist. In new countries an increasing population can often provide for itself an increased volume of subsistence, for men have brains and hands as well as mouths to feed. By hard labor, by application of scientific methods of production by fertilization and irrigation, maintenance has been increased ten fold (as in Japan, France and Italy). But ultimately the capacity of man to produce maintenance for himself depends on the plentifulness or the quantity of the materials that the earth supplies.

When these begin to grow scarce in any country, the inhabitants must seek new territories or new markets. elaborate Thus begins the phenomena of immigration as well as that of colonial expansion. National rivalries for markets and land resulting in militarism and wars.

It is a common practice of assuming that the birth-rate by itself indicates the increase or decrease of a population. The assumption is so common that it might almost be described as universal. Certainly the majority of people in reading an official report of a declining birth-rate immediately conclude that the population of that country in declining-- (This shows our dislike of arithmetic). Any business man calculating his income from investments would never think it was declining if a reduction in the rate of interest was accompanied by an equivalent increase in his capital. Every shareholder knows that his income depends not only on the rate of the dividend but also on the amount of capital on which the dividend is paid.

Exactly the same arithmetic applies to population. The birth-rate in itself does not control the population growth. It does not indicate the rapidity of growth unless we know the volume to which the rate is applied. A good illustration may be given from the figures representing the growth of population of New York City--which during the first twenty years of the 19th century nearly doubled its population, the actual rate of increase being very high 92%. In the first twenty years of the present century the rate of increase was 63% (still very high). These are the rates but what of the increase? The enormous rate of 92% gave an actual increase of 73,000. The reduced rate of 63% in an equal period of time gave an increase of 2,183,000. In other words you cannot argue from the rates alone without knowing to what volume the rates of percentage are applied. 50% is a high rate of interest--alone, but 50% on $100,000=50,000
5% on 1,000,000=50,000
In other words, where a population is increasing the rate of increase tends to decline--and should decline. No creature grows as rapidly as it did during the first months after its birth.-- 7 pounds a baby increases its weight a half pound a day for the first few weeks of its life--then a quarter of a pound--and finally a few ounces--until its full growth is attained. Had it kept its first increase on a half pound a day--it would have weighed 910 on its fifth birthday.
2(365 182
182 1/2 5

A similar illustration can be taken from plant life--such as the tulip or daffodil--which first bursts from the ground and doubles its height visibly within a few days when it ceases to grow but blooms, flowers--serves its purpose before it declines. These illustrations are given to show that it is impossible for any growing thing to continue indefinitely to grow at a constant rate. As the volume expands, the rate of growth must decline. This principle applies to every growing thing. Everything has its natural volume of growth when it serves its usefulness.

The population of U.S.A. during the first 50 years of the 19th century increased four fold. Had this increase continued and been maintained we would now have had a population approximately equal to that spread over the entire globe.

England--a country which balances her population by sending out more settlers than she receives--yet she has doubled her population in the first fifty years of the 19th century. It doubled again in the sixty years ending with 1911.-- While her birth-rate was 10.9 lower than it had been for a century. People began to express alarm at the decline in birth-rate!!

There are two facts to remember in the question of population.

  • 1st.--The arithmetical possibilities of indefinite multiplication of species, plants, tribes of nations.
  • 2nd.--The physical obstacles to that multiplication namely--area and resources of the globe.

While there is an automatic check by nature on the growth of a plant, a tulip or a child--there is no such natural check in the case of the multiplication of plants or tribes-- Given suitable soil, one plant could scatter its seed over the face of the earth--the limiting factors are other plants crowding and interfering with each others means of subsistence, and the limitation of the size of the globe.

The same principle applies to people. A normal couple can produce ten or twelve children while each child can raise a family of similar size--and that family again can multiply its numbers. While the first couple lives, it can witness the astounding number of nearly two hundred births originating from its own loins.

There is no limit to the power of human beings to multiply themselves indefinitely if they could find room to live--and means to live by, but that is the rub.-- Every race is sooner or later brought up against the fact that the means of subsistence does not multiply as rapidly as its population and is not sufficient for unlimited numbers. It may invade the territories of other tribes, or improve the cultivation of its own soil or exchange the products of its work people for the food produced by workers in other countries.

But sooner or later the final limitations of space will clash with the arithmetical possibilities of multiplication and the rate of expansion will have to decline. How can this be accomplished? Two ways only--decreasing the number of births--or increasing the number of deaths.

This alternative applies to every living thing. It can be observed that the lower types breed fast and die soon--the higher types breed slowly and live long. The codfish lays millions of eggs--the majority of which never mature--the elephant breeds slowly and lives longer than any other animal. Among the different races of human beings there is a similar contrast.

These races which maintain a high birth-rate (resulting from religious compulsions or animal carelessness) are subject to a correspondingly high death rate.

The death rate of infants is especially high in such countries as India and China where the birth-rate is enormous.

In China where the population presses intensely upon the means of subsistence--whenever there is a serious crop failure--the consequences are terrific--millions of people are swept away in famines. In China 1/4 of the children born die before their first year. The high birth-rates and high death rates of both India and China are both due to the same cause--early marriage and ignorance or failure to control births.

If you compare the figures of Indian birth and death rates with those of England and Wales for the years from 1910 to 1921 you will see the difference in the high survival rates in the latter. If the birth and death rates of India could be brought down to the English rates, there would be an increase of births over deaths, but also three or four million useless births and three or four million useless deaths would have been avoided.

Such wastage of human life must diminish the general vigor of the country, and the effort that might have been devoted to rearing healthy children is spent in giving birth to children who die within a few months and in burying or burning the bodies of tens of thousands of child mothers killed by pregnancy or by parturition.

Summary of arithmetic of the problem:

  • 1.--Rate of growth living things must decline.
  • 2.--Nature’s laws in plants control growth of size.
  • 3.--Populations growth depends upon reducing birth rates or increasing death rates.
  • 4.--A reduction of these requires forethought, consideration, responsibility, regulation of conduct accordingly.


Glory to man in the highest, for man is the master of things.” Swinburne, "Industrialized not Civilized

Man differs from animals in his ability to increase his own food supply--animals can eat only the food they find on the soil--or the weaker animals they can catch, but man tills the ground, plants seeds and provides food for himself or for the animals he proposes to eat.

He also makes the ground more fertile, improvises tools and machinery to increase food production and develops shipping and transportation so that valuable products can be sent to and from group to group.

Primitive man’s energies are devoted to the pursuit of food. Industrialized man is able to give his time and mind to other things: building homes, design and manufacture clothing, painting, music, singing, constructing roads, bridges, railways, steamships. He conquers the air and the sea. He develops his mastery over matter, sends his voices by wire and now by air--hundreds of miles away.

Still there are limitations to his power--for he cannot escape from the fact that he is a product of the earth and all that he eats, wears and uses comes from the earth which, after all, is limited in size and its resources exhaustible.

The prospect of exhaustion may seem remote to some people and they point to the vast areas of unpeopled land in Australia, Canada and Argentine and to the still unexplored resources of mineral wealth in many parts of the world and claim that there is room for the indefinite expansion of the human race. This claim cannot be seriously maintained. However great the natural resources are, it is certain that they are limited.

That man should live is not sufficient; it is important that he should live well--that we shall reason upon the purpose of life and protest against dogmas, ignorance, superstition and fear. These are the forces which have enslaved the human race. Man asks more of the earth than merely to be kept alive. He wants land to play upon and to enjoy its beauties.

Workers' Conditions

We rightly look upon the nineteenth century as a period of humanitarianism. Such conditions existed during the second half of the eighteenth century owing to the dislocation of social life caused by the development of industrial invention that humanitarianism was urgently needed.

The old-fashioned, simple, rough but fairly wholesome rural industry under the domestic roof was destroyed. Machinery in towns brought the workers to it. They huddled together under conditions which had not been made for them, and while they prospered and multiplied for a time, their prosperity was not civilization.

Until the first half of the nineteenth century scarcely any public money was spent on sanitation.

The laboring population of Great Britain lived in almost unspeakable filth and disease. Small rural districts were--because of industrial expansion--made urban over night. The workers were huddled into huts, summer-houses and sheds never intended as dwellings never erected for shelter. In sections with thirty to forty miles of streets and hundreds of miles of byways--yet only a few miles were sewered. Dustbins were unknown, slops and refuse were thrown from the windows into the streets and all sorts of refuse accumulated in mountain-high, foul-smelling heaps. The task of scavenging Bethel Green with its 133 miles of houses was left to "113 decrepid old men." It took ninety days or three months to go the rounds of a single parish! Disease and epidemics flourished.

In all parts of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland similar conditions prevailed.

People living under these conditions seemed indifferent to them; they were reckless, intemperate, improvident; eating dainties one day and little or nothing the next; multiplying as rapidly as nature allowed and leaving to death and disease the task of preventing any excessive rise in the population.

So we find that while the birth rate was rising, the death rate was rising too. While the race remained vigorous owing to the struggle of the fit against the unfit--nevertheless, it was conceded that the people were not physically the equals of the generation of thirty years earlier. There was general deterioration among certain classes, especially the weavers; still their numbers grew.

Though the English people suffered severely from death and disease, their numbers increased more rapidly from 1811 to 1821 than at any other time. The English workmen were noted throughout Europe for their “savage industry,” for the conditions of old English rural life had built up a powerful stock which could not be destroyed by migration to towns or by the revolution in industrialism. The population increased two-fold, but criminality increased five-fold--not only in towns but in the country as well. The workmen on the farm was no longer a companion of his employer--domiciled with his family and an equal in the community. He was now a “laborer”--a citizen rather than a domestic, but a citizen without friends, ignorant, intemperate and improvident.

The nineteenth century--however--began the task of cleansing and improving the conditions of life under which lived the creators of the new industrial age.

The streets were being paved; the filth cleared away; sewers were being built; the police system was being reformed; pure water and general lighting was given and sanitary conditions of dwellings received attention. The need was so obvious that reform in these matters could meet with little opposition.

The next move was concerned with the conditions under which the laboring classes worked--or what was termed factory legislation. This began in a small and feeble way in the middle of the nineteenth century. The enriched middle classes felt no strong impulse to take an active interest in this regard. They saw that ignorance and degradation of the unorganized workers were working together for middle class supremacy. The workers must be left free--they claimed, even though that freedom meant to work themselves sick or freedom to starve to death. It was not the employing classes who influenced legislation, but the aristocracy who supported it and brought about considerable changes. But the greatest reforms governing the conditions of the workers--of women and children as well as of men--were brought about by the workers themselves through their unions and organizations. The era of factory legislation is still emphasizing its demands with very little opposition, but also with a full realization that improvement of the conditions of life is not enough.

The improvement of the conditions of living, added to the improvement of the conditions of working--had to be reinforced by an effort to improve the conditions under which the workers are born and bred.

This effort began about fifty years ago in England through the nationalization of education, but during the past ten years a far greater extension has been made and a certain provision for the child’s needs--medical attention and supervision--attention to cleanliness, dental work, proper meals where necessary, and general inspection into the causes of children’s problems, protecting the children too young to work and regarding the care and oversight of infants even back to the moment of birth. Finally an effort was and is still being made to provide conditions of a healthy life for the child, even before birth.

We must remember that this movement for the improvement of environment is still in active progress among us.

It is not ancient; it is modern history and is likely to spread as to impose upon the medical profession the duty of preventing disease and the preservation of health.

The movement was exclusively concerned with the conditions of life, but not with the improvement of the quality of human life at all.

To better the conditions under which life is lived, to take care of the soil, letting the seed take care of itself was the attitude of social reformers. We know today that both the soil and the seed do matter. The finest seeds may be starved, the more easily, often the finer it is--and every ill-adapted external condition is a kind of starvation. We should not relax our interest in safeguarding the conditions of life, but also we should recognize some of the penalties imposed upon civilization when our aims are exclusively bent on this task.

In improving conditions, we pile heavy burdens upon ourselves. we make the task of life easier for the unfit as well as for the fit--to pass their inheritance on to future generations. The unfit are made able to compete with the fit at a heavy cost to the latter. These would doubtless have succumbed to their environment had nature had her way.

We cannot raise the level of civilization by improving external conditions alone. The fact of experience shows that the results of such efforts have in no degree corresponded to the efforts made or expectations of those who initiated them.

Notwithstanding our assumed moral and material progress and notwithstanding our enormous annual expenditure amounting to eight or nine billions a year in amelioration, we still have a vast army of persons quartered upon us unable to support themselves, showing an increase in numbers rather than a decrease.

The vast expenditures--25 millions--spent in 1926, providing homes for the insane, is already not sufficient and an increasing appropriation will be asked for within the next few years.

The muddled methods of social reform have been most marked in all that concerns the beginning of life, for that is where we have been most at fault.

Shall motherhood be subordinated to “morals” or “morals” to motherhood?

Why not place the claims of humanity on an independent basis?

We know that maternal mortality in this country is vastly higher than that in other countries less equipped socially and financially to reduce it than we are. Why is this so? It cannot be due to lack of expenditure or to lack of costly and elaborate machinery. No, it is certainly not.

It is due to the concentration of activities on the conditions, the environment of life, to the neglect of the betterment of life itself.

It is the renewal of the spirit within that is needed--a real regeneration of life.

It is known from authoritative sources that two feeble-minded persons have not been known to bring to birth a normal child. It is also found by Tredgold that 82% of the feeble-minded are found to have had a bad nervous inheritance. In Vineland, New Jersey, it was found that a large proportion of feeble-minded cases was handed on from three generations. In one family of 319 persons, 119 were known to be feeble-minded, 42 known to be normal. The families of the feebleminded are large. Some women have eight or nine feeble-minded children by different husbands, not counting several other children who died in infancy.

Feeblemindedness is inherited. The feeble-minded are innately fertile and multiply faster than the normal. They have no forethought and no self-restraint. They are no capable of resisting their own impulses or the solicitations of others. They are not able to understand the motives which guide the conduct of normal people. They have no morals--consequently no moral standards to live up to. They cannot resist temptation. They have one third more children than the normal family--and sometimes more.

The infant mortality among these children is high. One authority (Eicholz) states that 60% of the children of feeble-minded parents die in infancy.

The social disorder and heavy expense which accompanies this, etc.

The feeble-minded women give birth to illegitimate children. They come and go to the work houses, state farms and other institutions--leaving their babies where they can be cared for and returning shortly to give birth to the next.

There is a recognized tendency of the abnormal to be attracted to the abnormal--feebleminded or mentally defective. This is a perpetual danger to Society and an ever increasing depreciation of the quality of the race.

The beneficence of one generation becomes the burden and the injury of all succeeding ones.

Vastly more effective than ten million dollars to charity would be one million to Birth Control and it would relieve the race of those qualities which today undermine our finest inheritance.

This expenditure would be charity in the highest sense. It would be charity according to knowledge, charity applied to the right spot, and not allowed to run to waste or worse--to turn to poison.

Feeblemindedness, prostitution, criminality are associated closely. One investigator claims that only four or five percent of the parents of criminals were sound, and from 50% to 90% of the criminals come from bad stock.

Keen business men of today who so carefully scrutinize the stock markets for secure & solid investments that their children & children’s children may enjoy their wealth & be protected from want & other social inconveniences. Yet in their generosity they give huge sums to charity & to other palliative efforts without expecting any investment or demanding that their money earn any equivalent interest in human welfare. The very sums given today in charity increases the possibility of demanding double that sum within five years for increasing needs of charities which without the first sums these needs could not have increased.