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 onNovember 14, 1931. For announcement of speech see Birth Control Review, December 1931, p. 360.


Swinburne, Algernon Charles
Fry, James



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

It is a problem from which man cannot escape. It affects the health & happiness ofevery adult man & woman and consequently individual families; it affects theprosperity 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 bepoor 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 spacedand the total number in each family restricted to the available means of maintenancethere will necessarily be a low standard of health & happiness, both for parents andoffspring.

These consequences cannot no longer be evaded by substituting the benevolence of the State for theresponsibility 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 theself-supporting, productive, independent, creative groups relatively decline.

Under no system of Society is it possible to allow the population of a country to expandmore rapidly than the means of subsistence without the resultant effects of poverty,misery, disease and other unhappy conditions where low standards exist. In new countriesan increasing population can often provide for itself an increased volume ofsubsistence, for men have brains and hands as well as mouths to feed. By hard labor, byapplication 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 manto produce maintenance for himself depends on the plentifulness or the quantity of thematerials that the earth supplies.

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

It is a common practice of assuming that the birth-rate by itself indicates the increaseor decrease of a population. The assumption is so common that it might almost bedescribed as universal. Certainly the majority of people in reading an official reportof a declining birth-rate immediately conclude that the population of that country indeclining-- (This shows our dislike of arithmetic). Any business man calculating hisincome from investments would never think it was declining if a reduction in the rate ofinterest was accompanied by an equivalent increase in his capital. Every shareholderknows 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 notcontrol the population growth. It does not indicate the rapidity of growth unless weknow the volume to which the rate is applied. A good illustration may be given fromthe figures representing the growth of population of New York City--which during the first twenty years ofthe 19th century nearly doubled its population, the actual rate of increase beingvery high 92%. In the first twenty years of the present century the rate of increasewas 63% (still very high). These are the rates but what of the increase? Theenormous rate of 92% gave an actual increase of 73,000. The reduced rate of 63% inan equal period of time gave an increase of 2,183,000. In other words you cannotargue from the rates alone without knowing to what volume the rates of percentageare 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--untilits full growth is attained. Had it kept its first increase on a half pound a day--itwould 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--whichfirst bursts from the ground and doubles its height visibly within a few days when itceases to grow but blooms, flowers--serves its purpose before it declines. Theseillustrations are given to show that it is impossible for any growing thing to continueindefinitely to grow at a constant rate. As the volume expands, the rate of growth mustdecline. This principle applies to every growing thing. Everything has its naturalvolume of growth when it serves its usefulness.

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

England--a country which balances her population by sending out moresettlers than she receives--yet she has doubled her population in the first fifty yearsof the 19th century. It doubled again in the sixty years ending with 1911.-- While herbirth-rate was 10.9 lower than it had been for a century. People began to express alarmat 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 ofthe globe.

While there is an automatic check by nature on the growth of a plant, a tulip or achild--there is no such natural check in the case of the multiplication of plants ortribes-- Given suitable soil, one plant could scatter its seed over the face of theearth--the limiting factors are other plants crowding and interfering with each othersmeans 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 childrenwhile each child can raise a family of similar size--and that family again can multiplyits numbers. While the first couple lives, it can witness the astounding number of nearlytwo hundred births originating from its own loins.

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

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

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

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

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

In China where the population presses intensely upon the means of subsistence--wheneverthere is a serious crop failure--the consequences are terrific--millions of people areswept 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 thesame 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 andWales for the years from 1910 to 1921 you will see the difference inthe high survival rates in the latter. If the birth and death rates of India could bebrought down to the English rates, there would be an increase of births over deaths, butalso three or four million useless births and three or four million useless deaths wouldhave been avoided.

Such wastage of human life must diminish the general vigor of the country, and the effortthat might have been devoted to rearing healthy children is spent in giving birth tochildren who die within a few months and in burying or burning the bodies of tens ofthousands 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 deathrates.
  • 4.--A reduction of these requires forethought, consideration, responsibility,regulation of conduct accordingly.


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

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

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

Primitive man’s energies are devoted to the pursuit of food. Industrialized man is ableto give his time and mind to other things: building homes, design and manufactureclothing, painting, music, singing, constructing roads, bridges, railways, steamships.He conquers the air and the sea. He develops his mastery over matter, sends his voicesby 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 aproduct 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 vastareas of unpeopled land in Australia, Canada and Argentine and to the still unexplored resources of mineralwealth in many parts of the world and claim that there is room for the indefiniteexpansion of the human race. This claim cannot be seriously maintained. However greatthe 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 weshall 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 asksmore of the earth than merely to be kept alive. He wants land to play upon and to enjoyits beauties.

Workers' Conditions

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

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

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

The laboring population of Great Britain lived in almost unspeakablefilth and disease. Small rural districts were--because of industrial expansion--madeurban over night. The workers were huddled into huts, summer-houses and sheds neverintended as dwellings never erected for shelter. In sections with thirtyto forty miles of streets and hundreds of miles of byways--yet only a few miles weresewered. Dustbins were unknown, slops and refuse were thrown from the windows intothe streets and all sorts of refuse accumulated in mountain-high, foul-smellingheaps. 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 togo 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 taskof preventing any excessive rise in the population.

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

Though the English people suffered severely from death and disease, their numbersincreased more rapidly from 1811 to 1821 than at any other time. The English workmenwere noted throughout Europe for their “savage industry,” for the conditions of oldEnglish rural life had built up a powerful stock which could not be destroyed bymigration to towns or by the revolution in industrialism. The population increasedtwo-fold, but criminality increased five-fold--not only in towns but inthe country as well. The workmen on the farm was no longer acompanion 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 withoutfriends, ignorant, intemperate and improvident.

The nineteenth century--however--began the task of cleansing and improving theconditions 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; thepolice system was being reformed; pure water and general lighting was given andsanitary conditions of dwellings received attention. The need was so obvious thatreform in these matters could meet with little opposition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The muddled methods of social reform have been most marked in all that concerns thebeginning 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 othercountries less equipped socially and financially to reduce it than we are. Why isthis so? It cannot be due to lack of expenditure or to lack of costly and elaboratemachinery. No, it is certainly not.

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

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

It is known from authoritative sources that two feeble-minded persons have not beenknown to bring to birth a normal child. It is also found by Tredgold that 82% of the feeble-minded are foundto have had a bad nervous inheritance. In Vineland, NewJersey, it was found that a large proportion of feeble-minded cases washanded on from three generations. In one family of 319 persons, 119 were known to befeeble-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, notcounting several other children who died in infancy.

Feeblemindedness is inherited. The feeble-minded are innately fertile and multiplyfaster than the normal. They have no forethought and no self-restraint. They are nocapable of resisting their own impulses or the solicitations of others. They are notable to understand the motives which guide the conduct of normal people. They haveno morals--consequently no moral standards to live up to. They cannot resisttemptation. They have one third more children than the normal family--and sometimesmore.

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 thework houses, state farms and other institutions--leaving their babies where they canbe cared for and returning shortly to give birth to the next.

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

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

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

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

Feeblemindedness, prostitution, criminality are associated closely. One investigatorclaims that only four or five percent of the parents of criminals were sound, andfrom 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 enjoytheir wealth & be protected from want & other social inconveniences. Yet intheir generosity they give huge sums to charity & to other palliative effortswithout expecting any investment or demanding that their money earn any equivalentinterest in human welfare. The very sums given today in charity increases thepossibility of demanding double that sum within five years for increasing needs ofcharities which without the first sums these needs could not haveincreased.