Margaret Sanger gained notoriety as an advocate for contraception, which she defined as essential for women’s freedom. By the late 1920s, however, Sanger’s radicalism had become muted. In “The Civilizing Force of Birth Control,” she addressed middle-class constituencies with the argument that contraception would strengthen marriage. Like many liberal intellectuals of the time, Sanger was a eugenicist—she believed in managing human reproduction to improve “the race” through better breeding. Many eugenicists were concerned about declining fertility among college-educated and middle-class women, even as they also worried about what they saw as the excessive fertility of poorer women. However, unlike many eugenicists who urged elite women to have more children, Sanger argued that birth control for all women would serve the cause of eugenics. This essay appeared in Sex in Civilization (1929), a voluminous collection of commentary that suggested the emergence of a new species of expert—the sexologist.
Instead of mobilizing a vast and dazzling array of what our politicians like to refer to as “facts’n figgers” in a vain effort to present birth control as the wholesale panacea of all the sufferings of humanity (to be effective at some vague date in the future), I shall here attempt nothing more than to show that the practice of contraception to-day, among ever-increasing numbers of parents and parents-to be, is an active and contributing factor to that something we call civilization—an active and contributing factor, please note, and not a mere passive accompaniment of progress. In other words, I hope to show that birth control is a cause, not a mere effect. But at the outset it is necessary, I think, to clarify our meaning of that much-used word “civilization.”
Just what do we mean by civilization? It has been variously defined. It means, according to Montesquieu, “to render an intelligent being yet more intelligent.” According to the theologians, it means “to make reason and the will of God prevail.” Out of the various definitions that have come to us from the thinkers of the past, it becomes clear that civilization cannot be an affair of the individual alone. We come to see that civilization is the creation not of a single generation but of many; that it is the gradual substitution of order for disorder; of security in living instead of chaos. Civilization means the development of social and benevolent traits instead of the anti-social, the destructive, and the criminal instincts. It wakens men and women to the realization that they are all members of one great organism, so that it is impossible for one member of society, or one class of society, to be indifferent to the rest, or to realize inherent potentialities independent of the rest. The individual who insists upon the enjoyment of his own selfish pleasure, irrespective of the consequences of this indulgence to the present generation or the next, is obviously acting in an irresponsible and anti-social and therefore an uncivilized, manner. He is reverting to barbarism and brutality. The civilized individual, on the other hand, realizes that he must share with the less fortunate the fruits of his own education, and that when he is doing all he can to enlarge and increase the volume of the human stream seeking enlightenment he increases thereby his own enjoyment of life.
Perhaps we can do no better than to accept Matthew Arnold’s concept of a civilized society: “when the best available knowledge is distributed among them, when they are animated by a passion for the harmonious perfection of their faculties, when they have a true sense of human values, when their social sympathy is quick.” The capital need of civilization, he tells us in his master thought, is that the whole body of society should come to live with a life worthy to be called human and corresponding with man’s true aspirations and powers. “This, the humanization of man in society, is civilization. The aim for us all is to promote it, and to promote it is above all the aim of the true politician.”
Civilization, then, implies the development and the actual realization of the inherent potentialities of the individual and the race. An environment—physical or social—which destroys, warps, or wastes these innate promises cannot in all fairness be characterized as civilized. This is how we must interpret the expression “human perfection,” upon which thinkers of the past placed such importance.
Before proceeding to our attempt to show how dynamically the principle of birth control is related to these fundamental elements which constitute true civilization, it may be here profitable to summarize those factors. Our brief survey indicates that civilization advances by (1) the increase of intelligence (Montesquieu); (2) the replacing of disorder by order; (3) the substitution of philanthropic motives for anti-social and purely selfish activities; (4) the dissemination of the best available knowledge; (5) a passion for the harmonious perfection of human faculties; and (6) aiming to make possible for the whole body of society a life worthy to be called human (Arnold).
The program for universal birth control aims at the attainment, by the most direct and least hypocritical of methods, of the conditions enumerated above. It wastes neither time nor effort upon any fragmentary solution of the secondary problems of human society; but it insists that no solution of the complex problems of education, of social relations, of economic, industrial and political disorder, can be solved as long as the fundamental problem of human breeding is ignored. The birth control program is not concerned with the fruits of culture, but with sowing the “seeds” of civilization. It does not insist that men and women be educated by books or the arts; but upon the basis of their innate, though possibly, undeveloped, intelligence, it does seek to awaken them to a consciousness of their responsibilities toward each other, to their children and children-to-be, and thus to the community of the present and of the future. Thus it seeks to fulfill the requirement expressed by Montesquieu: it renders intelligent beings yet more intelligent! We have discovered that initial intelligence so wisely implied by the French sage yet so commonly overlooked—in the mothers of the most poverty-stricken strata of society—a rudimentary type of intelligence, if you will, but nevertheless capable of growth and development if nourished and cultivated in a sympathetic and civilized way—by sympathy, by answering the questions nearest the poor mother’s heart, by meeting her needs, by divesting the technique of contraception of its harsh, professional and incomprehensible verbiage so that it becomes an everyday matter in her life.
After you have worked year in and year out among these mothers of the so-called lower classes, after you have witnessed the gradual change in their mental states, from fear and dejection and hopelessness to increasing assurancy and self-reliance, to confidence and mastery of life, you cannot avoid the realization that the very success of the practice—the concrete demonstration that intelligent control carries with it its own reward—brings with it psychic benefits of incalculable value. The mother no longer considers herself a slave. She is glad that she is standing upon her own feet. She feels herself mistress of her own life, and no longer the inert, helpless, hopeless victim of circumstances which inevitably go from bad to worse. The difference is as striking as that between freeman and slave. The mothers who are liberated—and liberated through the exercise of their own intelligence and foresight—from the relentless pressure of involuntary motherhood—almost automatically become more interested in life, in the future, in the upbringing of their children, in the affairs of the community at large. In a word, they have become more civilized. And this has been made possible not through the much-vaunted agencies of popular education, but because she has been given simple, sanitary instruction which assures her mastery of her own body and procreative functions. I could present the testimony of many parents—and particularly mothers—who have thus been enabled to regain mastery over the conditions of their lives and are consequently fulfilling their maternal function in far happier and more efficient fashion.
On the other hand, I have received thousands upon thousands of appeals from women who have had maternity thrust upon them time after time in rapid succession. To such women life holds little or no hope. Their interests are restricted to the miseries which engulf them and their ever-growing families.
To how great an extent this mastery is due to the instrument of birth control is made evident by a consideration of the painful confessions of women still in the bondage of enforced maternity. I have received thousands of these; and an analysis of them indicates the almost inevitable development of a particular psychosis or abnormal mental state. A rapid succession of pregnancies is usually productive of a mental condition verging on melancholia, the outgrowth of fear and the sense of unwarranted defeat in life. The slave mother comes to consider herself as a special, an exceptional victim of circumstances over which she has no control. Her interests are contracted to her own little sphere. In some cases, the miserable poverty-stricken home, the array of unwelcome children, the irresponsible, selfish, and often shiftless, husband, all become associated in her mind as outward evidence of her long series of sufferings; and she turns from them, drawing more and more into herself, and evading the responsibilities she cannot bring herself to face.
Such mothers, and the unfortunate children brought up in the environment they create, are scarcely encouraging subjects for the dissemination of culture or civilization. They may, and indeed do, become the passive recipients of what currently passes for popular education. But true education is attained, only when men, women and children are made to see and to realize the tangible consequences of their own efforts.
Bitter experience teaches the slave mother that unwanted babies are almost invariably the penalty inflicted upon her for her participation in a few brief ecstatic moments of physical indulgence, the pleasures of which she sometimes does not even share. After a rapid series of undesired pregnancies, the intimacies of the marital relation strike terror into the heart of the wife; her response to the advances of her husband has been “conditioned” by the heavy penalty which has been exacted. And so even the happiness of marriage is denied. Normal mental reactions are replaced by the psychic patterns and the mechanisms of despair and defeat. She comes to feel that she is the helpless victim of blind, relentless forces that have no respect for the dignity of the individual, as indeed she is. It is one of the ineradicable traits of the human mind to expect some eventual reward for sacrifice and effort—and when these rewards are withheld, one of the strongest motives for sustained courage in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles has been removed.
Equipped with the instrument of birth control, the mother regains not only mastery of her procreative function, but an immeasurably increased sense of power over life itself. Thus quite aside from its economic and eugenic aspects—the importance of which I am in no sense seeking to minimize—the practice of birth control brings with it inestimable psychic benefits. A whole sphere of life—the sexual—is elevated from the level of the purely instinctive and fortuitous and submitted to intelligent direction. Mystery and ignorance are banished. Married love is enriched and greatly reinforced by completely fulfilled sexual communion which has been emancipated of the destructive restrictions and mutilations of unexpressed fears. And so between husband and wife mental and spiritual bonds are strengthened and vitalized.
I dwell thus upon what we may term the psychic by-products of the practice of birth control because it is undoubtedly by them that we can most immediately gauge it as an active and contributing factor of civilization. The practice of birth control tends to break up old habits and old prejudices concerning the marital relation. There is no denying this fact. Birth control is not consistent with the whispered furtiveness, the secrecy, the ashamed and hurried contact, consummated under cover of darkness; the passive submission of the virtuous wife to the imperious demands of an insatiate spouse; nor with the gradual degradation of the sexual act into a mere physiological function, which, in the words of Shakespeare-
". . . within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Goes to the creating of a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'twixt sleep and wake . . ."
Just as civilized gastronomy has elevated the crude act of eating into an art of esthetic refinement, so the program of birth control aims to substitute for the greedy, hurried consummation of physical passion a reverent ritual undertaken with adequate preparation and under conditions which contribute to its beauty and assure its satisfying completion. The hungry man on the verge of starvation ravenously satisfies the cravings of his physical needs. The civilized man dines slowly, savoring to the full the flavors of the exquisitely prepared food set before him, sublimating thus a physical need into an act of appreciation, even perhaps to the extent of educating himself in the essential wholesomeness of those commonplace acts out of which, on the whole, life is made up. So in the realm of sex we may bolt our pleasure, greedily satisfy deep-seated physiological and psychic cravings, selfishly usurp as much of crude sexual pleasure as we can, and always with reckless indifference to the consequences of our selfish acts, and with a total irresponsibility to its penalties. But such selfishness reveals none of the attributes of civilization, and carries with it its own penalty: for he who is selfish in the love-relation can never experience its deepest joys.
The technique of birth control dissociates two ideas: the ritual of physical and spiritual communion and the process of reproduction. Its opponents say that its advocates overvalue the former and undervalue the latter. They fail to recognize that, by placing the implement of this dissociation into the hands of husbands and wives, it places with them the responsibility of using that implement with intelligence and discrimination. But such has ever, since the discovery of fire, been the serene, untroubled way of civilization. It has placed in men’s hands the sharp-edged knife, the razor, the harnessed powers of steam and electricity, alcohol, gunpowder, firearms, radio-activity and now the power of flight. Do not tell us that he will abuse these powers, that he will misuse them to his own destruction. We know that already. He has; he does; he will. But out of his own experience, his own trial and error, his own mistakes, by suffering his own self-inflicted punishments and his own hard-earned rewards man slowly but certainly advances on the path of civilization. Like every other great instrument of civilization, birth control is making men and women face a new responsibility, and forcing their intelligence to the solution of problems they had for ages deliberately avoided.
Because of its misuse and abuse by reactionaries and defenders of the status quo, the term “morality” has come to connote, in this twentieth century of ours, practically everything that is distasteful to the spirit of progress. As a matter of fact, however, we cannot evade the problem of morality; and such ideas as may be advanced as instruments of an emergent civilization must be tested from the point of view of ethical integrity. Birth control has been denounced as inimical to the mind and morals and health of the younger citizens to whom we look for the future growth and upbuilding of civilization. Its opponents claim that it will permit the “dissemination of immoral and salacious literature under the guise of information, and will give unlimited opportunity to the purveyors of the obscene in newspaper, magazine and every other form of advertising.” Marriage without the desire and responsibility of parenthood, [Sanger’s footnote: “Yes, according to Mr. P. J. Ward of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, D. C.”] and not lived in strict continence, is “immoral and sinful.” The authority on which this opposition of the Roman Catholic Church against birth control is based is the conception that there is only one true Church, and subsequently only one true morality. It is claimed that the Catholic Church is the depository of eternal truth, the Kingdom of God on earth. The Catholic Church, according to Father Ward, is therefore responsible for the morals of the entire human race. It is the duty of the Church, therefore, to interfere with and to block all legislation that may adversely affect the “morals” of non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Though we have been led astray by ethical error, we are still all her children. The Catholic Church never loses the hope that non-Catholics will some day be counted in the fold. The Church therefore considers it her duty to supervise all social and moral legislation.
The position of the Church, as enunciated by this executive of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, exemplifies by its very exaggeration the concept of a “closed system” of morality that is far more prevalent than might at first be suspected. From this point of view there no longer exists any living moral problem. Right and wrong in the realm of ethical action have been decided once and for all time. No choice is offered the individual. He may submit to the dictates of the higher authority, and be saved; or he may decide his own problems for himself, and be eternally damned. He cannot question the laws of the ecclesiastical authorities concerning his sexual behavior. He—or preferably, she—is offered the choice between uninterrupted procreation or rigid continence. Unquestioning obedience, submission to ecclesiastical law, and the reference of all intimate personal and sexual problems to the nearest representative of the Church—such are the ready-made solutions to all moral questions of the adherents of this type of ethics.
This Catholic system of morality is the archetype of all ethical systems which rest upon unquestioning obedience of higher authorities, and which instill absolute respect for the folkways of the tribe. Morality of this type is responsible to no slight degree for the age old opposition of the medical profession to the practice of contraception. Conformity, respect for all external laws, and a blind and bland indifference to anything except the preordained and predestined “plan of God” as formulated by the accepted authorities, are the essential virtues accentuated by all such closed systems of morality.
Against such “morality,” the spirit of Western civilization is revolting with ever-increasing vigor. There has been a revolution in the world of morality of which we are now beginning to taste the first fruits. We are no longer living in a little closed completed universe of which God’s plan was revealed once and for all time to a little group of delegates. The center of our universe has shifted from Heaven to earth. There have been at least four centuries of criticism and skepticism concerning the nature of “morals.” Science and philosophy have destroyed the old concept of the absolute. All conditions that determine behavior and individual conduct are being reexamined. This new world, this emergent civilization, is one of experimentation, of trial and error. The revealed and dogmatic basis of morality, as expressed by the Roman Catholics, and as accepted by so many other unthinking religious organizations, by so many so-called educators, by so many limited members of the medical profession, and even by some who call themselves sociologists, has lost its old authority.
Where the dogmatists read black, the world to-day is reading white. What they consider “morality” we consider moral imbecility. To-day we are claiming the right to solve our own problems, to make our own mistakes and to learn the inevitable lesson to be derived from such mistakes. Our morality is an “ethics of the dust,” as Professor Edwin Holt has expressed it, a morality of reality, aiming to show men and women the structure of their relationships to each other, to the world at large, and the world to be. It is not a morality concerned with melodramatic rewards and punishments, with absolute rights and wrongs, with unhealthy lingering interests in virginity and chastity, with its propensity for prying into the unwholesome details of sexual behavior, but a morality insisting that men and women shall face honestly and realistically the intimate problems of their own lives, and that they themselves, on the bases of their own experience and own desires, solve those problems with the instruments of intelligence, insight and honesty.
Birth control places in their hands a delicate instrument calling for intelligence and foresight for its successful use. And such an instrument, calling as it does for a greater mastery of the art of life, becomes ipso facto a power for the development of the new morality.
Civilization, as we suggested in our introduction, is not concerned merely with the individual. It is a communal achievement. Its perpetuation depends upon its incessant expansion—its fecundity in quickening the spirit of each generation. It thrives by the diffusion of the best available knowledge. The carriers of civilization are the scientists, the philosophers, the artists; and also all those men and women who labor to divest knowledge of its secret, hidden, exclusive aspects, who humanize it, who make it understood outside the cliques of the cultivated and sophisticated, yet who in so doing do not corrupt it with falsehood. It is the supreme duty of the civilized, then, to disseminate as widely as possible the benefits of knowledge. Not without significance is the fact that we associate the very word civilization most closely with those institutions which exist for the purpose of enlightenment—universities, technical schools, research bureaus, and hospitals which dispense the benefits of highly technical research. On the other hand, we must consider as contrary to the movement of civilization all institutions which monopolize or pervert the truth for private gain. Such exclusiveness and selfishness, either in an individual or an institution, present grave obstacles to that humanization of knowledge upon which the very existence and perpetuation of culture depends.
The question to decide, in this connection, is whether the knowledge of birth control is worthy to be disseminated by the great distributors of the best available knowledge. We know that it has been condemned as a practice by the Church, that punitive statutes have been legislated aiming to circumvent its diffusion amongst the people at large. I do not intend here to attempt to refute the many arguments that have been advanced against the practice of birth control. For the most part they are based on the grounds of its “unnaturalness” and its alleged immorality. Against these claims, despite the condemnation of the spokesmen of traditional theology, despite all restrictive legislation, the practice of birth control has been accepted by ever increasing numbers of intelligent and prudent people in all civilized countries—mainly among the middle and upper classes. There is no dearth of statistics and carefully verified data to demonstrate that the practice of contraception is invariably correlated with intelligence, foresight and a higher standard of living among the parents; that a comparatively low birth-rate is accompanied by a correspondingly low infantile mortality rate and a low maternal mortality rate. On the other hand, a high birth-rate, in all countries of the world, is accompanied by a high infant mortality rate, a low standard of living, and chaotic and often disastrous social and political conditions. As we descend the social scale, as the ordinary standard of intelligent living decreases, the birth-rate increases and the prudential check of birth control is ignored.
Birth control is thus no mere tentative theory, uncertain and untried, but an actual practice, tested and efficacious among the majority of intelligent husbands and wives. (In passing it is interesting to note that I have the records of not a few mothers of large and healthy families who admit their indebtedness to the practice of birth control. Such women, of the maternal type, and in comfortable economic circumstances, have desired more children than the normal woman, but have adopted the practice of birth control, in order to “pace” the advent of each new arrival, and to exercise a complete control over their health and that of the family, without sacrificing the normal and legitimate happiness of the marriage relation.)
Why then has the diffusion of this important discovery been so retarded among those who need it most? The reason is not remote. Modern civilization has been lamentably neglectful of the central and fundamental importance of the whole problem of sex and human breeding. Occidental folkways have been based upon an outgrown medieval theology which even to-day exerts an incalculably dysgenic influence upon the race. Yet gropingly and with such means as they could devise, all societies have sought to insure and to perpetuate the well-being of the race and to prevent its degeneration. The high value placed upon good breeding, the condemnations of mésalliances (no matter how unwarranted they may have been in particular instances) have been tentative precautionary measures toward racial health and development.
Scientific methods of contraception seem therefore to have come as an answer to a great universal demand, which for centuries had been groping in the dark toward articulate expression. It is almost inconceivable that scarcely a century has passed since men first came to a realization that the great natural force of sexual passion—co-equal in its importance with hunger—might and should be harnessed for the needs and the benefit of civilization. Even then, this discovery seems to have been hit upon only accidentally, as an adjunct to investigations into problems of political economy. Thomas Malthus [influential 19th century British political economist] advocated continence and small families as a preventive of threatening overpopulation. And it was not for several decades that contraception was advocated for the same reason. To-day we realize that irrespective of its relation to the questions of overpopulation and the disposal of surplus populations by emigration or the conquest of new territories, the practice of hygienic contraception needs no external justification—it is a civilizing force in itself, and carries with it its own immediate benefits, its own rewards to the parents, to the children, and to the community at large.
Education in birth control does not restrict itself to the impersonal prescription of a device or a method, but aims to establish a new and sounder foundation for all marriage and all parenthood. The leaders of this program have not remained satisfied with imperfect contraceptives which interfere with or restrict the physical or psychical completion of sexual communion in marriage. The history of marriage and its tragedies have awakened them to the dangers of thwarting or restricting that relationship. And so the exponents of birth control have called upon scientists for the perfection of methods, for a contraceptive that shall in no way interrupt the complex, continuous act of sexual communion, but which shall, in particular, make possible the release of the psychic tension, no longer inhibited by the fear of pregnancy. As an English authority on the subject has wisely written: “In no stage should there be awareness of the contraceptive, except in so far as there is awareness that the particular act of sexual intercourse is one that will not be followed by pregnancy.”
Instead of operating as a menace to the foundations of marriage, birth control is actually one of the surest means of assuring the fulfillment of its inherent promises. It recreates the very pattern of the marriage relation, perforce substituting intelligence and common sense for shame and the half-guilty consciousness of sin; of consideration for brutal selfishness; and of foresight for reckless irresponsibility. In all of these prevision is unquestionably a force working with and not contrary to the spirit of civilization as we understand it.
Its greatest value, however, is to be found in its assertion—and not its denial, as its enemies claim—of the supreme importance of child-life. One incontrovertible fact we cannot escape: among families into which a large number of children are born, there is apt to be a correspondingly large infantile mortality. The unwelcome child has an appreciably smaller chance of survival than the child brought into the world by desire. The grossly sentimental notion that the mother of many children is the best mother is still prevailing, despite the most overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I have briefly sketched the ordinary self-confessed mental condition of the ordinary mother of unwelcome children. That the obstacles such children must overcome in their unequal struggle for life can contribute to their development is another fallacy that must be punctured once for all. Life presents obstacles enough to all of us—they need not be multiplied in the heart of the family for the benefit of young children! The mental and physical condition of the mother, both before and after birth, is of paramount importance to the whole life of her child. Whether we be partisans of heredity or of environment as the chief factor in the life of an individual, there can be no denying this factor—since the mother is both environment and heredity. Now that we realize that the first five years of a life are the most plastic and are those in which the whole psychic pattern of maturity is set, the importance of the surrounding and enveloping motherhood can scarcely be overestimated.
I have sought merely to trace the manifold implications and potentialities of birth control as a civilizing force. I have purposely avoided its less immediate and less actual aspects, hoping to emphasize the necessity of dissemination to the less fortunate classes by those who to-day enjoy its advantages. The civilized human being is commanded to carry others along with him in his march toward self-realization and perfection, or to be stunted and enfeebled in his own development if he disobeys. He can fulfill this duty best by sharing with others the knowledge which has aided him and his own family to maintain a standard of living which permits participation and enjoyments of the higher gifts of life. We need not be discouraged if obstacles are placed in our path. For we know that everywhere suppliant arms are outstretched to receive our message, and that the exercise of intelligence begets intelligence in kind. Only to the disdainful and the contemptuous, from the heights of their embattled selfishness, does this human soil into which we are seeking to implant the seeds of intelligent mastery of instinct, appear barren or sterile. We who have trod it know that it is capable, despite its seeming rockiness and its harsh surface, of nourishing these seeds, and of bringing them in their time to honorable fruition.
In allying ourselves with this force, we are sharing in that great communal parenthood that is far more fundamental than the selfish, egocentric parenthood which despite its endless activity and its incessant proliferation, remains infinitely insignificant as a contributive source to true civilization. In teaching birth control, we are the active agents of true civilization.
The changing attitude toward contraception, which is evident everywhere when men and women are thinking deeply about the constant problems of human existence—in Europe, in Asia, and in America—is one of the eloquent indices of the triumph of the new, scientific morality. It indicates the laying of a solid foundation for the civilization of the future. This, I venture to prophesy, will differ from the so-called civilization of the East, which has erected its structure on the ugly basis of human slavery and misery. It will be a civilization of a healthy and happy worldliness, demanding no blood sacrifices and permitting to each individual the full realization of his innate potentialities. We shall reach spiritual communism through the blossoming of the self.
Women in the past have been confronted with the empty victories of political freedom, of economic freedom, of social freedom. But with the winning of biological freedom, women and men and children will enter triumphantly into an era that will be in every sense of the word civilized.
In this hurried survey, I have purposely refrained from touching upon specific aspects of the present situation concerning birth control policies in the various countries of the world. I have sought instead to emphasize civilization’s need for this instrument to effect humanity’s liberation from the destructive slave-morality promulgated for so many centuries past. Until this is scrapped, no civilization worthy of the name can emerge.
Source: Margaret Sanger, “The Civilizing Force of Birth Control,” in V. F. Calverton and S. D. Schmalhausen, eds., Sex in Civilization (New York: Garden City, 1939), 525–537.
See Also:Enemies, A Drama of Modern Marriage: The Sexual Revolution Enacted
"Love and Companionship Came First": Floyd Dell on Modern Marriage
"I Am Almost a Prisoner": Women Plead for Contraception
"No Gods, No Masters": Margaret Sanger on Birth Control