July 19, 2012

A Tempest in a British Teapot: Sanger’s Moratorium on Babies

Sixty five years ago, in July of 1947, Europe was still reeling from the effects of World War II, with widespread housing shortages due to war destruction, reports of thousands starving, the dislocation of refugees, and massive unemployment barring any quick recovery. The United States feared that political instability in Europe would pave the way for the acceptance of communism, and on June 5, 1947 announced an international aid strategy, known as the Marshall Plan, to prop up the European economy and undercut Soviet influences.

As she boarded a plane for England on June 30, 1947, Margaret Sanger gave her own spin on European redevelopment and recovery, telling reporters:

[Hungry] countries should not have another child for a decade. They should do all in their power to help keep women from having children for that period--until the food and economic situations are adjusted. . . . In this country we have achieved a favorable balance of population and resources. This situation has contributed greatly to the raising of our national standard of living. But it will do us little good if in the end European and Asiatic countries, and some of our possessions, continue to overflow their boundaries, crowd their resources and breed themselves into new famines. Many of them will ultimately breed themselves into another war. For that reason the whole world should be interested in the intelligent limitation of population. (New York Daily News, July 1, 1947).

Sanger's proposition, which she noted "definitely" included England, caused a massive stir as the London Daily Mirror told her to go back to America, as "her proposal would be about as practical as telling the sun to stand still or the tide to turn back." Man-on-the-street polls in both the United States and England ran heavily against her position, some calling it "very foolish and extremely stupid," "so ridiculous that it barely merits discussion," and "perfectly fantastic." One Briton offered "I am afraid this Mrs. Sanger underestimates the--shall we say emotional needs?--that lead to the production of babies." (New York Daily News, July 1, 1947 and Boston Globe, July 4, 1947.)

For her part, Sanger was surprised by the reaction, writing to Mary Compton Johnson, one of her secretaries in New York on July 5:

Never have I needed a helper more than I have since I left LaGuardia. My tossing a challenge at American reporters brought an avalanche on my head in London. The 10 year moratorium on babies! Every paper in London sent reporters to the Savoy (except the Times). I was so weary & tired as I had not slept all night on the plane & as I had no prepared statement on the 10 year moratorium idea. It was the most trying and exhausting experience Id really had. Photos, snaps, movies, the Pathe - Paramount took pictures. The RKO and others wanted me to go to the studios. I refused."


Clearly Sanger touched a nerve when she included Europeans and especially the British into her definition of "hungry" or "overpopulated" countries. People were used to hearing pundits propose that individual families should only have children when they could afford them, or even that underdeveloped or poor nations should curb their birth rate in order to increase standards of living. But Europe? As a woman interviewed in New York said: "Europe, as a whole is not overpopulated. The people there had no trouble in feeding themselves before the war. Everything has been destroyed and they need just a little help from here and there until they get on their feet." (Daily News, July 1, 1947.)

Sanger had long argued that the only thing that parents could do when they did not have the resources to raise children was to postpone having them until conditions improved, and her suggestion for Europe was little more than that same practical advice, ramped up in scope. Sanger wrote her secretary Florence Rose on July 26 about the over-reaction: "Is England included? Do you mean England? Have you been fed by the press that England is starving? My reply: “Ive only just landed in England you don’t look hungry (to the reporters) but if you are yes England too!!! That set John Bull off & retorted that “Granny Slee better stay home & teach the American G.I.s how to avoid leaving illegitimate children for England girls to work for!!!"

Sanger's main purpose in going to England was to attend a family planning conference, but because of the furor, she decided not to attend. She did work with activists in England to plan the International Congress on Population in Relation to World Resources, held without such ado, a year later in Cheltenham, England.

family limitation

On Monday June 25, the Library of Congress opened an exhibit in Washington on "Books That Shaped America". The exhibit celebrates 88 works that shaped American life and thought, including Margaret Sanger's 1914 pamphlet "Family Limitation", which was a basic instructional manual of basic family planning techniques.

"Of course, it is troublesome to get up to douche, it is also a nuisance to have to trouble about the date of the menstrual period. It seems inartistic and sordid to insert a pessary or a suppository in anticipation of the sexual act. But it is far more sordid to find yourself several years later burdened down with half a dozen unwanted children, helpless, starved, shoddily clothed, dragging at your skirt, yourself a dragged out shadow of the woman you once were."

Read more about "Family Limitation" in this blog post, or read the pamphlet yourself here!

Queen’s Hall Meeting on Constructive Birth Control

One activist, Maude Royden, sent a message of greeting that said

"Every child has a right to be desired before it is conceived, loved before it is born, and provided for while it is helpless. Every mother should have time and health to give the fullest measure of love and care to every child she bears, and to give it without an intolerable strain upon her own vitality. Who will deny these things in theory? Who will not admit that they are so true as to be truisms? And yet the brutal denial of these "truisms" in actual everyday life is seen everywhere, and gives us our terrible infant death-rate, our perhaps still more terrible infant "damage-rate" and a mass of almost inarticulate suffering amongst married women..."

Featured speaker Dr. E Killick Millard implored the audience open up to revolutionary new ideas (ie birth control) that could shape the world for the better:

"Ladies and gentlemen, it is time, high time, that we abandoned old ideas, swept away misapprehension and prejudice; it is high time we abandoned false sentimentality and faced facts as they really are. Now, we know, or we ought to know, that means do exist for preventing concpetion and restraining excessive fertility without the mutilation of marriage or the placing of an intolerable and entirely unnatural strain upon married couples. I submit that the experience of vast number of intelligent and thinking people who have used these mean has demonstrated that they are on the whole effective and harmless. I do not think that we can overestimate the fundamental and far-reaching importance of this great question. This question of birth control really underlies so many other great questions of the day. The whole welfare of humanity may be said without exaggeration to be bound up with it."

The London Family Planning Summit: 1921/2012

complexity of the present and that of the past

"Dear Mr. Grant,

I have been considerably disquieted by the letter you showed me yesterday, suggesting a working alliance between the American Eugenics Society and the American Birth Control League. In my judgement we have everything to lose nothing to gain to such an arrangement.

[The American Birth Control League] is controlled by a group that has be brought up on agitation and emotional appeal instead of on research and education... With this group, we would take on a large quantity of ready-made enemies which it has accumulated, and we would gain allies who, while believing that they are eugenics, really have no conception of what eugenics is and are actually opposed to it.

[At a recent international birth control conference] two members of our advisory council ... put through a resolution at the final meeting, urging that people whose children gave promise of being of exceptional value to the race should have as many children, properly spaced, as they felt that they feasibly could. This is eugenics. It is not the policy of the American Birth Control League leaders, who in the next issue of their monthly magazine came out with an editorial denouncing this resolution as contrary to all the principles and sentiments of their organization.

If it is desirable for us to make a campaign in favor of contraception, we are abundantly able to do so on our own account, without enrolling a lot of sob sisters, grand stand players, and anarchists to help us. We had a lunatic fringe in the eugenics movement in the early days; we have been trying for 20 years to get rid of it and have finally done so. Let's not take on another fringe of any kind as an ornament.

Paul Popenoe

Birth Control and Eugenics: Uneasy Bedfellows?

Sarah Sachs story

We could not locate the Sachs family in the 1910 census, on Grand Street or anywhere else in Manhattan. But we did locate Jacob and Sarah Sacks, who in 1910 lived on 105 Attorney Street in the Lower East Side, only a few blocks from Grand Street. Both were from Russia, they had three children, Joseph (5), Harry (3), and Dora, who was one and a half. The family does not appear in the 1920 census, with or without Sadie.

Birth of a Movement: the Case of Sadie Sachs

Dear Madam, I Abhor You

If you want to read more on the hate mail that Sanger received in her lifetime, visit our article "Dear Madam, I Abhor You" at the Sanger Papers Newsletter!

example: “Dear Madam: You have been a shameless “murderess on parade” for a long while. However, you never looked more hellishly ludicrous than at present when the government is about to launch a campaign to encourage as many births as possible as has been done for sometime in Europe. Perhaps this will see and end to your shameless debasing of Parenthood. You, if you ever had any real Christian upbringing, must have developed a cast iron conscience to be able to carry on your soul the innumerable times you are guilty of having the Commandment--Thou shalt not kill--broken by poor innocent people who listened to your advice. The average schoolboy or girl knows more about contraceptives than you do and that is well-known; which makes your birth-controllers hopelessly out-dated. If you were a sincere person you would devote your time to something clean worthwhile.” (Aug. 28, 1941, Brooklyn, N.Y. [LCM 50:135].)

July 18, 2012


This post originally appeared on Alexander Sanger's blog.

"In my family, being pro-choice comes naturally. This is not just because the ghost of my grandmother, Margaret Sanger, would rise from her grave to wreak vengeance on any of her relations who dare stray from the path.

It is also because the guys have the model of my grandfather, William Sanger, to emulate. My grandfather was an interesting man, who didn’t quite realize who he was marrying. To be fair, my grandmother didn’t know the groundbreaker she would become as she walked down the aisle either.

William Sanger was a radical, advanced in his thinking, and he supported his wife when she started her birth control advocacy, which began after ten years of mostly sedate marriage. My grandmother promptly got herself indicted for obscenity under the Comstock Laws and fled the country before she could be convicted and jailed.

Anthony Comstock decided the next best thing would be to jail her husband. So, he sent an undercover police officer to my grandfather’s architectural office pretending to be the father of a large brood, who couldn’t afford any more children, and begging for one of my grandmother’s contraband pamphlets. My grandfather rummaged through his desk and found one, handing it to the undercover officer. Anthony Comstock appeared and personally made the arrest.

At his trial at the Tombs, William Sanger made an impassioned plea for liberty, free speech, and the liberation of women from the shackles of the Comstock Laws. My grandfather said this from the witness stand:

I deny the right of the state to compel the poor and disinherited to rear large families and to drive their offspring to child labor when they should be at school and at play. I deny the right of the State to exercise dominion over the souls and bodies of our women by compelling them to go into unwilling motherhood. I deny the right of the State to arm an ignorant, irresponsible, and prudish censorship with the right of search and confiscation, to pass judgment on our art and literature, and I deny as well the right to hold over the entire medical profession the legal ban of this obscenity statute.

My grandfather was convicted of distributing an “immoral and indecent pamphlet” and sentenced to thirty days in the Tombs, thus having the distinction of going to jail for advocating birth control before my grandmother did.

As for me, I continued my family's legacy as a college student. While sitting in my dorm room, I got a phone call from a high school friend I hadn’t seen in two years. “I’m pregnant,” she said. “You’re the only person I can call.” Back then, abortion was totally illegal in Massachusetts, where she lived, as was birth control, which is probably why she got pregnant. I start asking around campus for a doctor to help my friend and pretended I was her boyfriend in order to engender sympathy. I got the name of a doctor in Washington, DC and called him from a pay phone. Giving no names, I told the doctor my girlfriend needed help. He told me to have her arrive at an address in Arlington, Virginia with $300 cash the following Wednesday. My friend didn’t have $300, so I made another round of calls to collect the money and wired it to her. She had the abortion without complications.

The doctor, Milan Vuitch, was an OB-GYN, who performed abortions on the side. A year after my friend went to meet him, Dr. Vuitch was arrested. His case went to the US Supreme Court the year before Roe. The court, though it upheld his conviction, laid the groundwork for the landmark case by giving a broad interpretation to the “health exception" in the DC abortion statute. Dr. Milan Vuitch went to jail.

After that incident, I vowed that no woman, and no physician helping her, should have to suffer that kind of consequence. I began forging my own path in the ongoing fight for sexual and reproductive rights, and it is one I continue to tread."