Margaret Sanger, The Morality of Birth Control, 1921

Margaret Sanger

Women’s Rights Activist and Social Reformer

On the last day of the First American Birth Control Conference, held in New York City in November 1921, Margaret Sanger was arrested for disorderly conduct. She had planned to deliver the conference’s closing speech before a public audience at Town Hall, but arrived to find the doors barricaded by policemen. Years later, she recalled wedging her way inside and beginning to speak, before being taken to police headquarters (she was released the following day). One week later, she finally delivered her speech, ‘The Morality of Birth Control’, at the Park Theatre, to a much larger audience, drawn in part by the controversy.

Nearly a century later, ‘The Morality of Birth Control’, which neatly summarized Sanger’s views on contraception, remains polarizing. Sanger, who opened America’s first birth control clinic in 1916, believed every child should be a wanted child. Every woman, she argued, should have the right to decide whether or not to give birth – and when, and how many times. While Sanger fought passionately for women’s rights all her life, her legacy has come under fire in recent years. She has been criticized, like others of her time, for racist attitudes and a belief in eugenics. Nonetheless, she left an indelible imprint: in 1942, the American Birth Control League, which she founded, changed its name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. With an advocacy arm, and over 600 health centers across the United States, Planned Parenthood remains one of the strongest champions of women’s reproductive rights.

The Morality of Birth Control 1921

We know that every advance that woman has made in the last half century has been made with opposition, all of which has been based upon the grounds of immorality. When women fought for higher education, it was said that this would cause her to become immoral and she would lose her place in the sanctity of the home. When women asked for the franchise it was said that this would lower her standard of morals, that it was not fit that she should meet with and mix with the members of the opposite sex, but we notice that there was no objection to her meeting with the same members of the opposite sex when she went to church. The church has ever opposed the progress of woman on the ground that her freedom would lead to immorality. We ask the church to have more confidence in women. We ask the opponents of this movement to reverse the methods of the church, which aims to keep women moral by keeping them in fear and in ignorance, and to inculcate into them a higher and truer morality based upon knowledge. And ours is the morality of knowledge. If we cannot trust woman with the knowledge of her own body, then I claim that two thousand years of Christian teaching has proved to be a failure.

We stand on the principle that Birth Control should be available to every adult man and woman. We believe that every adult man and woman should be taught the responsibility and the right use of knowledge. We claim that woman should have the right over her own body and to say if she shall or if she shall not be a mother, as she sees fit. We further claim that the first right of a child is to be desired. While the second right is that it should be conceived in love, and the third, that it should have a heritage of sound health.

Upon these principles the Birth Control movement in America stands.