Digital History
How Shall We Change the Law?
Digital History ID 1084

Author:   Margaret Sanger

Annotation: One of her biographers calls her as the most influential American woman of the twentieth century. She coined the phrase “birth control” and opened this country’s first birth control clinic in 1916. Through birth control, she helped alter American sexual behavior, transformed the nature of family life, and expanded women’s role in society.

One of eleven children, Margaret Sanger’s mother died of pulmonary tuberculosis at 43. Sanger blamed her mother’s premature death on the repeated pangs of childbirth.

While still in nursing school, she married William Sanger, an architect and would-be artist. After bearing three children in rapid succession, Sanger overcame her own struggle with tuberculosis, finished school, and began a nursing career. Feeling trapped by married life and determined to achieve her own identity, Margaret plunged into New York’s labor movement. But when male labor leaders refused to add contraception to their reform agenda, Sanger left the labor movement, resolving to make birth control her life’s work.

She opened her birth control clinics in impoverished working class and immigrant neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Her goal was to reduce the economic burdens of unwanted children and to end “back alley” abortions. In a bid to generate support, she also voiced eugenicist arguments: "More children from the fit,” she wrote, “less from the unfit -- that is the chief issue of birth control."

After World War II she helped organize the international Planned Parenthood movement and played a key role in the development of the birth control pill.

At this time, Section 1145 of the New York State Penal Code allowed physicians to distribute contraceptives in those cases in which it would cure or prevent disease. Sanger's bill, described below, would have included nurses in the provision, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. In this article in The Birth Control Review, Sanger proposes an amendment to the law.

Document: Appalling situations revealed every day indicate all too plainly that in cases where women's disease is affected by pregnancy, the medical institutions and clinics of New York State are accomplishing nothing to relieve those disease conditions. Where the disease is tuberculosis, syphilis or some other organic malady which is aggravated by pregnancy, women appeal in vain for instruction concerning contraceptives. Physicians are willing to perform abortions where they are pronounced necessary, but they refuse to direct the use of preventives which would make the abortions unnecessary. The almost invariable reply to the appeals of their women patients is: "I can't do it -- the law does not permit it." Recent inquiries made of physicians leave no doubt as to the accuracy of this statement. Medical practitioners are heavily handicapped -- especially in institutional and public work -- by Section 1142 of the New York State law which prohibits anyone whatsoever from communicating to any person information concerning contraceptives.

Recognizing this condition of affairs and the tremendous evils to individual women, to children and to the whole social body, various groups and organizations have attempted, in the past four or five years, to secure amendments to the law.

Within the Birth Control movement there have been two distinct opinions as to what sort of amendment should be urged. One opinion has favored what has been called the "unlimited bill." This measure would so amend the law as to permit anyone who chose to do so to impart information concerning contraceptives to anyone who wishes it. It would accomplish this end simply by striking the words "prevention of conception" out of Section 1142. The amendment favored by other Birth Control advocates would allow doctors, and possibly mid-wives and nurses, to instruct in the use of contraceptives.

The time has now come to analyze both of these proposed plans and make up our minds finally and definitely which one we should support. In arriving at our conclusion we must consider both what kind of an amendment it is possible to obtain in the present state of public mind, and, most of all, what is "best" for those who are going to apply for the information, once it is made available.

My interest in the proposed amendments is to see American womanhood freed from forced maternity. Which of these bills will best bring about that liberation? How shall this information be given in order that the woman who receives it may be sure of obtaining the results desired? Will this end be served by permitting everyone to give the information regardless of age or condition, physical, mental or economic? Do we desire that everyone, regardless of scientific knowledge, experience or ability, shall have the right to advise as to the use of means preventing conception?

Personally, I object to the so-called "unlimited bill." My objection, however, is not the usual one, that it would increase immorality. I do not believe that a universal knowledge of contraceptives would lead to immorality. On the other hand, I do believe that when instruction in the use of contraceptives is given, it should be given by the kind of persons best suited by training and experience to give it scientifically and accurately. If everyone is permitted to impart information, those who receive it have no guaranty [sic] that it is correct or suitable to the individual's physical requirements. Incorrect, unscientific information may bring good results in some cases, but it is more likely to cause a vast amount of disappointment and anxiety in others.

A bill which would authorize physicians, nurses and midwives to impart information would meet this need. These classes of persons are equipped with the physiological and other knowledge to make the results of contraceptives dependable.

A second point in favor of the Doctor's and Nurse's bill is that it brings the applicant for contraceptives into direct touch with the person giving the information. This, of course, means direct instruction, and specific information suitable to the individual case. It means that the important factors of health, physiological structure, temperament and economic condition can be considered and their requirements accurately met.

A third point that must not be overlooked is that under such a measure it would be possible to get statistics of cases handled, methods applied, and results obtained. Thus there will be no guesswork as to what methods are the most reliable for certain cases. Thus, too, will those who give instruction improve upon present methods and develop new and superior ones. A system of disseminating information which depends largely upon neighbors, friends and kindly relatives is not likely to give the best results. Neither is it likely to improve present methods and develop more desirable ones. I do not believe it to be more advisable to have an amateur instructor in contraceptives than to rely upon an amateur dentist or surgeon.

The legislative bureau of Columbia University, under the direction of Samuel McClure Lindsey, has drawn the following bill, which in a general way, covers the ground indicated:

Sec. 1. Section 1145 of Chapter 88 of the laws of 1909, entitled 'An Act providing for the punishment of crime, constituting Chapter 40 of the Consolidated Laws,' is hereby amended to read as follows:

Physicians' instruments and information. An article or instrument used or applied by physicians lawfully practicing, or by their direction or prescription, for the cure of [sic] prevention of disease, is not an article of indecent or immoral nature or use, within this article. The supplying of such articles to such physicians or by their direction or prescription is not an offense under this article. The giving by a physician or registered nurse lawfully practicing of information or advice in regard to, or the supplying by any person of any article or medicine for, the prevention of conception, is not violation of any provision of this article.

Sec. 2. This Act shall take effect immediately.

With the inclusion of midwives among those authorized to impart the information, I believe that this proposed amendment would be the best possible at this time. It would permit those in institutional and private practice and those in public health work to give freely and without fear of prosecution the information which is sorely needed. These are my personal opinions, based upon my experience as a nurse and in the Birth Control movement. I believe, however, that the more these measures are discussed, the more suggestions are put forward, the better the results achieved in the end. I would suggest, therefore, that those interested, write their views to The Birth Control Review.

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