“An International Tragedy of Overpopulation”
In 1913, IWW founder “Big Bill” Haywood encouraged the Sangers to travel to France to “learn about contraception,” at that time a rising issue among Europe’s far-left feminists. In Paris, the couple spoke with self-identified anarchists who reportedly gave Sanger the first inkling of what became her Birth Control philosophy. For these feminists indoctrinated in Marxism, the inability to control when women conceived fostered “degeneracy, crime, and pauperism” in the struggle between the capitalist and working classes.
Sanger conceived the term “birth control”—the direct predecessor to today’s “planned parenthood”—upon returning to the United States in January 1914. From the start, she had her eye on its propagandistic value: “We tried population control, race control, and birth rate control,” she wrote, “then someone suggested ‘Drop the rate.’ Birth control was the answer; we knew we had it.”
The aim of Birth Control was “to create a race of well born children,” she said, in large part by elevating the “function of motherhood to a position of dignity” and ensuring that children are only “born of the mother’s conscious desire . . . under conditions which render possible the heritage of health.”
Considering her impoverished upbringing, there’s a nugget of truth in Sanger’s ideas. In 1916, the infant mortality rate in America was 99.9 deaths per 1,000 live births; today it’s 5.8. Pregnancy then was vastly more dangerous, too: 70 women died per 10,000 births in 1915, compared to about 1 per 10,000 today.
Sanger’s proposition that women control when they get pregnant is hardly outrageous. But Birth Control philosophy goes far beyond that.
“Feebleminded” was among Sanger’s most-used phrases, and she used it to refer to Americans who could not be trusted to manage their families themselves. That’s the sinister part of Birth Control—arresting what she saw as the “threat of reckless procreation” by using contraceptives and, where necessary, government action up to forced sterilization. Always the counselor, Sanger prescribed contraception for newlyweds, individuals suffering from venereal disease, the insane, and “when the earning capacity of the father was inadequate.”
She even proposed a federal “bureau of application for the unborn” in which authorities would consider the eligibility of married couples to become parents. It was simply shocking to Sanger that “anyone, no matter how ignorant, how diseased mentally or physically, how lacking in all knowledge of children, seemed to consider he or she had the right to become a parent.” (Margaret and Bill Sanger had three children but had little to say about availing themselves of that “right.”)
After World War I and the formation of the League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations), she tried an international approach, lobbying for the League to “include birth control in its program” and requiring “each nation [to] limit its inhabitants to its resources as a fundamental principle of international peace.”
In the 1920s, Sanger lobbied President Calvin Coolidge to form a Federal Birth Control Commission “be given free access to all facts and statistics relative to the racial health of this nation.” By the mid-1930s this idea had blossomed into a “Federal Population Bureau” to be “scientifically equipped and empowered to diagnose the population problems confronting the Nation today, with the aim of formulating a Federal Population policy.”
That failed campaign brought Sanger into conflict with efforts by “Church and State” to encourage large families. Her native Roman Catholic Church in particular was a favorite target. Sanger blamed organized religion for the uninhibited growth in the number of children who are “diseased or feeble-minded” and so destined to become criminals.
To Sanger, Birth Control was a struggle for female liberation from male tyranny, as she wrote in The Birth Control Review, a magazine she edited from 1917 to 1928. “Every attempt woman has made to strike off the shackles of slavery has been met with the argument that such an act would result in the downfall of her morality,” she opined:
We now know that there never can be a free humanity until woman is freed from ignorance, and we know, too, that woman can never call herself free until she is mistress of her own body. Just so long as man dictates and controls the standards of sex morality, just so long will man control the world. Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation [emphasis added].
Sanger continued to develop this theme—that population control is critical to the future of human civilization—across the rest of her life. In a 1955 speech before a conference of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, she declared that “the future of civilization is, in all its phases, dependent upon Planned Parenthood,” which “liberates the potential mother and wife from the despotic decrees of Father State—or Mother Church.”
Her fears of “overpopulation” weren’t confined to America, either. A prolific traveler, Sanger journeyed to Asia and Europe multiple times to hone her arguments. She visited the Netherlands in World War I, concluding from the Dutch health clinics she examined “that a controlled birth rate was as beneficial as I had imagined it might be.”
Of World War I–era Germany, Sanger decided that “the primary cause of this war [World War I] lay in the terrific pressure of population in Germany,” and “the German Government had to do something about the increase of her people. Underneath her rampant militarism, underneath her demand for more colonies was this driving economic force. She could hold no more, and had to burst her bounds.”
After the war, she toured China, where she was simultaneously enchanted with its ancient wisdom and disgusted by its “superabundant breeding”:
Of all lands China needed knowledge of how to control her numbers; the incessant fertility of her millions spread like a plague. Well-wishing foreigners who had gone there with their own moral codes to save her babies from infanticide, her people from pestilence, had actually increased her problem. To contribute to famine funds and the support of [Christian] missions was like trying to sweep back the sea with a broom. China represented the final act in an international tragedy of overpopulation. . . . China, the fountainhead of wisdom, had been brought to the dust by superabundant breeding [emphasis added].