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In most of the United States prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the medical abortion of a pregnancy was a relatively rare occurrence; although they are incomplete, the records we do have indicate that prior to 1840, the vast majority of such abortions were obtained by young, unmarried, or poor women—women, in other words, without likely prospects of being able to raise the child as their own. After 1840, the statistics shift, indicating a rise in medical abortions in the first term among married women in the upper-middle and upper classes. In The Unwelcome Child (1850), Henry C. Wright (1897–1970) blamed the increase on “selfishly sensual husbands,” but in fact, the extant court records show that husbands and wives were in agreement on the decision to use abortion as a form of birth control during this period. Nevertheless, the increase in medical abortions among “respectable” women was seen as a social problem of tremendous significance, with the eventual result that Congress passed the Comstock Law restricting access to information about abortion and other forms of birth control in 1873.
By 1880, most states had passed abortion laws outlawing the procedure after “quickening,” or the moment the woman first felt the fetus move (about the middle of the pregnancy). States also passed a variety of related laws “medicalizing” childbirth (and thus removing it from the purview of female midwives). Medical oversight of childbirth did little to relieve its dangers to women. By the turn of the twentieth century, 1 mother died for every 154 live births (taking into consideration the fact that most women would have 4 or 5 children over the course of their lives, this works out to mean roughly 1 in every 30 women died from complications related to childbirth). As a nurse, Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) attended many such tragic scenes; mourning the needless loss of life and the toll on the family left behind, Sanger began to use her medical training to educate women on ways to avoid pregnancy. She was arrested multiple times for violating anti–birth control laws, but continued to speak and to publish on the literal life-or-death consequences of depriving women of the ability to manage their reproductive destiny.
Source: “Voluntary Motherhood,” National Birth Control League, 1917, Library of Congress Microfilm, LCM 131:104 .
Birth control when based on the theory of voluntary motherhood becomes the new moral standard and social principle which shall be the foundation of a new glorified womanhood.
Long has woman been called the gentler and weaker half of humankind; long has she borne the brunt of unwilling motherhood; long has she been the stepping-stone of oligarchies, kingdoms, and man-made democracies; too long have they thrived on her enslavement. The time has come at last when she demands her physical and spiritual freedom—and her liberty.
When woman becomes conscious of her ego, her inner self, then shall she become a pivot in the world’s advanced thought, and shall hold within her hands the reins of human destiny. Those who have opposed her development and progress are simply those who refuse to accept this new moral standard for her.
They do not realize that birth control, which shall place woman in possession of her own body, is an epoch-making process in racial development.
They do not realize that this new social principle, born out of the hearts and desires of womankind, shall be the medium to bring to the light of day the sorrows and sufferings that have afflicted humanity; and shall point the way to their elimination.
Those who have opposed birth control have overlooked the fact that woman alone has endured the pangs of childbirth, and has gone into the Valley of the Shadow of Death for every baby born.
For centuries she has populated the earth in ignorance and without restraint, in vast numbers and with staggering rapidity. She has become not the mother of a nobler race but a mere breeding machine grinding out a humanity which fills insane asylums, feeble-minded institutions, hospitals, and penitentiaries, and provides cannon fodder that despots and tyrants may rise in power on the sacrifice of her offspring.
Now in this very day we witness a world tragedy unequalled in all time. We see the flower of European manhood sacrificed on the altar of Tyranny. We see the nations of Europe on bended knee, begging, imploring, crying to woman, using every subterfuge to induce her to breed again in the old-time submission to man-made laws.
To all these entreaties the Modern Woman answers: No!
She denies the right of the state or kingdom to hereafter make her a victim of unwilling motherhood.
We hear so much of sacred motherhood. Have the forces of oppression ever cared for her poignant grief? Have they not turned in callous indifference from her tears while her flesh and blood reddened every battlefield in history?
There are statues in plenty to kings, statesmen, and generals who have led her sons off to the universal shambles of slaughter. But where are the monuments to Motherhood?
Woman is bearing the result of her ignorance of birth control.
She is bearing it in the fact of poverty, in the fact of unemployment, in the fact of emigration, in the fact of maternal and infantile mortality. The whole history of the world is on her side. The side of ownership over her own body and birth control.
The history of labor is the history of an ever-unsuccessful effort on the part of man to bring his productive ability as a worker up to the same level as his reproductive ability.
It has been a losing battle all the way.
Of course, under the pressure of hungry mouths asking to be fed, miracles have been done in relieving distress, through charities and philanthropies, but never has the actual cause been touched, never have we been able to secure peace, never to provide plenty, never to fully satisfy the demand, never have we been free from disease, misery, and crime.
With the millions yearly spent upon these bottomless pits called charities, never once has anyone attempted to cure the disease. They have treated with the symptoms, but the deadly disease has been allowed to spread underneath.
It was the reproductive capacity of mankind that produced the first poverty; it created want; it goaded mankind into industrial frenzy, into theft and warfare.
It is the big battalions of undesired babies that have made of human life an endless burden of heavy work and misery.
The world is full of undesired babies, and every undesired baby represents a terrible infringement of the personal rights of a mother. Women do not desire to spend the whole of their adult lives in bringing children into the world.
They yield only because of ignorance of how to prevent it. They do not know how reproduction can be avoided; when they do seek for medical advice they are told that laws prevent their getting it.
For moral turpitude and human indifference it shall remain a dark chapter in the annals of the American medical profession that physicians have not availed themselves of knowledge to give relief to these poor women that they may be saved from too frequent childbearing and saved from the horrors of frequent abortions.
When we view it as an institution, I feel it has done more than any other single body to prolong the misery and degradation of womankind.
What has been the result? Owing to our obscenity laws and the stubborn silence of the medical profession we have the appalling spectacle of 250,000 abortions performed every year in this country, while it is said over 50,000 deaths result therefrom. No other country in the world has so large a number of abortions, nor so large a number of deaths resulting from abortions, as the United States.
No other country has produced so large a number of quacks and abortionists who feed on these unfortunate women, on their ignorance produced by these archaic and inhuman laws.
For no other country in the world except the United States makes it a crime to impart information to prevent conception.
The originator of these laws has long since passed from public notice, but his work remains, forty years after, a living monument to ignorance and oppression seemingly to wreak out vengeance upon womankind.
My experience as a trained nurse convinced me that these laws are the most outrageous piece of legislation on the statute books today. What was the motive of those who framed these laws? Were they not inspired by narrow religious morality and bigotry?
Were they not the outcome of those who aspire to be our moral censors? Are they not enforced by the most cruel and unintelligent censorship and exercise of police power in the annals of the state? Have they not remained on the statute books and been unassailed since their inception? And have not the legislature, medical profession, and courts maintained a deathlike silence while the inhuman slaughter of the innocents has gone on?
My constant thought was: How can I arouse the people, and the women of this country especially, to what I know so that these laws will be challenged and changed?
I felt so powerless. I had no influence, no money, few friends. I had only one way of making myself heard. I felt as one would feel if, on passing a house which one saw to be on fire and knew to contain women and children unaware of their danger, one realized that the only entrance was through a window. Yet there was a law and a penalty for breaking windows. Would any one of you hesitate, if by so doing you could save a single life?
In trying to test the constitutionality of this law, every barrier was placed in my way and that of my attorneys. Medical testimony of four physicians was refused, who wished to state that there are thousands of women today suffering from tuberculosis, pelvic deformities, heart disease, etc., to whom pregnancy would mean almost certain death, but whose lives might be saved and their health preserved through knowledge of how to prevent conception. Mrs. Byrne and I were denied the privilege of paying a fine pending the decision of our appeal and were ruthlessly cast into prison like the lowest cutthroat and degraded prostitute. There was no consideration shown us or understanding of what we were trying to do. No recognition that we are both married women and mothers of children. No recognition of the pains we took to give the information in a private place, by word of mouth and to mothers only. No recognition of the congested neighborhood, and the need in it for family limitation, or the women who testified of their distress and poverty and horror of pregnancy, and of the great relief and help and new hope in life that the clinic brought to them. The spirit of the Inquisition reigned supreme in the court and held a piece of parchment more sacred than human life, womanhood, and motherhood.
I hope you will see with me that this statute, and all such statutes, is against all the demands of modern thought and civilization.
Women of America: Have we not paid for it? Has not the poor woman especially paid for it? Has she not staggered under its inhuman mandate? Has she not paid for it in high infant mortality? Has she not paid for it in child labor?
Have we not paid for it by the multiplication of the unfit? By the diseased? By the feeble minded? And by the hordes of unwanted babies? Have we not paid for it in the widespread practice of abortion? In untold misery? It is time for us to awaken.
Far back upon the road of today millions of women are trudging along overburdened with too many children, bowed, bent, broken, they stumble along. They call to you to listen to their piteous cry. What will your answer be?
- 1. Ethel Higgins Byrne (1883–1955) was Margaret Sanger’s sister and co-worker.