“Shall We Break This Law?” by Margaret Sanger (1917)

April 5, 2011 | Posted in Essays in America | Tags: ,

Margaret Sanger In a Clinic

Date and location of photograph unknown. Sanger’s nursing career focused on women in poor, inner-city, and immigrant neighborhoods.

In 1916, activist Margaret Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, NY. Sanger chose New York State as the site of this clinic because she wanted to challenge Section 1142 of the New York Statutes which allowed “No one [to] give contraceptive information to anyone for any reason.”

This first issue of Birth Control Review appeared in 1917 while Sanger was serving a thirty-day prison sentence for operating the Brownsville clinic.

Birth Control Review is the second of Sanger’s two major periodicals. The first publication, Woman Rebel, ran for only one year, 1914, due to charges of obscenity under the Comstock Act.

To avoid persecution under the Comstock Act, articles published in Birth Control Review carefully advocated population control and women’s rights but did not print practical information about birth control methods.

Read “Shall We Break This Law?”

Essay’s Form

Sanger’s stated intent for the Birth Control Review was to “introduce a quieter and more scientific tone [than that of Woman Rebel]…we held strictly to education instead of agitation.”

Nevertheless, this piece has the feel of a manifesto by virtue of Sanger’s emotional appeals and hyperbolic language, such as that seen in her argument that involuntary motherhood is “a disease which eats into the very vitals of family life…a disease which brings in its wake poverty, unemployment, child labor, prostitution, war.”

This contradiction could be explained by the essay’s position as the first article in the first issue, making it an important rhetorical tool in rousing interest and recruiting subscribers.

Essay’s Immediate Context

Sanger’s essay is followed by four letters to Sanger and her co-workers from individuals pleading for practical birth control information. In tune with Sanger’s emotional appeals in “Shall We Break This Law?”, these letters contain dramatic and provocative language intended to elicit reader sympathy.

Three of the four letters are from poor individuals. Sanger’s activism arose out of her work as a nurse in New York City in the 1910s, through which she saw the squalid living conditions of the city’s poor who could not afford to support any more children.

Other items in the issue include pieces written by the prominent authors H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. Havelock Ellis, pioneering sexologist and author of Studies in the Psychology of Sex, also penned an article in this issue.

Peppered throughout the issue are quotations from people such as Thomas Nixon Carver (President of the American Economic Association), Helen Keller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The presence of these quotations is presumably to bolster the credibility of the publication and its overarching goals, although the individuals quoted were not necessarily supporters of birth control.

Subsequent Appearances

Sanger’s life and works make frequent appearances in arguments against Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics in general. A recent example of such protests is the Georgia-based TooManyAborted.com campaign which gained national attention with billboards proclaiming “Black children are an endangered species.”

TooManyAborted.com attempts to discredit Sanger and Planned Parenthood on the grounds of Sanger’s eugenicist beliefs. Although TooManyAborted’s argument is overstated and even erroneous, Sanger was nevertheless a eugenicist.

It is worth pointing out that many of the leading thinkers of the day supported the idea, and that Sanger’s beliefs were milder than many; Sanger mainly advocated eugenics through family planning, whereas others promoted euthanasia for people deemed “unfit” to propagate. Alarming as these beliefs are today, they, like “Shall We Break This Law?”, should be evaluated in context with the historical and political climate.

Bibliographical Citation

Sanger, Margaret. “Shall We Break This Law?” Birth Control Review. 1.1 (1917): 4. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.

Works Cited

Bain News Service. Mrs. Margaret Sanger. n.d. Prints and Photographs Div., Lib. of Cong. JPEG file.

“The Mother of Planned Parenthood.” TooManyAborted.com. The Radiance Foundation and Operation Outrage, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.

Sanger, Margaret. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret, Frederick A. Blossom, and Elizabeth Stuyvesant, eds. Birth Control Review. 1.1 (1917). LifeDynamics. Life Dynamics, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.

Text and images: Aimee Wilson.