Margaret H Sanger

Mike Wallace Interview - Sept. 21, 1957

Margaret H Sanger
September 21, 1957
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MIKE WALLACE: Good evening. What you're about to witness is an unrehearsed, uncensored interview on the issue of birth control. It will be a free discussion of an adult topic, a topic that we feel merits public examination.

[Phillip Morris cigarette promotion]

WALLACE: Tonight, we go after the story of the woman who violated convention and bucked powerful opposition to lead the birth control movement in America. You see her behind me, she's Mrs. Margaret Sanger, who was thrown into jail eight different times for her efforts. If you are curious to know why Mrs. Sanger has devoted her life to the birth control movement, if you’d like to hear her answer to the charge that birth control is a sin, and if you want to get her views on politics, divorce and God, we'll go after those stories in just a moment. My guest’s opinions are not necessarily mine, the station’s or my sponsor’s Philip Morris Incorporated, but whether you agree or disagree, we feel that none should deny the rights of these views to be broadcast.

[Phillip Morris cigarette promotion]

WALLACE: When Mrs. Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States back in 1916, birth control was a dirty word. The police threw her into jail as they were to do seven more times during her crusade, a crusade that still faces the reasoning but unalterable opposition of the Roman Catholic Church. That crusade kept Mrs. Sanger away from her children for long periods. It helped to break up her first marriage, and she suffered constant harrowing social abuse. Mrs. Sanger, in view of all of that, let me ask you this first of all. Why did you do it? I realize that you had an intellectual conviction that birth control was a boon to mankind, but I'm sure others have that conviction, too. And so what I would like to know is what events, what emotions in your life made Margaret Sanger a crusader for birth control?

SANGER: Well, Mr. Wallace, it's hard to say that any one thing has made one do this or that. I think from the very beginning, I came from a large family. My mother died young. Eleven children. That made an impression on me as a child. I was a trained nurse. Went among the people. I saw women who asked to have some means whereby they wouldn't have to have another pregnancy too early after the last child, the last abortion, which many of them had. So there are a number of things that were one after another, that really made you feel you had to do something.

WALLACE: There are some other possible reasons that suggest themselves on reading your biography by Lawrence Lader. Your mother died prematurely after bearing eleven children. She was born a Catholic, was she not?

SANGER: She was born a Catholic, yes. In Ireland.

WALLACE: And your father was a sort of a village atheist who clashed with church authorities, and because of his atheism, his earnings dwindled under community pressure. You and your brothers and sisters were known as "children of the devil." Could it be then, that in part at least, you were driven emotionally toward the birth control movement because of antagonism towards the church, because that was a way to fight the church?

SANGER: No, I don't think I had anything of the kind in mind. I was what I could call a born humanitarian. I don't like to see people suffer. I don't like to see cruelty. Even to this day. And in nursing you see a great deal of cruelty and unnecessary suffering. At that time, there was no opposition as far as the church was concerned, any church. It was mainly the law, the federal law and state laws that one had to think of. The church was not in my mind at all.

WALLACE: Well in going after your motive then, and I will press you just a little more about that and then get to the specifics of this evening. But in the movement, is it possible that the movement itself, the feeling of wanting to do anything that you felt was important, that perhaps that moved you a good deal? Because the fact remains that you led a movement against overwhelming pressures that stem back to centuries and in doing so, according to your autobiography, you even left your first husband. And wrote this to a friend, Mrs. Sanger. You said, "Where is the man to give me what the movement gives in joy and interest and freedom?" Now, what was this joy, this freedom that you craved?

SANGER: Well I don't remember that letter or to whom it was written, but I think that it was not a question of marriage at all. There was a certain satisfaction in doing something that was going to alleviate the sufferings of women, in particular, and I was quite a feminist at the time.

WALLACE: Um hum, obviously.

SANGER: And uh, yes. And I naturally didn't want to see women take all the suffering of childbearing and of pregnancies. So it was a pleasure in the sense to think that you were striking at an archaic law, which it was. It was put on the statute books by Anthony Comstock some years ago. And no one had stood up against it and no one had tried to change the laws. At that time, not even a doctor had a right to use the United States mails and common carriers for books, for learning, or anything that had to do with this question. It was considered obscene, the whole question was considered obscene.

WALLACE: Mrs. Sanger, you have helped to spread the birth control movement not only here in the United States, but in Europe and the Orient as well. Why? Why is birth control of such vital importance internationally? Is it just to save women suffering? Is that the only reason in your mind?

SANGER: Well, not entirely. The population question is of great concern today, and the rate at which the births come in to the…we’re saving them now. At one time children died. They didn't have food. Today our population all over the world is getting better certainly consideration and better conditions than they had at the time that I was there. I went to every country because I was invited. I didn't spread going into the country myself. I was invited to Japan to speak there, have eight lectures on the question of birth control and peace.

WALLACE: Well do you believe that birth control is essential if we want to keep millions of people across the world from starving, is that your thesis?

SANGER: Say it again.

WALLACE: Do you feel birth control is essential to keep millions of people across the world from starving?

SANGER: Well, I think the birth control were to keep the population more or less static until you pick up your resources, certainly, you prevent their starving.

WALLACE: What's more important? Birth control or picking up the resources?

SANGER: Well, picking up the resources, there is just a limit to that, too. There is just so much that Japan…and she cannot feed. They’ve had the best experts come there, when MacArthur was there. The best experts say they have 20 million more people than they can feed. She's got to be fed outside in some way. She's got to have that kind of help if she is going to keep from fighting.

WALLACE: But certainly around the world there is, uh, there is potential agricultural land that is not being properly used now. Just this past year on May 21 the New York Times summarized an important study of the world's food resources made by Professor James Bonner of the California Institute of Technology. Professor Bonner says the world is not using 1 billion acres of potential agricultural land and he adds that if this land were used and present agricultural land were improved the entire world could be fed adequately even if the population increased by one-third in the next 50 years.

SANGER: Oh, Mr. Wallace, you hear so many fantastic things of what can happen, what may happen, this and that. I've heard it for the last 30 years anyway, to what could be done, but it's never done. And the thing, is what is it now? What have we got today? A very distinguished woman spoke to me about Arizona and she said, “I wish you wouldn't talk about population.” She said all the population of the United States can be put in one state. And I said, “What state?” She said, “Arizona.” I said, “Did you ever hear of caliche?” She didn't know that I was talking about, the delicatessen or what. I said, “Well, caliche is harder than any rock and it is about 3 inches below the ground where…it looks beautiful. It looks if you could have food. It looks if you could have corn or wheat or cotton. But as a matter of fact you have to dynamite caliche out of the ground in order to have a little shrub, a little grass or a few flowers. So there's many problems that when it comes to that. And the demographers—I never heard of anyone that would agree with that, that we could have another in the world, another third another third.

WALLACE: You say that originally the opposition was in all law and you had to fight against that. Today your opposition stems mainly from where? From what source?

SANGER: Well, I think that the opposition is mainly from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

WALLACE: Of the church.

SANGER: Of the hierarchy.

WALLACE: Of the hierarchy of the church. You feel that the parishioners themselves, the lay people in the church, are not against birth control?

SANGER: I feel they come to all of our clinics just the same as the non-Catholics do, exactly the same.

WALLACE: Well let's look at the official Catholic position—opposition to birth control. I read now from a church publication called the Question Box. In forbidding birth control, it says the following. It says the immediate purpose and primary end of marriage is the begetting of children. When the marital relation is so used as to render the fulfillment of its purposes impossible—that is by birth control—it is used unethically and unnaturally. Now what's wrong with that position?

SANGER: Well, it's very wrong. It's not normal. It's got the wrong attitude toward marriage, toward love, toward the relationships between men and women.

WALLACE: Well the natural law, they say, is that first of all the primary function of sex in marriage is to beget children. Don't…. Do you disagree with that?

SANGER: I disagree with 100 percent.

WALLACE: Your feeling is what?

SANGER: My feeling is love and the attraction between men and women, in many cases the very finest relationship, has nothing to do with bearing a child. It's secondary. Many, many times—we know that. You see your birth rate, you talk to people who are very happy marriages and they're not having babies every year. Yes, I think that's a celibate attitude.

WALLACE: A celibate attitude, but you agree that Catholicism, according to the tenants of Catholicism, they rule that birth control violates not only the church's position—it isn't the church's position—but they say that it violates a natural law, as I have just explained, therefore birth control is a sin, no matter who practices it. Now, the violation of the natural law according certainly can take no issue with the natural law as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church regards it.

SANGER: Well, I certainly do take issue with it. I think it's untrue and I think it's unnatural.

WALLACE: Well let me ask you…

SANGER: I think it bears out that it is an unnatural attitude to take, and how do they know? I mean, after all, they're celibates. They don't know love. They don't know marriage. They know nothing about bringing up children or any of the marriage problems of life. And yet they speak to people as if they were God.

WALLCE: Let me let me ask you this question. Suppose a healthy, a well-to-do couple decide for some reason never to have children, use birth control all their lives. Would you say that your methods are being misused, Mrs. Sanger?

SANGER: Not if they were intelligent people and they had some reason for thinking of children as a responsibility or some disease that they might have that they wouldn't like to pass on to a child, and I think it would be a very unselfish attitude for them to take if their was a disease.

WALLACE: No, I said a healthy, well-to-do couple, a couple that just doesn't want children and for that reason they use birth control all the way. Do you think that that is a misuse of your methods?

SANGER: I don't think it's a misuse. I think if they're intelligent adults, that they must know what they want. They must manage their lives themselves. And certainly there's nothing birth control, than there is in other things that you might deny yourself.

WALLACE: I've asked you your motives a little while ago at the beginning of the Program, your motives in working for birth control as hard as you have for as many years as you have. You reject the principal Catholic argument against birth control as being totally invalid. What do you think is the reason, the motive of the church, in forbidding birth control?

SANGER: You'd have to ask the Catholic that. I couldn't say what the motive is.

WALLCE: Well, you couldn't say officially what their motive is, but you certainly must have an opinion about it, Mrs. Sanger.

SANGER: Well, I'm…. I don't have much to do with the hierarchy. And I know that the people that come to our organization and want to have the same methods or whatever it is that one can have to prevent a pregnancy, that those women will say to us…we ask their religion, very often…and they say, “I am a Catholic. I was raised in the Catholic church. This…my church is wrong on this. This is the one thing. I will never be anything else but my church is wrong in this one thing.” And that is said over and over and over again. So what the motive is…

WALLACE: But you won’t hazard a guess?

SANGER: I don't care to, thank you.

WALLCE: May I ask you why? Now, I know that in private and in actually in public discussions, I think, prior to this time you have been willing to state your understanding of what the motives of the church are, and now you would rather remain silent. May I ask you why?

SANGER: Well, simply because I don't think that the church has changed in its attitude. Some of the hierarchy have changed their attitude. You can't say the same thing that you might have said a year ago or two years ago, as to your belief, as to your opinion.

WALLACE: Have you heard it said that the reason that the church is against birth control is because they want more Catholics?

SANGER: I've read it.

WALLACE: Do you believe it?

SANGER: Well, they…if you read their papers, where they point out Boston, that that's what has happened in Boston, in Massachusetts, they have simply outbred the Protestants and they're, they, in Boston, in Massachusetts, they have control. I've read that in their own papers.

WALLACE: Of course the church's answer, and I read now from a pamphlet published by the Redemptorist Fathers in Missouri, says as follows, it says that point of view about wanting more Catholics is nonsense. Quote: The Catholic church does not command Catholic husbands and wives to have even one child. The church considers it more than normally meritorious for them to have no children if they mutually and perpetually give up the use of the marriage right for the love of God.

SANGER: All right. I don't quote what they what they do. So they…I think that the question in my mind is that they do order their own people to do as they wish. But I object to their having the same rules for people who are not the same religion.

WALLACE: Well they believe, you see, that it is a natural law not a Catholic law but a natural law and therefore a sin not just for Catholics but a sin for all peoples. And I think that there are other religious groups—the very, very Orthodox Jews feel the same way about birth control. Let's look at another argument against birth control, Mrs. Sanger, published in Redbook magazine in March of 1956. It says birth control is a devastating social force which tends to weaken the moral fiber of the community. Immunity from parenthood encourages promiscuity, particularly when unmarried persons can so easily avail themselves of the devices. Do you doubt that?

SANGER: I doubt that.

WALLCE: You do?

SANGER: Certainly.

WALLACE: Then let me read from a news story in the Philadelphia Daily News on June 10, 1942. The story quotes you as urging the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps to give its members, quote, preventive measures against pregnancy, end quote. And you add, quote, abortion and illegitimacy are bound to result if the government doesn't recognize human nature, end quote. In other words, you were not advocating Christian morality but rather ways for single women to avoid bearing illegitimate children.

SANGER: Where was this taken from?

WALLACE: Philadelphia Daily News, June 10, 1942. Direct quote from Margaret Sanger.

SANGER: I doubt it. I don't believe I ever made such remark.

WALLACE: Well. In this same vein, in your autobiography—which you cannot disavow—you wrote the Following about sexologist Havelock Ellis. You said he's been able to clarify the question of sex and free it from the smudginess connected with it from the beginning of Christianity. Now what do you mean by the smudginess connected with sex and why do you blame it on Christianity?

SANGER: Well, there's many reasons, of course, to say we have more records of it to go on with Christianity, and I think I was speaking of Havelock Ellis as having clarified the question of homosexuals, making the thing not exactly a perverted thing but a thing that a person is born with—different kinds of eyes, different kinds of a structure and so forth. He didn't make all homosexuals perverts, and I felt that he helped clarify that to the medical profession and to the scientist of the world, perhaps one of the first ones to do that. That was one of the things that I meant in that.

WALLACE: Mrs. Sanger, do you disagree that Catholics, or do you do you feel that Catholics should not have a right to have a say when a city administration contemplates spending their tax dollars on birth control or the dissemination of birth control information, something that Catholics believe is sinful?

SANGER: That they have a right to say what they…?

WALLACE: Do you feel that they don't have a right to have a say when a city administration contemplates spending their dollars tax dollars on birth control? For instance, here in New York Catholics comprise about 45% of our population. They're the largest single group. Well don't you think they should have the democratic right to lobby against having their money spent, their tax money spent for something that they consider evil?

SANGER: Well I suppose they have a right. They certainly do it. But so have the others. If they're only 45% of the population, that's, that is not the majority.

WALLCE: But they have a right to get up and…

SANGER: Certainly. I have no objection to their having a say. But I think we could have the same right. I say we, I mean non-Catholics.

WALLACE: Well, of course this is a little bit at variance with something that you told our reporter earlier this week. You said earlier this week, it's not only wrong it should be made illegal for any religious group to prohibit dissemination of birth control even among its own members. In other words, you would like to see the government legislate religious beliefs, in a certain sense.

SANGER: Where do these strange things that I said to them is what I should like to know, when…

WALLACE: Well now, you know that my reporter spent a good deal of time with you. He's a very accurate young man….

SANGER: Yes, so am I.

WALLACE: And this is a this is a this is a specific quote.

SANGER: Well, I don’t think I said it quite that way.

WALLCE: What are your religious beliefs, Mrs. Sanger? Do you believe in a God in the sense of a divine being who rewards or punishes people after death?

SANGER: Well, I have a different attitude about uh the divine. I feel that we have divinity with within us, and the more we express the good part of our lives, the more the divine within us expresses itself. I suppose I would call myself Episcopalian, by religion. And there's uh many other, if you travel around the world, you get quite a bit of the feeling of all religions have so much alike in the divine part of our own being. And I suppose you just couldn't put that in a book or you couldn't put it to a phrase or a sentence.

WALLACE: Do you believe in sin? When I say believe, I don't mean believe in committing sin. Do you believe there is such a thing as a, as sin?

SANGER: Well, I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being, practically—delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things, just marked when they're born. That to me is the greatest sin that people can commit.

WALLACE: But sin in the ordinary sense that we regard it—do you believe or do you not believe?

SANGER: Well what? What would they be?

WALLACE: Do you believe that infidelity is a sin?

SANGER: Well, I'm not going to specify what I think is sin. I've stated what I think is the worst sin…

WALLACE: But then you asked me to say what, and I said what, and you refuse to answer me?

SANGER: Ah yes, I don't know about infidelity. It has so many personalities to it and what person's own belief is. You can't…I couldn't generalize on any of those things as being sin.

WALLACE: Murder is a sin?

SANGER: Well, I naturally think murder, whether it's a sin or not, is a terrible act.

WALLACE: In just a moment, Mrs. Sanger, I'd like to ask you about another social problem here in the United States—divorce. Nearly 400,000 couples get divorced in this country each year and I'd like to get your views on the cause and possible prevention of this problem. And we'll get Mrs. Sanger's answer to that question in just 60 seconds.

[Phillip Morris cigarette promotion]

WALLCE: Now then, Mrs. Sanger, there are nearly 400,000 divorces or annulments in America each year. What—and this is hard to do in the short time, of course, that we have—what would you recommend to cut down our divorce rate?

SANGER: Well as a great many of our clinics are including in the work that they do in birth control clinics, having marriage counseling. So when the woman or the man come and complain of their marriage on the skids, we invite them to come and have special talks with some of our psychiatrists or others who are making a study of that. All over the country, where we have about 500 clinics, they almost all include marriage counseling and marriage erection.

WALLACE: May I, may I ask you this: could it be that women in the United States have become too independent, that they've followed the lead of women like Margaret Sanger by neglecting family life for a career? Let me quote from your biography describing your second marriage to Noah Slee. Quote: In New York, Mrs. Sanger maintained every clause of their compact of independence. They had separate apartments. They telephoned each other for dinner or theater engagements or passed notes back and forth. Would you call this a sound formula for marriage, Mrs. Sanger?

SANGER: Different people, yes. It certainly was for me and for my husband. We had a very happy marriage. Consulting. He had different friends than I had and uh I don't believe in forcing the…well, we were two adults…and uh forcing your friends on another person who may have an entirely different outlook. It worked out very well.

WALLACE: I know that it did. You have two sons—one final question. You have two sons. How many children have they?

SANGER: Would you like to see them?

WALLACE: I would indeed.

SANGER: [laughing and passing a photo to Wallace]

WALLACE: How many children—six in this family?

SANGER: Five boys, a girl in that family.

WALLACE: And in the other family?

SANGER: Two girls.

WALLACE: Two girls

SANGER: Um hmm.

WALLACE: Mrs. Sanger, I thank you so much for taking time out and coming and talking to us here this evening…

SANGER: And Mr. Wallace, I've never smoked but I'm going to begin to take up smoking and use Philip Morris as my, as the cigarette for me to take.

WALLACE: Well I thank you very much, Mrs. Sanger. [both laughing]

SANGER: Indeed.

WALLACE [to the camera]: In the eyes of some, Margaret Sanger has been a heroine. In the eyes of others, she's been a destructive force. The purpose of this interview has been not, of course, to try resolve this issue but to open it to a little sensible discussion. This was done with the feeling that all of us, regardless of our beliefs, can do nothing but profit from a free exchange of ideas. I'll bring you a run-down on next week's interview in just sixty seconds or so.

[Phillip Morris cigarette promotion]

Harry Ranson Center. "Interview with Margaret Sanger."

“Mike Wallace Interview with Margaret Sanger.” C-SPAN video. Sept. 21, 1957.