The Responsibilities of Birth Control


THE use of contraceptives as a means for regulating birth is a practice which is now endorsed, I believe, by an overwhelming majority of American citizens. This fact may turn out to be more important for the future of our civilization than any other current event, not exclusive of the ominous threat to civilization itself which inheres in the irrationalism of European power politics.

The practice of birth control by means of contraceptives sold at exorbitant prices was, of course, fairly widespread long before the arrival of public sanctions. The semi-underground contraceptive industry utilized 300,000 retail distributing units offering for sale more than 2000 varieties of devices for which it received an income of a quarter-billion dollars a year. Although this vast industry has operated with one eye closed to legality, it seems clear that it was meeting a genuine need. Why, then, do I attach so much importance to the fact that the need and the practice have been accorded public recognition and endorsement?

My initial explanation may, perhaps, call for a slight indulgence from my readers: a teacher of philosophy is likely to shout for joy whenever reason conquers prejudice or intelligence catches up with action. He may receive as much pleasure on such an occasion as another might when witnessing the victory of his favorite racing horse. He, the philosopher, knows that his ‘horse,’ reason, is handicapped from the very start. When the human digestive mechanism is asked to assimilate two conflicting chemical substances it rebels. The victim who has committed the error hears about the rebellion in short order; he gets a stomachache. When, however, as an educator has recently complained, the same individual entertains two conflicting ideas, he does not get a headache. He may go on for years without even knowing that a dilemma is living within him.

A community will, of course, suffer eventually if too many of its citizens refuse to resolve their intellectual conflicts. Our society has already paid too heavy a price for its prejudicial attitude toward birth control. So long as the sale of contraceptives remained a ‘bootleg’ enterprise, nobody could be honest about it. The manufacturer, the distributor, and the consumer were all involved in a conspiracy. It thus happened that only those who were equipped to play this furtive game, either by reason of their ability to pay or because of their willingness to violate the code (usually both), could become the beneficiaries of a device which would allow them to engage in sexual relationships without assuming the responsibility of reproduction. Those who could afford to do so did, of course, participate in this conspiracy, because the alternatives had become unbearable.

But at last a clean shaft of light has thrust itself into this murky, subterranean stratum of human affairs. Five hundred birth-control clinics are now operating in the United States. A Circuit Court of Appeals has rendered a decision to the effect that birth control when administered by a member of the medical profession is legal. One state, North Carolina, has included birth control as a regular part of its publichealth service. The attitude of medical societies, hitherto skeptical or hostile, has in recent years become increasingly favorable. All save two of the great religious bodies have added their sanctions. Social workers, nurses, and psychiatrists speak with increasing boldness on behalf of legalized birth control. A recent poll of American women living in both urban and rural areas and belonging to both Protestant and Catholic churches revealed the startling fact that seventy-nine out of every hundred are frankly and positively in favor of birth control.

These various advances have now become cumulative and tend to move forward with acceleration. A great movement of social reform has achieved a momentous victory and has thereby come to a crucial point.

In the past, human reproduction has been controlled by war, by disease and pestilence, or by famine and poverty. Henceforth reproduction may be determined by voluntary choice on the part of those who desire parenthood. We now have in our hands a fateful instrument which, if properly used, will inevitably reduce diseases among mothers and children, diminish the number of unwanted children, increase marital happiness, and lift family life to a new level of conscious satisfaction and enjoyment. These are significant prospects, but the most important implication of this great gain is still to be mentioned — namely, we are now in possession of aninstrument which may he used for the purpose of determining the quality of our future population.

It is fortunately true that the leaders of the birth-control movement, and especially undaunted Margaret Sanger, are aware of the fact that they now confront a new task. Those who dedicate their lives to a war against injustice and engage in the long and ever-recurrent struggle on behalf of human rights are frequently discarded as leaders at the very moment of victory. Their methods, especially their habits of combat, are often found to be incompatible with the enterprise of translating an ideal into social practice. The qualities of the ardent reformer and the patient educator are rarely found in harmonious combination in the make-up of the same person. If the birth-control movement is now to become a constructive force, an ally which democracy may utilize for the purpose of improving its human stock, leadership of a high calibre will be required.


The victory thus far achieved gives no warrants to the future. In its simplest terms it merely means that parents are now free to bring children into the world by design and not by accident. This is a victory on the side of freedom. Similar triumphs over fear, superstition, suppression, and slavery have been recorded in the past without a corresponding fulfillment of the promises of the reformers. Freedom to vote has not served as an adequate guarantor for the perpetuation of democratic institutions. A free system of public education gives no assurances of deepened wisdom. Freedom of speech and press may give truth a fairer field against falsehood, but does not compel to virtue. Freedom, alas, is the most precious and the most hazardous of man’s possessions. Without freedom he is less than man, but with it he must either rise above humanity’s common capacities or be consumed by its weaknesses. To be free from restraint is a negative attainment. To be free for the exercise of new functions and the assumption of fresh responsibilities is, on the contrary, an achievement that opens the gateway that may lead to creative experience.

What, then, are the new responsibilities to be assumed by those who have shared in birth control’s victory?

Apparently, man’s progress may be measured by his successive conquests over fear, but it is equally apparent that fear itself is never vanquished. When a majority of American citizens express approval of birth control we may infer that they have overcome those fears which previously held them to opposition. But the moment one set of fears is abandoned another begins to creep in to take its place. Since this essay is being written as a prelude to the future and not as history, I shall not recount those fears, misgivings, and superstitions which have so long and so stubbornly resisted the birth-control movement. The new fears are already showing above the horizon of public discussion, and the more important ones seem to be that legalized birth control will lead to (a) race suicide and family disintegration, (b) increased sexual promiscuity, especially among youth, and (c) a reduction in economic productivity.

The first of these fears deserves special attention. It has now become a part of popular knowledge that our population is no longer increasing at anything like its former rates. Indeed it appears that, if present trends continue, our population will have become static at approximately the year 1970. In this respect the United States is following a tendency which seems to characterize the whole of western civilization. The birth rate has been going downward in all European countries regardless of whether or not birth control has been legally sanctioned. A comparison between Ireland, where birth control is discouraged, and Holland, where it has long enjoyed public approval, reveals that the birth rate is actually higher in the latter country by a slight margin and the increase of births over deaths (the real test of a nation’s vitality) is more than double.

Those who believe in a high birth rate and large families should be reminded that high birth rates are invariably associated with high death rates. An increased population attained by means of a high birth rate and a correspondingly high death rate is exceedingly costly, both in terms of monetary costs and in terms of those immeasurable deficits which register themselves in chronic illness, in increased feeble-mindedness, in infant mortality, and in human misery in general.

All that may be said judiciously with respect to the current decline in the birth rate is that the cause lies much deeper than the means employed. The use of contraceptives may aid those who wish to prevent reproduction in carrying out their will in a more scientific manner, but it cannot be demonstrated that the existence of contraceptives is in and of itself the cause of this decline. Nor can it be successfully claimed that the legal use of contraceptives is a greater invitation to the limitation of birth than illegal practices, especially when abortions are added to the latter item. My deep-seated conviction is that the impulse to reproduce is as strong as ever it was, and that the dominant causes of decline in the birth rate are to be found in the realm of economics, politics, and science.

Young married couples who have acquired some knowledge concerning health and hygiene are determined to produce fewer but better children. Now that they know that better children may be produced through proper spacing, and that this procedure gives greater assurance for the mother’s health, they proceed to practise birth control for these purposes. But with this knowledge available they will still refuse to reproduce if they are convinced that wars are imminent or that economic scarcity will prevent them from giving their offspring a proper and decent rearing. When a group of seniors in one of our women’s colleges were asked recently if it was their intention to become mothers, over half replied that they intended to marry but saw no sense in bringing more children ‘into this kind of world.’

The acid test which needs to be applied to those who still oppose birth control and demand large families is this: do they also and with equal fervor strive to bring about greater economic justice, a better distribution of income, and a higher standard of living? If they are found wanting in these respects, I see no reason for granting the motive of sincerity to their anti-birth-control sentiments.

The second fear — namely, that legalized birth control will increase promiscuity — is usually entertained by adults and is directed towards youth. What they mean, presumably, is that when the fear of conception is removed young people will have no remaining restraint to check their sex impulses. By the same token one may assume that nothing should be done about venereal diseases because the fear of infection will keep young people from sex indulgence. Not only is this argument, I believe, unsound as logic, but it also reflects anoffensive degree of unwholesomeness in the adult mind. Again, I should like to test the sincerity of these critics. Do they not know that young people with a will may now purchase contraceptives at drug stores, in poolrooms, and even at gasoline filling stations? Do they not know that commercialized prostitution subsists primarily on the patronage of married men?

One of the real aims of the birthcontrol movement is to bring more truth into the realm of sex experience, to lift it from the cellar of people’s minds and place it in the upper air where the sunlight may shine upon it. This can never happen so long as people who consider themselves ‘good’ continue to regard it with fear, secretiveness, and envy, while the less good degrade it to the level of vice and vulgarity. A decent society will inform young people about the facts of sex; it will instruct them with respect to its biological, psychological, and social importance; and it will then point out the latent æsthetic and spiritual potentialities which may flow from a healthy sex experience. Having done this, society must then have faith and confidence that youth will find its own way, so far as a faulty world allows.


The last of the above-mentioned fears deserves a more considered appraisal. We are now living in the midst of an economic dislocation which is worldwide in its consequences. This depression is stubborn and recalcitrant, refusing to respond to the usual remedies which have hitherto brought alleviation. It is, in fact, the first modern depression which has coincided with a declining birth rate, and, with respect to the United States, with a decrease of immigration. Is it not reasonable, therefore, to infer that the declining birth rate may be in itself one of the causes, if not of the initial depression, then at least of its chronic prolongation? Should the answer to this query be affirmative, is it not then logical to assume that we should adopt policies which will quickly increase our population?

My own inclination is to raise this question in another form, and with a positive rather than a negative weighting. For example, a legitimate inquiry inclusive of the above fear but transcending the fear incentive might be stated thus: Is there an optimum population toward which a nation might aim in view of its natural and technological resources? In other words, should population planning become an integral part of social and economic planning? I have no hesitancy at this point: my response is positive and affirmative. This way of putting the question furnishes us at once with a new series of fascinating considerations and paves the way for a reasonable resolution between eugenics and economics.

The initial project required is an inventory of productive capacity, and happily several attempts have already been made in this direction. Once we have relatively accurate knowledge concerning the number of persons who might be well nourished, decently clothed, and satisfactorily housed on the basis of our material resources, we may then decide how near this optimum we wish to aspire. Our next responsibility would be to set in motion an educational program which would help married couples to decide how many children they should bring into existence, and at this point we should be obliged to take into consideration such factors as whether or not they really want children, the safe number to plan for in terms of the mother’s and the children’s health, and the probable earning capacity of the family.

Would such a program, designed to equate population with material resources, solve our economic dilemma and lead us automatically toward the abundant life? Alas, no. The above plan completely evades the problem of how to transform our current economy of scarcity into an economy of plenty. I have merely stated that it is my belief the United States could pursue a plan of this kind and that I should like to see us do so.

Before we can take the step from an unplanned scarcity to a planned plenty, a change must take place in our minds with respect to economic theory comparable to the change concerning birth control, a manifestation of social change which this essay celebrates. I happen to be a person — in the minority, no doubt — who believes that a psychological transformation of this variety is possible and need not wait upon revolution. A portion of this belief is patently supported by wishful thinking, plus a grave doubt regarding the real benefits of revolutions achieved through violence. I may, however, claim another source of realistic support. In Denmark, Finland, Holland, and Sweden, conscious family planning and legalized birth control have evolved happily, alongside increasingly stable and more equitable economic systems.

The most startling fact concerning a civilization activated primarily by science and technology is this: once natural controls and balances have been disturbed, there must follow a continuing expansion of conscious control. Economic planning and social planning are not fanciful notions emanating from the minds of academic theorists; these are imperatives imposed upon us by reason of the fact that automatic or natural controls no longer operate.

If we utilize science for purposes of bringing the light topsoils of the West into cultivation and do not at the same time exercise increased control, the result will inevitably be the disappearance of soil fertility. If we allow our natural resources to be exploited freely by modern methods of engineering, the consequence will be depletion and serious topographical dislocation. Likewise, if we bring contraceptives into widespread use as a means of scientific birth control and do not quickly educate young people for family life and parenthood, and also furnish such economic security as will make these normal functions inviting, the result may easily be a further decline in the birth rate. It is still my contention, however, that the primary cause of decline will be unsettled economic, social, and political conditions and not the wider use of contraceptives. Under these circumstances, birth control will merely have become an added facility for carrying out a purpose precipitated by external conditions.


If my argument is thus far sound, it appears that the coming strategy for those who have struggled for the right of married persons to determine whether or not they are to reproduce is to identify themselves henceforth with two other liberal movements — namely, economic reform and progressive education. With respect to economic reform it seems to me undeniably clear that our only hope of establishing a satisfactory productive system is to increase the purchasing power of low-income families. One of the few effective methods for achieving this aim in a non-regimented society is by means of powerful tradeunion organizations. If, then, the ardent birth-control advocate does not also assist in making trade-unions more effective, he may be accused not merely of a logical fallacy, but also of having brought into universal use a good instrument which may be used for destructive ends.

If birth control is now to become an integral part of the larger struggle for human progress and is to associate itself with those who insist that economic planning and social planning have become conditions of our survival, its sponsors will need to come to terms with liberal educators. The only instrument for social change which a democracy may safely use is education. In crises it turns, of course, to short cuts, realizing, however, that these are deviations from principle.

There are those who insist that the concepts of planning and of democracy are mutually exclusive, but they reason, I believe, from a false premise. Since broad-scale planning has thus far been undertaken only by regimented nations, they assume that all planning implies regimentation. This assumption represents oversimplification as well as shortrange thinking. There may be many varieties of planning. In essence, to plan means to establish harmonious working relationships between means and ends. In a democracy the people share in the formulation of ends and goals, whereas in non-democratic states the people are used as means for the attainment of ends predetermined by rulers. Education for a democracy must therefore become a testing ground for the determination of ends as well as a laboratory for developing efficient means. All individuals and groups within a democracy acting on behalf of programs of social action must, consequently, associate themselves with educators and with educational institutions. If the people are to be consulted, they must also be educated.

What contribution to democratic education might, then, be reasonably expected from advocates of birth control now that they have won their initial victory on behalf of a basic human right?

They might be asked, in the first place, to cease making invidious and unfounded comparisons of eugenic character. I have heard it stated in recent times that the reason America will be obliged to abandon the democratic mode of life is primarily this: the educated and the well-to-do no longer assume their share of responsibility for reproduction, and hence the future population must come from the least competent element of the nation.

This mischievous doctrine seems to assume that nothing is to be done to alter either the economic or the educational status of those who are now disprivileged, an assumption which is in itself thoroughly anti-democratic. It also assumes that those few who are now born in families of affluence and high educational opportunity are by nature better equipped to rule than are those born under poorer circumstances. I do not believe that there is any adequate scientific ground for this presumption. In fact, it appears to me that the only safe eugenic hypothesis to be made in a democracy is that we all start out in life on a fairly equal basis. Those who are manifestly unfit and incurably diseased should not, of course, be permitted to reproduce, but this rule should apply to all, regardless of class distinctions.

The manifest requirement of our democracy is a reinvigoration of incentive. The basis of democratic culture is a pervasive sense of striving toward an ideal. We might therefore ask birthcontrol advocates to aid us in formulating fresh ideals, goals, and ends which will serve as stimuli for this striving.

I assume, for example, that the educational goal of a democracy is to produce a maximum number of healthy, sensitive, reflective, progressive human beings. Once education is oriented in this direction, it may proceed to utilize its tools for the purpose of training these individuals for the assumption of responsibility for democratic values and methods in general.

The mere mention of a goal such as this points the direction for future planning. In a program of this type, birth control becomes the most significant instrument available. Through its wise use the quality of our future population comes to be for the first time a matter of rational choice and scientific planning. The number of unwanted children, for example, may be quickly reduced. By means of proper spacing, mothers will be able to produce children with an improved chance for survival and healthy growth. Indeed, with birthcontrol service and parent education made readily available to all husbands and wives, family life itself will approach a new level of rational satisfaction and order sufficiently enticing, I believe, to constitute a new norm even for those who now shrink from the responsibilities of parenthood.

These claims rest upon simple hygienic, physiological, and sociological foundations. I do not say that birth control shall be utilized to dictate who is or who is not to reproduce his kind. But I do affirm that when procreation becomes a matter for enlightened and voluntary choice and is the result of neither accident nor coercion the human stock will be automatically improved, and marriage and family life will be saner, healthier, and more exciting adventures.