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A Free Motherhood

April 5, 1916 — Trial for delivering a lecture on birth control, New York City


Your Honor:

My presence before you this afternoon proves conclusively that there is no free speech in the city or county of New York. I hope that there is free speech in your court.

I have delivered the lecture which caused my arrest in at least fifty cities throughout the country, always in the presence of detectives. I have never been arrested. I delivered the same address in New York City seven times, prior to my arrest, always in the presence of detectives, because in my case, your honor, “the police never cease out of the land.” Yet for some reason unknown to me I have never been molested until February 11th, nor would I have been then, if free speech were a living factor, and not a dead letter to be celebrated only on the 4th of July.

Your Honor, I am charged with the crime of having given information to men and women as to how to prevent conception. For the last three weeks, every night before packed houses, a stirring social indictment is being played at the Candler Theatre. I refer to “Justice” by John Galsworthy. The council for the Defense in summing up the charges against the defendant says among other things: “Your Honor; back of the commission of every crime, is life, palpitating life.”

Now what is the palpitating life back of my crime? I will tell you, Your Honor. According to the bulletin of the Department of Health, 30,000,000 people in America are underfed. They are always in a state of semi-starvation. Not only because their average income is too small to sustain them properly — the bulletin states that eight hundred dollars a year is the minimum income necessary for every family — but because there are too many members in each family to be sustained on a meagre income. Hence 30,000,000 people in this land go through life underfed and overworked.

Your Honor, what kind of children do you suppose these parents can bring into the world? I will tell you: children so poor and anemic that they take their leave from this, our kind world, before their first year of life. In that way, 300,000 babies, according to the baby welfare association, are sacrificed in the United States every years. This, Your Honor, is the palpitating life which has confronted me for many years, and which is back of the commission of my crime. I have been part of the great social struggle of this country for twenty-five years, as nurse, as lecturer, as publisher. During this time I have gone up and down the land in the large industrial centres, in the mining region, in the alums of our large cities. I have seen conditions appalling and heart-rending, which no creative genius could adequately describe. I do no intend to take up the time of the court to go into many of these cases, but I must mention a few.

A woman, married to a consumptive husband, has eight children, six are in the tuberculosis hospital. She is on the way with the ninth child.

A woman whose husband earns $12 per week has six children, on the way with the seventh child.

A woman with twelve children living in three squalid rooms, dies in confinement with the 13th child, the oldest, now the mainstay of the 12 orphans, is 14 years of age.

These are but very few of the victims of our economic grinding mill, which sets a premium upon poverty, and our puritanic law which maintains a conspiracy of silence.

Your Honor: if giving one’s life for the purpose of awakening race consciousness in the masses, a consciousness which will impel them to bring quality and not quantity into society, if that be a crime, I am glad to be such a criminal. But I assure you I am in good company. I have as my illustrious colleagues the greatest men and women of our time: scientists, political economists, artists, men of letters in Europe and America. And what is even more important, I have the working class, and women in every walk of life, to back me. No isolated individuals here and there, but thousands of them.

After all, the question of birth control is largely a workingman’s question, above all a working-woman’s question. She it is who risks her health, her youth, her very life in giving out of herself the units of the race. She it is who ought to have the means and the knowledge to say how many children she shall give, and to what purpose she shall give them, and under what conditions she shall bring forth life.

Statesmen, politicians, men of the cloth, men who own the wealth of the world, need a large race, no matter how poor in quality. Who else would do their work, and fight their wars? But the people who toil and drudge and create, and receive a mere pittance in return, what reason have they to bring hapless children into the world? They are beginning to realize their debt to the children already in existence, and in order to make good their obligations, they absolutely refuse to go on like cattle breeding more and more.

That which constitutes my crime, Your Honor, is therefore, enabling the mass of humanity to give to the world fewer and better children — birth control, which in the last two years has grown to such gigantic dimensions that no amount of laws can possibly stop the ever-increasing tide.

And this is true, not only because of what I may or may not say, or of how many propagandists may or may not be sent to jail; there is a much profounder reason for the tremendous growth and importance of birth control. That reason is conditions in the great modern social conflict, or rather social war, I should say. A war not for military conquest or material supremacy, a war of the oppressed and disinherited of the earth against their enemies, capitalism and the state, a war for a seat at the table of life, a war for well-being, for beauty, for liberty. Above all this war is for a free motherhood and a joyous playful glorious childhood.

Birth control, Your Honor, is only one of the ways which leads to the victory in that war, and I am glad and proud to be able to indicate that way.



Source: “Emma Goldman’s Defense,” The Masses, June 1916, p. 27.