Travesty of Justice
May 5, 1916 — Mass meeting to celebrate Emma Goldman’s release from prison, Carnegie Hall, New York City
[Stokes was passing out birth control literature, classified by the federal government as “obscenity” under the Comstock Act of 1873, and Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code. Stokes was later arrested.]
We have met here in protest against the law which operates to keep the knowledge of contraception from the mothers of the poor and blinks the fact that the comfortable classes obtain that knowledge from their highly-paid physicians and from one another. We demand that the law which is a dead letter for the rich also become a dead letter for the poor, and declare that we shall continue in ever-increasing numbers to honor this law by breaking it. The poor and they physicians of the [poor], and those who realize the immediate necessity of spreading contraceptive knowledge, will not continue to respect a law that is negatively responsible for so much misery among the masses of the people.
The absurdity of the situation is clear to everyone. Some of the administrators of the law are being privately ridiculed for their hypocrisy. For it is widely known — and discussed (although not in print) — that not among the least of those who have persecuted the poor law-breakers in this respect have rich law-breaking friends and do themselves break the law and benefit by the scientific knowledge they are instrumental in sending others to prison for disseminating.
What a travesty of justice! Here is material for a Shavian comedy and will surely find an enterprising author to do the theme justice.
Again, we find the authorities setting a Comstockian detective to catch William Sanger, for instance, in the act of giving out contraceptive information. Why, to be consistently legal, do they not send a Comstockian detective to catch a society doctor or put themselves in jail? No one condemns the society doctor. He is thought to be both wise and humane. But so too in this respect are William Sanger, Emma Goldman Ben Reitman. Why, then, this discrimination? Is it possible that according to the law of our economic autocracy to be poor is to be obscene and to have property is not to be obscene? Ah, but these propertyless agitators who are spreading this scientific knowledge among the poor and the propertyless must be suppressed. For it is the business of our greedy capitalist society to prevent the poor from regulating the size of their families in order that the size of unearned incomes might not also thereby be automatically regulated — downward. The overburdened mothers of the poor must not be given food for thought, when overburdened capitalism (over-burdened with the unconsumed surplus of its exploited peoples) needs food for cannon.
The reformer could, and indeed tries to, convince the capitalist class of its short-sightedness by pointing to the high death rate which, in present conditions, is a concomitant of the high birth rate. He points to the incalculable economic waste this fact indicates: the cost of the births: doctors, nurses, special expenditures for food and clothing, hospitals, clinics, lost work days, loss of physical and mental efficiency, the cost of sickness in those periods, long or short, between birth and death; then the cost of the deaths: the funeral expenses and again the loss of work days and of mental and physical efficiency for those most intimately concerned. Marshalling these facts, which speak in terror of dollars and cents, (the language best understood by the ruling class), the reformer tries to make some impression upon the dull brains of the exploiters. But the thing that impresses the “impractical” radical most is not so much the cost in money as the cost in human life, the toll paid in human suffering, the agony millions of mothers endure when sickness or poverty or other unfavorable conditions (needlessly forced upon them by a maladjusted system) brings them a coffin and carries away the cradle, or — as frequently happens — leaving the cradle, leaves it with something more tragic than a coffin.
Recently an editor commented on this birth control movement. The climax of his editorial was that the distribution of contraceptive literature is not only against the law of man but of the Almighty. The old cry of superstition against science. Do these men who claim to be so intimately acquainted with God ever announce what the will of God is with regard to crushing little children in the mills, the mines, the factories? One does not hear much concerning God’s decision in this respect. Yet when they do speak up, it is usually to impress upon us the thought that in child labor there may be hidden some divine purpose. In their hearts they must know that it exists to fill the pocket of greedy mill and mine and factor owners and stockholders.
These junior partners of the Lord seem to know it is God’s will that children should come indiscriminately into the world; and that a large percentage of them should also be forced out of the world by humanly presentably conditions. Science comes to regulate life and prevent needles death. But, say the bigots, these conditions exist by God’s will and must therefore be borne in a meek and humble spirit.
From the day that the light of science began to break upon the mind of men, superstition has attempted to place a black curtain of fear between man’s mind and the light. If ma had heeded what Superstition has always chosen to call the “will of God,” we should still stand little higher than the ape. It is only because Science has been, since its earliest youth, reversing the “decisions of the Lord,” that man has been enabled to struggle up to what light he has in the present and to feel in his breast the hope of perfection in the future. The battle between Science and Superstition is by no means over, but for Science it has bene and continues to be a winning fight.
Believing as I do, that humanity progresses rapidly through science, I have done and will do all I can to spread its light. If the master-class chooses for its own greedy purposes to side with bigotry and superstition by this law, so much the worse for the law. It will be broken and ignored.
Since the diner at the Brevoort I have had scores upon scores of letters pleading for information on methods of contraception. I have spent a good deal of my time answering them, refusing no one. Letters form mothers with over-large families and a small surplus of strength and hardly any income. Women whose several children have died at birth because of constitutional inability to bring children in to the world able to survive. Letters from young mothers with two or three or four children who, because of sickness or temporary worklessness on the part of the wag earner, desire to wait for a time when they can decently and safely take care of more children before bringing them into the world. Letters form mothers who have been warned by their physicians that another child birth would mean the mother’s death, but to whom these same doctors denied contraceptive information. Letters from mothers already burdened with large families, who rankly confess that they have resorted, from time to time in their desperation, to abortion, begging for the knowledge that would make unnecessary a prepetition [sic] of the horrors they have passed through. Such and many more have come to me day after day and are still coming. Some of them too tragic and too terrible to quote or to mention. Very many of them barely literate, with addresses that lend to some of the worst living sections of the city. Letters from Farers’ wives, letters from women of the middle class, letters from the farthest ends of the country. Requests even from Catholic women. And from all, the God bless yous and the words of thankfulness and encouragement that indicate the deep, the crying, the immediate need, and the widespread revolt against the law which declares the giving out of contraceptive information a crime.
Frankly, then, I have broken the law over and over, because I believe that since science has shown the way, the mothers of the world should have the power and the right o control birth — to have as many or as few children as the conditions of their health or their particular material environment coupled with a decent standards of living, shall dictate.
My chief interest is not birth control, but Socialist propaganda, which aims to place land and industry within the reach of all the people upon terms of equal opportunity — which purposes to eliminate poverty and insecurity by eliminating the waste and robbery of Capitalism. But pending the day when the Socialists have sufficient control to effect these basic changes, there are lesser causes to meet immediate vital needs that I believe to be worth fighting for, and birth control is such a cause.
You, gentlemen, who earn your living by hunting down the victims of a maladjusted society, and you, gentlemen of the club, if you are here to interfere with, or arrest, or provide the authorities with evidence against anyone ignoring this unjust section of the law, I address myself to you. I should be truly sorry to place you under so mean an obligation, for I know your hearts well enough to know that you do not always relish the job your economic insecurity forces you to hold on to.
But I cannot do other than again take the opportunity afforded me here of passing out information to wives and mothers in need.
I do not, of course, want to go to jail, and, again, I am not bidding for arrest. I wish to be saved all that, naturally. But I am not afraid. For twenty-three years, Capitalist Society had done its worst to me. It gave me an underfed childhood, hemmed me in on all sides by the stone walls of No Opportunity, and, when I was hardly old enough to bear the burden, it began to turn my very heart’s blood into gold for others — sometimes for people I never saw and who never saw me. Whole seasons at a time worked me not only the long day but also far into the night, giving me in return semi-starvation, a starved body upon it, a few indecent rags, no schooling, frequently the hard floor for a bd, and the weight of an unnamable nightmare as each succeeding year added another moth to feed, then eliminated the father of those six little ones, in the unequal struggle for bread. (Oh yes, don’t look at the one who has somehow chanced to survive but look down into the pit where the millions struggle weakly, and where millions have succumbed.)
Capitalist society has not succeeded in making me bitter, but it has succeeded in making me unafraid.
Therefore, be the penalty what it may, I here frankly offer to give out these slips with the forbidden information to those needy wives and mothers who will frankly come and take them.
Source: Jewish Radicals: A Documentary History, ed. Tony Michaels (New York: NYU Press), 2012, pp. 104-108.
Also: Rose Pastor Stokes Papers, Film R-7124, Reel 67, Frame XIX, 7, Tamiment Library, NYU.