The Prevention of Conception
January 18, 1934 — House Committee on the Judiciary, US House of Representatives, Washington DC
Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, in the brief time allotted to me, I simply want to discuss the effect of this law as it stands today on the various institutions and upon women receiving contraceptive advice which they may receive legally in their various States, and also to tell you just what this bill proposes to do, what it will do as we see it.
The law today is directed entirely to the United States mails and to common carriers. It makes it a crime, punishable by 5 years in prison and $5,000 fine, to send any information, printed or written, through the mails, or to send any devices that may be designed for the prevention of conception.
Please do not misunderstand us as to our position on the present obscenity law: we want those provisions as to obscenity to remain, and we only have an interest in the present law to the extent that it deals with the prevention of conception.
We believe that this whole subject does not belong in the obscenity clause. It was put there nearly 60 years ago, when there was no knowledge of this question, or of its effects or results on the community or on the population, and we are simply taking that out of the law, not by repeal, but by amendment, and placing it in the hands of persons who are responsible and qualified to disseminate it.
We believe that the doctors who have a knowledge and understanding of anatomy and physiology should be the ones to dispense, to give out that information, but today there is no exemption in that law for anyone, for it says that no one shall give such information. It does not exempt scientific books or medical books, and while there are scientific and medical books sent through the United States mail, there is no reason why there should be, if the law is really enforced.
The law also says that anyone who tells anyone else where such information may be obtained is also guilty under the law. Now, this condition means that there are 47 States in which a physician may give information as he sees fit, with the exception of the New York State law, where he can give information only for the cure or prevention of disease, but most of the other States allow the physician (who would naturally give this information orally) also to give any device that may be necessary for the woman to prevent conception. There are 157 clinics that are legally operated for birth control throughout the country, and yet the physicians who have a right under their State laws to advise these women in these clinics have to bootleg their supplies from New York or Chicago, or wherever there is a concern providing these articles, in order properly to give the advice to their patients which is legal under their own State laws.
That is the situation that we are trying to change; and, furthermore, while the mothers in the States have a legal right to obtain information from their physicians if they know where to go for it, they cannot know of it because there is no ways of letting them know about this, ad yet they may really be next door to a birth-control clinic, what good does it do to those particular women? They will write to me, or their nurses will, or someone, asking where it can be obtained, and we subject ourselves to the law by merely sending the woman the address of a qualified physician or legal clinic, a physician or a clinic that has been qualified in her own Stat to give her that information.
It seems, and it undoubtedly is, an absurd situation, and we are trying to change the law so that persons, especially those persons who have the right to have such information, may be able to obtain it properly.
There are in the country today, 26,170,756 married women between 15 and 49 years, of the child-bearing age. Now, it seems to me, and I honestly believe, that every adult, normal woman not only wishes to have children, but has a responsibility toward those children, toward bringing them up. Those women that want to have children, often want to have a few children and want to do well by them, and in the last few years I have received over a million letters, since I have been in this work, and [in] nearly every one of those letters the mother says: “Yes, I love children, but I want to give them a better chance than I have had.”
For example, here are just two of the letters, to give you an idea why we feel as we do about this — and I consider that these women are really the forgotten women of this Nation. No one knows much about them. They are ignored. They are not given the consideration that they should have. They may have their children’s teeth taken care of in clinics, or their children’s adenoids removed in hospitals, and the children may have free lunches at the schools — all of these considerations are given to them, but when it comes to this particular question, when a woman says “Doctor, what can I do so that I won’t have any more? I have enough. My husband is out of work, and he is sick, and the last child that I have had is not very well; give me a chance”, there is this peculiar atmosphere created about this, as if it is something horrible that she is asking for, and her request is refused.
Here is one letter:
I just passed by twenty-first birthday on august 10. I m already the mother of 5 children, the oldest 6 years of age and the baby 3 months. My husband has been out of work for over a year and a half now. We would have starved long ago but for the relatives, who among them gave us $5 a week. It is awfully hard to live like this, and my husband was so blue when he found that I was that way again that he wanted to go to another place.
My children are well, but I am awfully weak, only weighing 90 pounds. I do all of my work, and if I could get some consideration and not get any more babies, I would be happy and so would my husband.
Won’t you do all that you can and give me the advice that I need?
That is the type of letter that I have received nearly a million of — in fact over a million, because I stopped counting them when we got to a million.
Another letter states, and I would like to analyze this with you:
I am only 34 years of age, and I have given birth to 12 children, only 3 of these being alive. They died so quickly after they were born that it seems that they did not have the strength to live on. My husband is a good, hard-working man, but the most he made is $1.50. We are poor people, and the coffins of the last three have not been paid for yet. It is hard to see them go like that, but if I did not have any more for a while, I could keep the three that I have got.
That woman is 34 years old. She has not finished with childbearing yet. She has perhaps 12 years still to be anxious about more children that she cannot take care of.
Now, 12 times has that woman gone down into the shadow of death, to bring forth three living children for the State. When you analyze this, as to what it means, it means that that woman was in pregnancy 9 times for those dead children, and it means 8 constant years, night and day, in this state of pregnancy for 9 dead children.
It is barbaric. It is not civilized for this woman to ask for advice and not be able to get it. It is absolutely unfair that she cannot be told what she wants to know.
If this woman asks me what to do for her its to make them fatter, or if she aske me what to do with her cows so s to get more milk, or if she should ask advice about her chickens, so that she could get more eggs, we could send to the Department of Agriculture, and Uncle Sam would give her so much literature that it would take here [sic] the rest of her lifetime to read it; but when she says, “What can I do to prevent having more children that are born dead, or that do not survive”, we have to ask ourselves if we want to put ourselves in jeopardy and be subject to a $5,000 fine or 5 years imprisonment in order to tell her what she asks.
My position is that I would not want to send through the mails any device, or any information for that woman, but what we do want to do is to tell her where she can go so that she can get proper information in her own community. We do not want to use the mails to give that information; we want the physicians to have a right to give the information and to get the materials from the manufacturers, and they, in turn, can give information wherever they see fit under their own State law.
We have found that all women differ in the advice given. We have a clinic in New York where ewe had over 35,000 women who have come to us in the last 6 years, and so ewe know what we are talking about. We know whether these things are injurious, or bad, or whether thy will cause cancer or sterility. We know. We are not guessing any more.
As I said, we know that women differ in their physical needs, and that there is no particular means or method that will suit every one. Women who have had a large number of children, and had good care, are in a different physiological and gynecological condition than women who have had no care, and so it is important for these women, if we are going to protect them, not to act in a hit-or-miss fashion on this. If a woman’s life is in jeopardy, we should give her the best scientific information for her protection.
So, for these reasons, we make this information individual, just as individual as having eyeglasses fitted to the individual’s eyes.
So we want this in the hands of the medical profession, where it properly belongs, and I ask you to consider this bill favorably for the sake of these millions of child-bearing women, women who have to consider themselves for the future and who have to consider their children for the future.
Source: Hearings Before the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Seventy-Third Congress, Second Session, on H. R. 5978, (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office) 1934, pp. 6-9.