The Historical Side of the Birth Control Movement

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The Historical Side of the Birth Control Movement


Bibliographic Citation

Leonard D. Abbott, “The Historical Side of the Birth Control Movement,” Mother Earth 11, no. 2 (April 1916): 451-456.


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By Leonard D. Abbott


THE recent arrest of Emma Goldman for the “crime” of giving information in her lectures on the subject of birth control suggests a backward, as well as a forward, look. Behind it, as behind every significant event, stretches a long historical vista. America is repeating the experience of other countries in this matter of birth control. Here, as in Europe, the course of events has followed the same general lines. First come the writers and teachers who insist on the importance of birth control information, and who attack the laws that penalize its dissemination. They meet the opposition of reactionaries who by every artifice and argument seek to drive the new doctrines underground. Gradually, the mass of the people become aroused, learn that the wealthier class have access to knowledge that is denied to them, and begin to demand the knowledge until bold, self-sacrificing spirits of the type of Bradlaugh and Besant in England, Dr. Luigi Berta and his associates in Italy, Luis Bulffi in Spain, Mr. and Mrs. Sanger and now Emma Goldman in the United States, brave the law and give the information. An arrest and a trial follow, which rally to the support of the accused an immense body of public opinion. At this stage of the struggle the pioneers have already won the day. If they are imprisoned, the injustice inflicted becomes apparent to even the dullest The martyrdom of the few opens the eyes of the many. If they are acquitted, their cause needs no further advocacy—it has triumphed.

The pioneers of the birth control movement have been English. The first leaflet describing the technique of contraception was printed in 1823 and was attributed to Robert Owen, the philanthropist-reformer of New Lanark. Long before that time, the English clergyman Malthus, had published his famous “Essay on Population,” in which he propounded the theory that population tends to increase beyond the means of subsistence, and advocated the control of procreation. But he had taken the view that “a restraint from marriage, from prudential motives” was the right method to pursue, and he never lent his support to literature of the type of the leaflet of 1823. This proved a great moral shock to the people of the time. It was called “the diabolical handbill;” a small leaflet, unobtrusively and almost elegantly printed, addressed “To the Married of Bom Sexes,” setting forth the economic burden of an excessively large family, and describing with frank simplicity means of preventing conception.

James Mill was another pioneer in advocating NeoMalthusian methods. He referred to the matter cautiously in the eminently respectable “Encyclopaedia Britannica.” His son, John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest libertarian thinkers of all time, barely escaped arrest, as a young man, for distributing a contraceptive pamphlet entitled, “What is Love.” Francis Place, a friend of the elder Mill and a giant figure in the early stages of the English labor movement, expressed himself, quite clearly, as in favor of “such precautionary means as would, without being injurious to health or destructive of female delicacy, prevent conception.” And Robert Dale Owen, the son of Robert Owen, published a book on “Moral Physiology” in which he dealt specifically with methods of family limitation.

These early Neo-Malthusian propagandists met with obloquy and abuse. It was not until much later mat their cause was vindicated. In 1876 Charles Bradlaugh, militant free-thinker, and Annie Besant, at that time also a secularist, challenged the British Government by announcing that at a certain time and place they would put on sale copies of Dr. Knowlton’s pamphlet “Fruits of Philosophy,” in which definite contraceptive information was given. They were arrested; and the ensuing trial was historic. In spite of Bradlaugh’s brilliant defense of the pamphlet and of his action in offering it for sale, he was defeated at the trial and he and Mrs. Besant were sentenced to serve six months in prison and to each pay a fine of two hundred pounds. They appealed the case, and were released on a technicality.

The verdict in the Bradlaugh-Besant case can only be considered a victory in the sense that it helped to change public opinion, and led to a new interpretation of the law under which they had been convicted. In 1877, Dr. C. R. Drysdale founded the Malthusian League and started a periodical, The Malthusian. From the first, one of the main objects of both the league and the periodical was to furnish practical advice on the subject of family limitation. Dr. Drysdale and his associates were permitted to distribute contraceptive information to applicants who testified that they were married or about to be married, and that they considered the artificial limitation of the family justifiable on both individual and national grounds. Each issue of The Malthusian still carries the printed application-form. Anyone who desires information on these terms can get it—any one except an American. The Malthusian League “regrets that it is unable to comply with applications for this leaflet from the United States.”

Many efforts have been made to remove this stigma from America, but as yet they have not been successful. About fifty years ago, Dr. E. B. Foote, Senior, editor and publisher of “Foote’s Home Cyclopedia,” issued instructions to his patients in a tiny pamphlet printed from type of the size known as “pearl,” from which the document took its name, “Words of Pearl.” He was indicted and sentenced to pay a fine of five thousand dollars, thus becoming one of Anthony Comstock’s earliest victims. The Comstock law was passed in 1873, and puts in the same category lewdness, prevention of conception, and abortion. Dr. E. B. Foote, Junior, the founder of the Free Speech League and one of America’s finest characters, was a zealous supporter of the theory of birth control, and one of his last utterances was an open letter to a charitable organization on this subject. Many American doctors have been imprisoned for imparting information on family limitation, and a few have had the courage to fight openly against the Comstock law. Notable among the latter is the veteran Dr. Abraham Jacobi, ex-President of the American Medical Association and of the New York Academy of Medicine. At the present time, Dr. William J. Robinson stands out as a persistent and aggressive opponent of our medieval laws on the subject of birth control. His book, “The Limitation of Offspring,” is an arsenal of arguments.

Apart from the medical profession, social idealists and freethinkers have fought for the right to discuss this and every other aspect of the sex-question. In this connection the name of Moses Harman immediately occurs. The brave old editor of Lucifer was ever on the firing line in matters of sex-discussion; he never flinched, and he took his prison incarcerations like a hero. His associate Edwin C. Walker, the founder of the Sunrise Club, was another man who pioneered sex rationalism. Ezra Heywood, of The Word, and successive editors of The Truth Seeker should not be forgotten.

These and similar pioneers have helped to make history. When the laws they fought have been repealed, their names will be honored by all. It is one of the ironies of fate that America, the so-called land of liberty, is behind almost all the other countries in the matter of birth control legislation. Even so backward a country as Spain has decided, in its law-courts, that contraceptive information is not obscene. In Australia and New Zealand and in Russia such information is absolutely untrammeled. In Holland birth control clinics are officially sanctioned. In France there is a strong Malthusian movement.

Although the stringent laws of America have prevented the open dissemination of birth control methods there has been a sub-current of birth control pamphlets that have been flowing all over America ever since the days of the John Stuart Mill pamphlet in England. Recently a speaker in Chicago showed a collection of some thirty different pamphlets, all giving methods that have been distributed in America during the last seventy-five years.

Within the last three years the original Margaret Sanger pamphlet had a circulation of one hundred thousand. Pamphlets that she wrote on English and Dutch methods and that were published in England have had a large circulation. It is impossible to estimate how many times the Margaret Sanger pamphlet has been reprinted. Three New York reprints were ten thousand each; a Detroit reprint was five thousand; a California reprint was seven thousand. There was also a Kansas reprint of several thousand.

The pamphlet gotten out by the Neo-Malthusian League in England has been reprinted quite a number of times in America. One in Washington had a tremendous circulation, probably over fifty thousand in the coast cities. An Oklahoma leaflet had an original circulation of sixteen thousand and has been reprinted quite a number of times. A Portland leaflet had a circulation of eight thousand. A Pittsburgh reprint had a circulation of ten thousand.

Dr. Blank has gotten out a two page typewritten circular giving elaborate methods that had a circulation of over seven thousand. A Chicago circular had a circulation of upward of ten thousand and was reprinted. Hundreds of birth control advocates have had printed and written circulars made which have been distributed broadcast. There have been thousands of doctors in America who have gladly given such information to their patients. Hundreds of teachers, nurses and intelligent women have spread the news. In one of the large cities the Visiting Nurses Association passed out the circulars amongst poor mothers. In St. Louis and other towns pamphlets were given away at the medical clinics.

The fact of the matter is that methods on birth control were so well circulated and known in America that alt earnest seekers found them. In many cities these pamphlets have been distributed openly at meetings, in shops and on the streets. Some of the birth control advocates who sold the pamphlet complained that it was impossible to sell it for more than ten cents a copy. On quite a number of street corners, birth control advocates have been heard discussing the subject and giving methods. While a certain section of the birth control league waited for the sanction of the law, the other part went ahead and gave the world the knowledge which is sought.

As compared with other countries, America still brings up the tail of the procession, but it is clear that public opinion is changing. The imprisonment of William Sanger last September was denounced as an outrage even by conservatives. The Federal Government was unwilling to press the indictment against Margaret Sanger because it realized how weak its case was. Emma Goldman’s birth control meetings throughout the country have been attended by immense audiences, and the mass-meeting in Carnegie Hall, New York City, a few days ago showed how deeply the public imagination has been stirred.

 The fight that Emma Goldman is making is the fight of every liberty-loving man and woman. She deserves the support of liberals of every type. The best way to get rid of a bad law is to break it. Thus great issues are dramatized and great truths are brought home to the minds of the majority. Mere theorizing about birth control accomplishes little. It is when Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman advocate or use “direct action” that everyone takes notice. The time will come and is not far distant when it will seem incredible that human beings, in this twentieth century, could have been imprisoned for imparting information that ought to be in the possession of every adult.


Leonard D. Abbott, “The Historical Side of the Birth Control Movement,” Mother Earth 11, no. 2 (April 1916): 451-456.




Abbott, Leonard Dalton, 1878-1953, “The Historical Side of the Birth Control Movement,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed February 15, 2019,