The modern debate over birth control first took written form with the publication of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) by the English clergyman and economist Thomas Malthus. Malthus argued that population always increases faster than the food supply, so that every society must eventually face overpopulation. For the human species, overpopulation results in civil unrest, disease, and warfare. Thus Malthus was the first to describe the correlation between human population growth and human misery. Malthus himself, as a clergyman, did not advocate contraception or abortion as a means of dealing with this problem, but others in Europe and America did. Partly as a result of their efforts, birthrates fell in the industrialized countries of the West throughout the nineteenth century. Even so, knowledge of the various means of birth control were largely confined to the upper and middle classes, and information about it spread slowly, by word of mouth. In Great Britain, for example, it was illegal to publish or distribute information about birth control devices and techniques until after 1875, while in the United States it remained illegal until the twentieth century had begun.
In the early twentieth century Margaret Sanger finally broke the long-standing American silence about birth control. Working as a trained nurse among poor women in New York City in the early 1900’s, Sanger became convinced that they could have economic and social equality with men—as well as a far greater amount of personal happiness—if the women were free from unwanted pregnancies. Sanger successfully challenged the laws against the public dissemination of information about birth control, set up clinics, and founded the American Birth Control League, the organization which eventually became known as Planned Parenthood. Sanger wrote an important series of books that influenced public opinion in favor of birth control. Perhaps the most important of these was Woman and the New Race (1920), a powerful argument for the “necessity of setting the feminine spirit absolutely free” to enjoy a “voluntary motherhood,” by using an appropriate method of birth control and without having to suffer the negative physical side effects of surgically or chemically induced abortions. This in turn, Sanger argues, “implies a...
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