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 new morality—a vigorous, constructive, liberated morality . . . [that will] prevent the submergence of womanhood in motherhood.”
Thus, unlike Malthus, Sanger puts the rights and freedoms of the individual at the center of her argument. She makes it clear, however, that society—indeed the entire world—will eventually benefit from the enhanced individual status of women. In effect, Sanger was reiterating the English philosopher John Stuart Mill’s view of the importance of the individual as the motive force of historical change, and especially of social and technological progress. She was reiterating it with an important difference, for she claimed that universal access to birth control would enable women, for the first time in history, to act fully as individuals rather than merely wives and mothers. Birth control would enable women to become individuals in Mill’s sense, and thereby to become a motive force in the making of human history.
Later in the century the American biologist Paul R. Ehrlich returned to the arguments of Malthus in his influential book The Population Bomb (1968). For Ehrlich the rights of individuals pale before their responsibilities, particularly in reproductive matters. Unless every family on earth manages to limit itself to producing two children to replace the parents, Ehrlich argues, the original Malthusian trajectories of rapid population growth and slow food production growth would soon prevail in the developing countries of the world. By the 1970’s, he predicted, this pattern would trigger international epidemics and armed conflicts that would engulf and destroy even those developed countries that had managed to tailor their population to their food supply. Ehrlich called for a massive worldwide program of birth control education and medical clinics staffed with specialists in birth control methods and techniques. He helped found Zero Population Growth, an organization that promotes this philosophy throughout the world.
Ehrlich’s Malthusian doomsday did not arrive as planned, but his powerful vision of crisis and collapse resulting from overpopulation stimulated a positive response, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, to the idea of birth control, including the legalization of abortions. At the same time feminists, including Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch, 1971), argued that women could only achieve individual identity if they were free, whether they were married or not, to make motherhood the product of a conscious choice rather than the result of biology. Taking up Margaret Sanger’s vision of setting the feminine spirit free through the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, feminists sought to extend that quest for freedom by advocating a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Women began to promote legal abortion as an important means of guaranteeing a woman’s social, economic, and personal freedom. Groups interested in social and political reform promoted acceptance and use of all forms of birth control, and as a result in the 1970’s many countries—including the United States—liberalized their abortion laws.
The legalization of abortion as a means of birth control catalyzed an intense public controversy in the last decades of the twentieth century. Typically, liberals and feminists supported abortion on the grounds that it benefited and empowered the poor, minorities, and women, while political and religious conservatives opposed it on the ground that it was a form of murder and therefore unconscionable. The idea of birth control through contraception (that is, the prevention of pregnancy rather than its termination) is not an issue in the abortion debate. The abortion debate does, however, engage the issue of personal freedom versus social responsibility that has marked discussions about birth control since the time of Malthus.