This I Believe

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This I Believe

Family Planning and Contraception


By: Margaret Sanger

Date: November 1953

Source: Sanger, Margaret. "This I Believe." Edward R. Murrow's This I Believe radio program broadcast, November 1953.

About the Author: Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) led the American birth control movement. One of eleven children, she attributed her mother's early death to the difficulties of raising so many children on a very small income. Sanger worked as a nurse on the Lower East Side of New York City where she saw a great number of poor tenement dwellers die from improvised abortions. One death particularly disturbed her. Sadie Sachs, a truck driver's wife was refused contraceptive advice by a physician and instructed instead to have her husband sleep on the roof. Sanger often cited Sachs as her motivation for promoting "family limitation," a term that she preferred to birth control. Sanger founded Planned Parenthood and helped finance the development of the birth control pill.


The birth control movement spanned a century from the time that it became illegal to provide contraceptive information in 1873 to the Supreme Court decision in 1972 that extended the right of birth control to unmarried individuals in all states. At the center of much of the controversy stood Margaret Sanger. She dedicated her life to the right of people to plan the size of their families.

Until 1873, Americans had little difficulty obtaining birth control information. The declining birth rate in the nineteenth century, especially among the white middle class, suggests that more and more Americans used some sort of contraception. This proliferation of contraceptive devices and information troubled Victorian moral reformers, including influential morals crusader Anthony Comstock (1844–1915). Convinced that ready access to contraceptive information threatened the home and drove men towards illicit sexual activity, Comstock convinced Congress to pass an anti-obscenity law that made it a federal crime to send contraceptive devices and information through the U.S. mails. Fighting for repeal of the Comstock laws became a centerpiece in the battle to legalize birth control in the United States.

Against a backdrop in which scientists and politicians were voicing fears about "race suicide" if the white middle class continued to practice contraception, Margaret Sanger began to actively promote birth control in the 1910s. She believed that common contraceptive methods such as withdrawal and condoms were undesirable methods because women were dependent on men to use them. Searching for a woman-centered form of birth control, Sanger settled on the diaphragm, which needed to be fitted by a medical professional. In 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the Unites States in Brooklyn, New York. As a nurse, she fitted women for diaphragms. The clinic operated for ten days before it was raided and closed by the police. Sanger was arrested, convicted for violating anti-obscenity statutes, and spent a month in prison.

Sanger lost an appeal on her conviction in 1918, but gained an important legal victory when the judge ruled that the distribution of physician-prescribed birth control for the prevention of disease was not illegal. This framing of the legality of birth control changed the playing field by making birth control a medical matter, as opposed to a free speech, matter. Sanger turned all of her energies towards to establishing birth control clinics, which she considered could be legal as long as they were staffed by medical doctors and served a public health purpose. Forty years after Sanger began her campaign for available birth control for women, she recounted her efforts during the following speech aired on the well-known journalist Edward R. Murrow's "This I Believe" radio program.


This I believe, first of all: that all our basic convictions must be tested and transmuted in the crucible of experience—and sometimes, the more bitter the experience, the more valid the purified belief.

As a child, one of a large family, I learned that the thing I did best was the thing I liked to do. This realization of doing and getting results was what I have later called an awakening consciousness.

There is an old Indian proverb which has inspired me in the work of my adult life. "Build thou beyond thyself, but first be sure that thou, thyself, be strong and healthy in body and mind." To build, to work, to plan to do something, not for yourself, not for your own benefit, but "beyond thyself"—and when this idea permeates the mind, you begin to think in terms of a future. I began to think of a world beyond myself when I first took an interest in nursing the sick.

As a nurse, I was in contact with the ill and the infirm. I knew something about the health and disease of bodies, but for a long time, I was baffled at the tremendous personal problems of life, of marriage, of living, and of just being. Here indeed was a challenge to "build beyond thyself." Where was I to begin? I found the answer at every door. For I began to believe there was something I could do toward increasing an understanding of these basic human problems. To build beyond myself, I must tap all inner resources of stamina and courage, of resolution within myself. I was prepared to face opposition, even ridicule, denunciation. But I had also to prepare myself, in defense of these unpopular beliefs, I had to prepare myself to face courts and even prisons. But I resolved to stand up, alone if necessary, against all the entrenched forces which opposed me.

I started my battle some forty years ago. The women and mothers whom I wanted to help, also wanted to help me; they, too, wanted to build beyond the self, in creating healthy children and bringing them up in life to be happy and useful citizens. I believed it was my duty to place motherhood on a higher level than enslavement and accident. I was convinced we must care about people; we must reach out to help them in their despair.

For these beliefs I was denounced, arrested, I was in and out of police courts and higher courts, and indictments hung over my life for several years. But nothing could alter my beliefs. Because I saw these as truths, I stubbornly stuck to my convictions.

No matter what it may cost in health, in misunderstanding, in sacrifice, something had to be done, and I felt that I was called by the force of circumstances to do it. Because of my philosophy and my work, my life has been enriched and full. My interests have expanded from local conditions and needs, to a world horizon, where peace on earth may be achieved when children are wanted before they are conceived. A new consciousness will take place, a new race will be born to bring peace on earth. This belief has withstood the crucible of my life's joyous struggle. It remains my basic belief today.

This I believe—at the end, as at the beginning of my long crusade for the future of the human race.


Sanger enjoyed a key legal victory in 1936 when the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries that the medical prescription of birth control for disease prevention or well-being was not illegal under the Comstock Act. One year later, the American Medical Association issued its support for birth control.

At the same time, birth control advocates began to identify their movement as one of family planning. This linguistic shift eliminated the idea that women should have the right to control their own reproduction. Sanger persisted in her search for an effective female-controlled contraceptive and helped finance the development of the first birth control pill. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved "the Pill," the first oral contraceptive, in 1960.

Even though the One Package case had eliminated federal restrictions on the prescription of birth control, many states still had laws that prevented physicians from prescribing birth control such as the Pill to married women. Following several failed legal challenges, the Supreme Court overturned all such laws in a 1965 decision, Griswold v. Connecticut. This case was additionally significant because it marked the first time that the Supreme Court identified the legal doctrine of a right to privacy. The court later extended the same rights to unmarried individuals in Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972.

Other contraceptives have been developed since the introduction of oral contraceptives, including hormone patches, barrier methods such as the contraceptive sponge and the cervical cap, and new-generation intrauterine devices (IUDs). Even birth control pills themselves have undergone significant developments, including changes in the types and amounts of synthetic hormones each pill contains. There are now numerous types of oral contraceptives on the market, a testament to their efficacy and lasting popularity.



Gordon, Linda. Woman's Body, Woman's Right: Birth Control in America. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Riddle, John M. Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Tone, Andrea. Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.