Newsletter #26 (Winter 2000/2001)

Birth Control and the Good Old Boys in Congress

In 1929, Margaret Sanger formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control (NCFLBC) with the aim of overturning the Federal Comstock laws. On the books since 1873, the Comstock laws classified contraceptive information and supplies as obscene material and made it unlawful to send birth control devices or literature through the mails. While the NCFLBC also sought endorsements of medical, religious and social institutions, and ran a sophisticated public relations campaign across the country, the organization concentrated its efforts on lobbying Congress to support a birth control bill.

The first NCFLBC bill, drafted in 1930, proposed to amend sections 211, 245 and 312 of the Federal Penal Code to allow doctors to freely dispense birth control. From 1930 to 1936 the NCFLBC secured seven Congressmen to sponsor ten versions of the same bill. However, few in Congress guaranteed her their vote. While some were preoccupied with financial crises, New Deal legislation and growing instability overseas, most Congressmen were either vehemently opposed or were unwilling to confront certain controversy. In the end seven bills died in Committee, one was tabled without discussion, one was held up by the Ways and Means Committee on a technicality, and one made it all the way to the floor of the Senate before being recalled. Though the NCFLBC's Congressional lobbying efforts proved futile, the bills did force four hearings on birth control in the Senate and two in the House, providing Sanger and other prominent birth control proponents with a very public forum to argue the scientific and social merits of their crusade.

Sanger later claimed that by the end of 1934 every member of Congress had been contacted regarding the birth control bill. Yet not surprisingly, many Congressmen went to great lengths to avoid even being seen with a birth controller. NCFLBC staffers spent much of their time just trying to get a face-to-face meeting or settling for a few words exchanged in the Capitol hallway.

What follows are excerpts from NCFLBC staff reports of these meetings with individual Representatives and Senators. Though perhaps a bit more colorful than the rest, they are representative of the most common responses NCFLBC staff received from Congressmen. Apart from an interview synopsis, the reports generally include information on party affiliation, marital status, family size, residence, religion, committees served on, and number of times elected. Most reports also contain handwritten notes on past votes, contacts, press reports and previous lobbying efforts. The excerpts below provide the date and name of the NCFLBC staff person conducting the interview. All are drawn from the Margaret Sanger Papers microfilm at the Library of Congress (LC), and we have provided the reel and frame numbers for each excerpt. We have not corrected any of the text.


Sen. Ellison D. Smith, SC (Democrat)

May 24, 1934: "'We should let it alone. It jars me. It is revolting to interfere in people's personal affairs.' I explained to him the nature of the bill and that the present law was the thing that was interfering in peoples' personal affairs." - Guy Irving Burch (LCM 82:183)

Rep. Roland J. Kinzer, PA (Republican)

Jan. 21, 1932: "Listened to me with great attention and then took my name and address and from his manner I almost felt he was about to call the guard and have me arrested. After a little further discussion, however, he became less menacing and we had quite an argument as to whether birth control would decrease the consumption of agricultural products." - Alice Palache (LCM 82:77)

Rep. Charles Finley, KY (Republican)

Dec. 9, 1932: "Opposed to bill - 'conscientiously, because we have not the right to deny the joy of life to millions;' morally and politically we need 'more people.' Only way to control births is self control. War - a glorious opportunity for the individuals and a good way to control population." - Flora B. Estabrook (LCM 79:27)

Rep. Oliver Harlan Cross, TX (Democrat)

Mar. 25, 1934: Said he did not know much about the bill. Government should not get mixed up with birth control. Showed him the bill. He said [e]very nigger knew all about birth control. Said he would be against it. But I think he might be won over." - Guy Irving Burch (LCM 82:322)


Rep. William M. Citron, CT (Democrat)

Apr. 3, 1936: "Took me into his private office, and said: 'You know this is only a political matter with me. . . I'm a jew and the Catholics would crucify me if I voted for this bill.'" - Guy Irving Burch (LCM 77:457)


Sen. Robert Marion La Follette, Jr., WI (Progressive)

Dec. 5, 1931: "Long conference, fully half hour, found him intelligent and understanding. As expected he had such a big program this year he was afraid now that he would be unable to do the things that he has already undertaken. He does not make a practice of introducing a bill just for the sake of introducing it. . . I got the impression that he was absolutely for us . . ."- Margaret Sanger (LCM 83:303)

Rep. T. Alan Goldsborough, MD (Democrat)

Feb. 3, 1932: "Very much interested but very much disturbed about it. Realized it touched the very foundation of our economic and spiritual structure. . . . He was greatly concerned about the immorality of the younger generation and not convinced that legislation is the right approach. He is however very much convinced that there are many women to whom the information should be given, particularly the foreign element of our population." - Alice Palache (LCM 79:201)

Sen. Huey P. Long, LA (Democrat)

Feb 23, 1934: "He stated that he would not give us any information as he would not want to be quoted but that he would assure us that we had nothing to fear from him. He said our best chance was to do this thing quietly without a hearing and without a lot of hullabaloo . . . We mentioned the weakness of the Catholic Church when they agreed to a method of birth control by advocating a natural method. He asked us what we referred to and [we] suggested 'safe period.' He said 'there aint no such thing' . . . There was considerable amusement of getting . . . myself to join SHARE OUR WEALTH SOCIETY, on which we were well posted and while [Long's] secretary insisted I become president of the club in Washington, Mr. Long came to my defense and stated I shouldn't do it because it would only hurt my cause. He then very seriously said 'we are both crusaders. Your cause is nearer being won than mine because most people don't worry so much about lives as they do about property and I have a bigger battle than you.'" - Hazel Moore (LCM 79:100)


Rep. Andrew J. Montague, VA (Democrat)

Jan. 11, 1932: "Mr. Montague listened to my story and then said quite quietly he did not believe there would be any virtue among women any longer if such a law was passed. He said that it would tend to put men and women on the same standard and he also felt that it would increase immorality by removing the fear of pregnancy." - Alice Palache (LCM 82:669)

Rep. Hatton W. Sumners, TX (Democrat)

Mar. 9, 1932: "I am not opposed to this legislation. I am a little old fashioned perhaps, and I have very definite ideas as to a woman's place in the world. I will not discuss this subject with a woman . . . it embarrasses me . . . and nothing annoys me more tha[n] to have some blankety blank woman approach me on this or any other public issue that could be handled by a man. On the other hand I have the most profound respect and consideration for the woman in the home . . . mothers and children . . . the welfare of the young boys and girls." - Col. J. J. Toy (LCM 82:352)

Rep. Robert Lincoln Ramsay, WV (Democrat)

Jan. 28, 1935: "Had a long talk with him and he agreed with me on a number of points, but seemed to be greatly concerned about 'interfering with the conception of life.' He was also concerned about the Anglo-Saxon birth rate, and 'women out of the home.'" - Guy Irving Burch (LCM 83:233)


Rep. Thomas Birch, VA (Democrat)

Feb. 4, 1931: "This was a splendid interview as Mr. Birch had evidently never thought of B.C. and certainly not of the bill of last year. . . He was relieved to know it did not include abortions . . . He feels it all should be placed in the hands of physicians, hospitals and clinics and was concerned that those who needed it most would not receive the proper help. (tenant farmer and negro)" - Hazel Moore (LCM 82:653)

Sen. Morris Sheppard, TX (Democrat)

May 7, 1934: "A very interesting interview - came off the floor and we went to a quiet place to talk over the legislation - he agreed that we were crusaders like he was - and stated he wasn't in favor of bootlegging in birth control any more than in liquor. He was very much interested in the fact that Dr. Minnie Maffett of Dallas the family physician for his nieces was giving information and was a 'bootlegger' - and he agreed very definitely on the need for clinics in Texas." - Hazel Moore (LCM 82:347)


Sen. William H. Dieterich, IL (Democrat)

Apr. 11, 1934: "Rather impossible [for him to support bill] at present time. 'I'm afraid I'm a little old fashioned on that. I'm not ready to teach our children to become whores yet.' Muttered something under his breath. 'We don't get along very well on that subject.'"- Guy Irving Burch

Second interview, Apr. 20, 1936: "He said that intelligent people have been hoodwinked and misled about the bill, even religious people and organizations - that birth control was unChristian and ungodly. It would really open up the country to abortion and abortionists . . . every healthy couple should have six children, and [he] pointed out that at the present rate in a few generations the country would be overrun with the Negro race which multiplies so rapidly." - Helen Harper (LCM 78:260)

Sen. Peter Norbeck, SD (Republican)

May 28, 1934: "He stated 'I might vote for that but I think your theory is wrong. If we don't watch out Japan will take the country - our rich people aren't having children. Your bill is only to legalize what is already in practice - therefore not so important to change law.'" - Hazel Moore (LCM 82:203)

Rep. Arthur W. Mitchell, IL (Democrat)

Mar. 30, 1935?: "He stated he had discussed the subject with other Congressmen who wondered if the practices of birth control by the White Race would eliminate them and the fact that birth control was not practiced by the Colored Race would make them supreme. . . . He mentioned that colored people were very much more devoted to their children then white people and wanted larger families, and he stated he did not believe there was a high maternity death rate either. Throughout his conversation, he showed his confusion between birth control and abortion." - Hazel Moore (LCM 78:290)


Rep. Nat Patton, TX (Democrat)

Apr. 21, 1936: "He read the bill and then made an explosion, damning any one, doctor or otherwise, who would go against God's law by teaching how to prevent birth. I told him birth control was not abortion, but it did not seem to have any noticeable effect." - Guy Irving Burch (LCM 82:341)

Rep. Edward E. Eslick, TN (Democrat)

Apr. 14, 1932: "Mr. Eslick was very busy, and when I mentioned our bill he said: 'Please don't take my time; I am opposed to it and will vote against it.' I recalled to his mind that yesterday a Representative mentioned before the Ways and Means Committee the eight millions of unemployed fathers who look across the breakfast table and wonder where they would get the next breakfast for their wives and children. I told him that eight millions of mothers were also concerned and fearful there might be more mouths to feed during the coming year. His answer was: 'Jesus said: Suffer little children to come unto me.' I replied by telling him of the high infant mortality rate in the United States . . . He again stated: 'Jesus said: Suffer little children to come unto me, and he did not say whether they should be living or dead.'" - Hazel Moore (LCM 82:272)


Sen. Hugo L. Black, AL (Democrat)

Jan. 4, 1933: "Had interview in the hall. Not particularly interested in the legislation. Said he would vote on it if it comes before the full committee but would not commit himself one way or the other. 'After all,' said Senator Black, 'I have all the information I need and so do you.' I replied, as he hurried off, that his people in the cotton mills and tenant farms needed this information desperately - and he replied 'they have it too.' He was cordial and pleasant but not at all interested." - Hazel Moore (LCM 77:97)

Rep. Effie Wingo, AR (Democrat)

Feb. 11, 1932: "Entirely too busy to consider the subject. 'When war is in the air we cannot consider something that cannot come about for years.'" - Hazel Moore (LCM 77:194)


Sen. Henry F. Ashurst, AZ (Democrat)

Apr. 27, 1932: "I asked Senator Ashurst pointedly if he was opposed to a physician prescribing effective harmless contraceptive methods in a case where the indication was that a pregnancy would result in death. He replied: 'Certainly not. I am not inhuman but I have not considered birth control from that standpoint. I have considered it only from the conditions that are existing throughout the country today where every boy and girl or anybody can buy what they want and there seems to be no restriction.'" - Col. J. J. Toy

Second interview, Feb. 8, 1933: "Ashurst most discouraging - there is no doubt of his opposition - He feels B.C. is murder and that life is taken." - Hazel Moore (LCM 77:135)

Rep. Harry A. Estep, PA (Republican)

Jan 20, 1932: "I had a long argument with Mr. Estep who is a comparatively young man. I found out very soon that he confused contraception with abortion and tried to straighten him out on it. . . . He considered the subject only from the point of view of its possible abuse both by young people and by the 'scallywags of the medical profession.' Was convinced that poor people who need it could not be taught to use it properly; with his mind still confused on the subject of abortion." - Alice Palache (LCM 82:52)


Rep. Charles L. Gifford, MA (Republican)

Jan. 16, 1932: He was skeptical about Mrs. Sanger's and my motives in working for the cause . . . had to be assured we were not doing it just for the sake of having a job or possibly getting one thru it in the future." - Alice Palache (LCM 79:383)

Rep. Joe Henry Eagle, TX (Democrat)

Mar. 25, 1934: "Said he was against the bill. Said we earned ou[r] living by birth control that was why we were for it. When I called his bluff he said he did not want to argue. . . when near the door he said he practiced birth control as every sensible person did." - Guy Irving Burch (LCM 82:325)

Rep. William V. Gregory, KY (Democrat)

Jan. 22, 1934: "Not encouraging. Said women could get all the information they wanted now. Thought sending contraceptives through the mails was a 'racket.' I told him differently but he kept saying it was a 'racket.'" - Guy Irving Burch (LCM 79:30).