Newsletter #6 (Winter 1993/1994)

Sanger, Censorship, and the Catholic Church – The Latest Battle in a Long War

More than twenty-five years after her death in 1966, Margaret Sanger's battle with the Catholic Church continues. The most recent incident occurred this October when a Roman Catholic bishop attempted to have a poster of Sanger removed from the University of St. Thomas library in St. Paul. Part of an American Library Association series entitled Great Minds Meet at the Library, the poster depicts Sanger in a photo taken just after her 1917 conviction for opening the nation's first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Beneath the photo is a quote from Sanger's 1931 autobiography, My Fight For Birth Control:

"Life has taught me one supreme lesson. This is that we must – if we are to really live at all, if we are to enjoy the life more abundant promised by the Sages of Wisdom – we must put our convictions into action. My renumeration has been that I have been privileged to act out my faith."

A graduate of St. Thomas, evidently offended by the fact that the poster celebrated the nation's most prominent birth control advocate, contacted Bishop Robert Carlson who asked the university's president, Rev. Dennis Dease, to have the poster taken down. Bishop Carlson justified his request not just on Sanger's advocacy of contraception, a practice which the Pope recently included in a list of practices he defined as "intrinsically evil" but on the grounds that Sanger was a "strong racist." (St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 7, 1993) This was not the first time that the Church officially tried to censor Sanger, nor was it the first time her opponents sought to sustain an anti-birth control position by assailing Sanger's character. She was regularly vilified on political as well as moral grounds. In 1935, Patrick Cardinal Hayes of New York, for example, not only referred to birth control as "diabolic," but vilified its advocates as "prophets of decadence" (New York Times, 12/9/1935). Others linked Sanger's early radicalism to a communist conspiracy, referring to her as an "enemy and traitor," (Shipler, "Catholics and Birth Control," The Churchman, August 15, 1941).

Sanger's struggle to promote birth control was often met with both overt and covert opposition by the Catholic Church. For example, days before Sanger was scheduled to speak at St. Louis' Victoria Theatre in 1916, the theater manager was pressured by prominent Catholics to cancel the event. According to local Catholic lawyer and morals crusader, Edward Schneiderhahan, "I simply told the management that if they opened the doors to her they need not expect us to enter those doors again." (St Louis Republic, May 20, 1916) The manager gave in to the threat and notified Sanger that the event was cancelled. As always, Sanger made the most of such efforts to censor her. Though she had already rescheduled her lecture for the Hippodrome Theatre, Sanger went to the Victoria Theatre at the originally scheduled time, and playing to the gathered crowd of 1,400 people loudly protested the locked doors.

When faced by Catholic efforts to stop public discussion of birth control, Sanger often effectively invoked the First Amendment, and in the process exposed the Church's willingness to ignore constitutional church/state separation. In the 1920s, Sanger's refusal to yield led some more militant Catholic groups to step up efforts to silence her. At the founding conference for the American Birth Control League in 1921, Monsignor Patrick J. Ryan pressured the New York City Police to stop a lecture on the morality of birth control being given at Town Hall on November 13. When Sanger and others resisted, they were arrested. Though the charges were dropped the next morning, the resulting press coverage again worked in her favor – the meeting was held November 18 at the Park Theater in front of an overflowing crowd. As Sanger later remarked in My Fight for Birth Control, "instead of cutting off discussion of birth control, the episode made the whole country talk about it" (p. 220).

The Catholic Church's battle with Sanger continued in the 1930s when she instigated a campaign to lobby Congress to legalize birth control. Increasingly well-organized and national in scope, the Church had begun to alter its strategy, focusing now on using its considerable political clout to block birth control legislation. Sanger's bills were killed time and time again in congressional committee, at least in part the result of the increasingly powerful Catholic lobby, which no politician was willing to alienate.

Sanger succeeded in keeping birth control in the center of public debate despite her legislative failures and the persistent efforts of her opponents to demonize her through red-baiting and charges that she was a racist. The publicity value of such confrontations was enormous as Sanger herself noted in 1929, when she joined Theodore Dreiser, Clarence Darrow, and others at Boston's Ford Hall for a forum on Free Speech. It was no accident that Sanger chose Boston, a city with a strong and vocal Catholic population, to mock bans on public discussion of birth control. Appearing on the stage wearing a gag, Sanger had her remarks written on a board:

"To inflict silence upon a woman is indeed a drastic punishment. But there are certain advantages to be derived from it nevertheless....You all know that I have been gagged. I have been suppressed. I have been arrested numerous times. I have been hauled off to jail. Yet every time, more people have listened to me, more have protested, more have lifted up their own voices. As a pioneer fighting for a cause, I believe in free speech. As a propagandist I see immense advantages in being gagged. It silences me, but it makes millions of others talk and think the cause in which I live." ("The Importance of Being Suppressed, April 16, 1929, Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress)

The most recent attempt by the Church to quiet Sanger's voice was no more successful than earlier ones. The President of St. Thomas University supported Library Director Jean Haley's decision to leave the poster of Sanger in its place. Haley commented, "The poster is part of the Library's collection and is protected by the Library Bill of Rights...It deserves the same protection as the rest of the collection." (St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 7, 1993)