Recently, while sorting through my grandmother’s writings, I found a letter she’d sent to Reader’s Digest in 1943, defending birth control. It piqued my interest because she typically wrote about issues that affected older adults, such as Social Security, healthcare, and pensions, rather than those that concerned young families.
She had strong opinions about maternity, having suffered a miscarriage prior to my mother’s birth. While she believed that a woman has a right to control her body by practicing birth control, she was against abortion, saying, “If you can’t make a life, you have no right to take it.” Her strong belief in the “power of God” to create and extinguish vitality was evident in the way she lived.
It was common to see a formation of ants marching across her kitchen counters in search of water and crumbs of food. She was unwilling to kill them, delighting in their determination and discipline. She’d chastise me for throwing away chive flowers, explaining they could be chopped and used in salads. And on scorching hot days, she’d emerge from her Burbank bungalow to tend to her parched garden, heartening the wilting seedlings to triumph and turn into vines of tomatoes, peas, and beans.
Her letter to Reader’s Digest also illustrates how little has changed in 79 years. The arguments she makes are similar to those taking place today with discourse about the rights of the unborn with little conversation about creating a high quality of life for all children, wanted and unwanted. Currently, there are nearly 440,000 children in foster care in the United States with over a quarter, waiting to be adopted. Nearly 1 in 5 young children in the US don’t get enough to eat and the situation worsened during the Coronavirus pandemic with 25% increase in food insecurities.
In 2019, state agencies found over 656,000 victims of child maltreatment, reinforcing the reality that the United States has the worst records among industrialized nations, losing on average 5 children every day to child abuse and neglect.
Finally, while my grandmother didn’t address abortion, she questioned whether it was better to focus on having lots of children—quantity of production—versus having fewer and being able to provide them with the resources and support that results in their becoming productive members of society—quality and durability of the finished product.
The current emphasis on repealing Roe v. Wade—despite it being established law—and the ban of abortions after six weeks of gestation overlooks the economic impact both to individuals and society, having unwanted pregnancies. And it pivots toward the unreasonable.
This became clear a few weeks ago when a woman posted on a local community page a warning about a physician at a community hospital who failed to recognize her unusual “bleeding” as an incomplete miscarriage. Two months earlier, she’d had a baby, so the physician who diagnosed her from a distance told her it was hormonal. A few days later, she was admitted to the emergency room, anemic and septic.
In Texas and other states with draconian policies that impact women’s health, she could have died with abortion after six weeks being illegal. Fortunately, she received the necessary medical care and procedures.
And in the past few days, a video has resurfaced of Republican candidate for Alaska’s Senate Kelly Tshibaka calling for the federal criminalization of in-mail abortion and birth control pills, believing the use of birth control is akin to abortion because it blocks the potential implantation of a fertilized egg. It would be interesting to hear her opinion on the mail-order of Viagra and the requirement that fathers support a child from conception through at least 16-years of schooling.
The Reader’s Digest article was written by Reverend Edgar Schmiedeler, O.S.B., Ph.D. who wrote “Our Rural Proletariat” in 1938 for the National Catholic Welfare Conference.
October 10, 1943
The Reader’s Digest
Re: Birth Control – Rev. E. Schmiedeler, October Issue
I should like to comment, if I may, upon some of the Reverend’s remarks. I very much fear that he is a little confused about the subject and that some of his statements are contradictory.
Also, he seems to be more concerned about what he considers to be the results of birth control, than about the reasons for it. Is it always too late to worry about a result; it is a better idea to investigate the steps leading up to it.
He wrote, “…shocking, havoc-wrought…by birth control.” Well, take our street for instance. It’s a pretty long street, well filled with small family houses. We are neither city nor rural, and we are all of very moderate means. Undoubtedly most of us practice birth control, for outside of two families of three children eat, the rest have but one or two. The children look well-fed, properly clothed, happy, healthy, and strong.
The parents look equally well taken care of, happy, contented, and taking joy in living. The same must be true of the whole neighborhood, as evidenced by the children who come to school, and by the men and women, one meets on the streets.
Now, if these birth-control-practicing parents constitute what the Reverend calls, “havoc,” and if these well-fed, well-cared-for small-family children constitute the results of “destructive work,” and if all this represents the “putrid cesspool…of American family life,” then I say let’s have more of the same.
What does the Referend mean when he wrote, “…large groups of people…rural populations?” Those outlying sections where people live without electricity, without roads, without education, without doctors, without hospitals, without means of diversion, and without even knowing there is a world outside?
Or does he mean the sharecroppers who work from dawn to dark and still aren’t able to earn enough bread to fill their empty bellies? Ore the migrants who must keep on the move, calling no place their own, living in hovels, broken-down trailers, where the comforts of modern living are practically non-existent, never having enough to eat or clothes to wear?
Does the Reference really want these people to have more and more children, to stretch over more and more hungry mouths, their little bit of nothing? Doesn’t he think it would be better to have fewer children, and more for each child? Isn’t there a limit to what a child should be without? Does he really believe these parents want more underfed, under-clothed, under-educated, underprivileged children? Can the sight of such privations bring joy to a parent’s heart? To my way of thinking, the only reason these people have large families is that they don’t know how to not have them!
Is it necessary to have populations in “numbers” as espoused by the Reverend? Does the number of people determine the strength of a country? Does the number of people make for a progressive country? Is it not the quality and strength of the mental and physical health of the people that make the country? The only time that number might be an advantage is when a country is on the warpath and hope to win by the sheer weight of a sizable population.
China, Japan, and India all have high birth rates, but how about their death rates? How many live to a ripe old age? Which would be better: A low birthrate with a lower percentage of infant and mother mortality and a higher percentage of long-lifers due to better upbringing during childhood, or a large birthrate with higher infant mortality and fewer people reaching adulthood and old age because of limited resources?
Should we encourage quantity of production or quality and durability of the finished product?
The Reverend also wrote, “We must attack the real problem, economic injustices.” The Reverend, therefore, does understand the real problem is economic, and as such, why does he encourage subjecting more children to share in the injustices of those who are already disadvantaged?
Can you improve the lot of poor migrants by giving them more mouths to feed and more bodies to clothe? My arithmetic tells me this logic is flawed.
The Reverend further writes, “Do you really believe… we can beat the law of nature?” Is he kidding? Haven’t we been beating the laws of nature? In fact, we’ve even harnessed her! She works our windmills, turns our turbines, and she can even let us split her atoms!
Aside from that, how do we know that nature doesn’t disapprove of birth control? After all, she is the greatest birth controller of all. Doesn’t she put out billions of seeds only to have them scattered and lost by her winds? Doesn’t she give every living thing an enemy, so as to keep its numbers limited?
In reference to “Japanese birth-control devices,” I thought it was the Japanese uncontrolled birth rate that was causing all this trouble. They have overproduced themselves and haven’t enough food or room for all their people.
The statement, “Birth control not only destroys but poisons,” therefore isn’t the real issue. It’s the uncontrolled birth rate of the Japanese.
“It is like malignant cancer, etc.” doesn’t jive with me. I’ve done alright; never felt better in my life.
Further in the article, the Reference refers to “one of the many forms of uncontrol, etc.” This is contradictory. Birth control is a form of control. Anything that calls for restraint and restriction is control. The unlimited birth rate would be a form of uncontrol, for, under it, people have as many children as they could bear, whether wanted or unwanted, whether healthy, sick, mentally challenged, or degenerate. Would that be good?
“Teach the cheap, filching of pleasure that is birth control,” espouses the Referend. He’s a bit confused here. Sex and birth control are two different things. They must be dealt with separately.
Having or not having children will not stop or hinder sex. It is like work and wage or like taking nourishment and getting enjoyment out of the meal or like making sounds and saying something. The former are the necessities, while the latter are the results.
According to the Reverend, only the fear of conceiving a child, not her own sense of right and wrong, or desire for respectability, keeps what we call a “good” girl from breaking the sex code. The lack of birth control methods would not deter the boy or girl who want indiscriminate sex any more than the knowledge of its availability.
The Reverend continues with his diatribe, “…teach artificial birth control—murdering the unborn child,” which is also contradictory. With birth control, there can be no conception; therefore, no unborn child.
The greater majority of married couples want and do have children, but they want to have only so many as they feel they can best support. Their aim is not simply to bring children into the world, simply to swell the population, but to leave behind strong, healthy, well-balanced men and women, who in turn are able to rear strong, healthy children. Both goals take time, money, and energy.
There is more to rearing a child than simply giving it birth. It means paying for the doctor, the hospital, the layette, the crib, and the bigger apartment. It means at least twenty-one years of having to provide good food, clothing, housing, proper schooling, and doctor and dentist bills—none of which come free, they all take money—even belonging to a church doesn’t come free.
Bearing a child also means the strength, energy, and time of a mother. How many of these resources can a mother devote to each child if her days are taken up with washing diapers, dressing babies, pushing buggies, shopping, housework, and all the while, being weighed down with carrying another “blessed event?”
Here’s another letter to the editor that my grandmother wrote on women’s rights and birth control:
February 25, 1945
Editor, This Week Magazine
Regarding: “The coming ware on women”
We women do NOT want supremacy over men. At the most, we want EQUALITY.
Give a man wage and job security and his wife will be glad to stay home and tend the pots and pans.
Which also applies to that “adequate birth rate.” We mothers would rather give the maximum (of advantages) to the minimum (of children), than the minimum to the maximum.
Thank you to photos by Marcelo Irigoyen on Unsplash and Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash