What could Scarface, Monty Python and the Life of Brian, and Margaret Sanger’s 1917 film Birth Control possibly have in common? I’ll give you a minute to think…
The answer is that all three have been censored to some extent in the United States. While we might not think of an informative film about the benefits of birth control as particularly inflammatory today, the censorship of Sanger’s film represents a culmination of the government’s opinion on public discourse of birth control and women’s rights, as well as the proclivity to censor “unsavory” topics. Since March is Women’s History month, let’s look at yet another moment in which Sanger’s passion for educating women and promoting the safe use of birth control was met with censorship and opposition.
1917 can be considered a tumultuous year for Margaret Sanger by anyone’s account. In February, Sanger was sent to jail after opening and running an illegal birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The Brownsville clinic was only open for ten days before the police raided and shut it down, justifying their actions through New York’s Comstock Law which prohibited circulation of obscene literature. Since birth control was considered obscene, the Brownsville clinic was illegal. Sanger served 30 days, and on March 6th was released from the Queens County Penitentiary.
Sanger’s stint in jail was only a brief break from her work to promote birth control. She had already begun work on a feature film on the subject of birth control before her imprisonment, and continued work on it directly afterward. Sanger had always been very interested in art, and even dabbled in painting and fiction throughout her life. It was certainly no surprise that she decided to try to combine her work in birth control with a new type of art–film.
The premise of the film, entitled alternatively Birth Control, or The New World, depending on the prospective audience, was rather simple. It dramatized Margaret Sanger’s work, her birth control clinics, and her arrest, as well as Sanger’s hopes for the future with birth control. Birth Control was to be part documentary and part narrative story, starring Sanger as the leading role. An advertisement for the film claimed it to be, “An Honest Birth Control Film At Last!”. Sanger planned to tour the country with the film, donating a large part of the profits directly to the birth control movement.
These plans were cut short even more swiftly than the Brownstone clinic was closed. The film was banned by license commissioner George Bell immediately before the New York City screening because he deemed the subject matter to be, “immoral, indecent, and contrary to public welfare”. Crowds already lined up to see the film at the Park Theatre had to be turned away, unaware of the last-minute decision. Instead, the film was shown at a private screening for roughly 200 members of press and those affiliated with the birth control movement. This was the first and last screening of Birth Control.
Following the confusion surrounding the “premiere”, there was an argument in the New York State Appellate Supreme Court about whether the ban should be lifted. Supreme Court Judge Nathan Bijur defended Sanger’s film, but was met with adverse opinions. Ultimately, Birth Control was the first film to be banned under the 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio decision, which ruled that protection of freedom of speech through the First Amendment did not apply to film because they classified it as purely a business, not
art. The court ruled that the film was contrary to, “the interest of morality, decency, and public safety and welfare”, thus it was in society’s best interest to censor it. It is also notable that Birth Control was the first woman-produced film to be banned in the United States. The Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission was eventually overturned in 1952, legally granting film protection as an artistic medium. Despite this, Birth Control was never shown again to the public, and despite many efforts to locate a copy of it, it has not been found.
For More Information of the 1917 Birth Control film, check out:
For legal proceedings, that include some of the screenplay of the film, consult: MESSAGE PHOTO-PLAY CO., INC. v. BELL, 179 App. Div. 13 (N.Y. App. Div. 1917) (Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition, Collected Documents Series C15:486-490).
Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence (1990)
Larry Langman, American Film Cycles: The Silent Era (1998)
Manon Parry, Broadcasting Birth Control: Mass Media and Family Planning (2013)