Modern Mechanix

The debate over birth control is reaching a fever pitch in the United States right now. Whether it's Republicans trying to defund Planned Parenthood, or presidential candidates declaring they would only nominate new Supreme Court justices based on whether they would overturn Roe v. Wade, the topic isn't disappearing from national discourse.

However, as Modern Mechanix recently highlighted, when it first appeared, some conservatives were actually in favor of birth control practices, albeit for a chilling reason: eugenics.

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In a 1922 article in Physical Culture titled "Birth Control—A Two-Edged Sword," social scientist Albert Edward Wiggam declares that since humanity is practicing birth control, it's up to the best of humanity to not practice it, and also get undesirables on board in order to socially engineer the perfect America. It's a thinly veiled classist, racist argument and it's deeply unsettling to read something like it presented in such a straightforward manner in what was a bodybuilding magazine. (It's basically the progenitor of a weird weightlifting forum post that gets very out-of-hand.)

Modern Mechanix

In the article's opening Wiggam voices his disgust that President Warren G. Harding congratulated an American man for having 16 children. Wiggam is not disgusted because the family grew so large, but rather because the man did not come from a great, rich family:

What was my astonishment and disappointment, when I learned that this man's services to human society were valued by his fellow men at twenty dollars a week!

Wiggam does not approve of Domenico Zacchea and his family because they are from a "poorer class" (and, presumably, because they're Italian). This is an issue, Wiggam says, because eugenics (a fake science):

found that, in the long run, at least one-half of all the great men of the world, who have made civilization what it is, were born from parents who had achieved great distinction and usually wealth, and that nearly all the other half sprang from parents of the abler and more well-to-do classes.

Wiggam then gets into why it's so important for the right families to keep having children: we'll need them to ensure things don't get out of hand when food sources decline. He describes how population grows "geometrically" while food sources grow "arithmetically" and then, in full-on doomsday-mode:

Plainly then, in a little while somebody is going to starve. Either the mothers will be so undernourished they cannot suckle their babes, or the old folks will die from starvation, or pestilence due to undernourishment will set in, or else the whole population will go to war and capture the food of some other country and kill off the people of the conquered region.

The solution to this is not improving techniques to more efficiently produce food, but rather social engineering.

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Wiggam turns his attention to women who haven't had more than two children. He says prosperous families aren't having enough children because women are too concerned with undefined "freedoms."

They are "shirking" their duties toward "organic evolution" by choosing "phonographs, and upholstered furniture, and installment pianos, and "freedom," and travel, more than they want to carry their fair share of the world-old burden of women." That way lays the path toward "racial salvation" or "racial decay." Wiggam argues though, that if the right people create the right families, there will be more phonographs and undefined "freedoms" for everyone who is deemed worthy. Birth control, "if wisely guided, [can] bring in a better and healthier human race."

Wiggam goes on, saying:

If civilization is to continue, the higher classes must have more children…since many, healthy, able but selfish women will produce none…it is a mortal certainty that some women must go on having four, five, six, and even eight or ten children.

This is a catch-22 because the better-educated are more likely to listen to "birth controllers" and when they start to disappear by not siring better-educated children, "then you have a world not worth living in." So:

The one central question among birth controllers should be who is going to have the children—the wise, provident and strong, or the weak, thoughtless and stupid? There is no such thing as race-suicide. It is always class-suicide. And it is always the wrong class.

Unfortunately, to Wiggam, the "stupid" people on the bottom rungs of society (the aforementioned "wrong class") don't know enough to know they should practice birth control. Compounding the issue, the women who believe "propaganda" about how giving birth fewer times will make you healthier in the long run are spoiling any possibility of "race-improvement."

To fact-check Wiggam quickly: in the early decades of the 20th century, because of undertrained doctors, maternal mortality rates in the United States actually (briefly) increased over rates from the previous century. In this case, that propaganda is just the truth.

To counter any arguments that a woman might have to not have a large family, Wiggam offers anecdotal evidence that those with larger families are actually smarter, better educated, and have more time for things like books "than the gadabout with all her sophistication and so-called "freedom.""

Wiggam closes by saying the U.S. will never reach a population larger than 200,000,000 (this happened in 1967, ten years after Wiggam died), but it's only through selective breeding that Americans can ensure there won't be a civil war over food sources. (Fact check: This has yet to occur.) Since the U.S. population went over 322 million this morning, and Americans have so much food that they throw it away, it's probably safe to assume Wiggam died knowing he was wrong.

You can read Wiggam's entire article at Modern Mechanix.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: david.matthews@fusion.net

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