Category: Archive

Margaret Sanger launches first family planning clinic

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Margaret Sanger was born Margaret Higgins in 1879 in Corning, N.Y. She was the sixth of 11 children born to her Irish-American parents, Anne Purcell Higgins and Michael Higgins. Her father, a stonecutter and an atheist, was a major source of her iconoclastic thinking. He mother, a devout Catholic, also provided inspiration but of a different sort. Anne Higgins died at age 48 — a direct result, Sanger always believed, from the physical toll of bearing and raising 11 children.
After college Sanger studied nursing at White Plains Hospital in New York. In 1902 she married William Sanger, an architect, and started a family (they eventually had three children). But married life and motherhood bored Sanger and she soon fell in with the radical set in Greenwich Village, a group that included legendary radicals such as Emma Goldman, John Reed, and Eugene Debs. She joined the Socialist Party and worked on behalf of women’s rights and other radical causes, all the while continuing to work as a nurse among the city’s poor.
It was in the course of her daily visits to the impoverished families of the Lower East Side that Sanger began to focus on what would become her life’s work. Increasingly, she came to believe that women’s emancipation from inequality and poverty would only occur when women learned how to prevent pregnancy and limit the size of their families.
There was, of course, one problem. Contraception was widely opposed by most Americans, both Catholic and Protestant, in the early 20th century. They believed it would undermine the family and promote immorality. The Comstock Law, passed back in 1873, prohibited the distribution of information about contraception through the mail. By 1914, 22 states had laws that similarly curbed the distribution of such information.
Undaunted, Sanger plunged into the study of contraception and in 1914 started a radical newspaper aptly named The Rebel Woman, with the slogan “No Gods, No Masters.” From its pages Sanger urged women to stand up for their rights and to “act in defiance of convention.” At the same time she published a pamphlet on contraception entitled “Family Limitation” in which she coined the phrase “birth control.” But when local authorities shut down her paper and seized copies of her pamphlet, Sanger fled the country for Europe to avoid arrest.
When she returned 18 months later (after the indictment against her had been dropped) committed to a new strategy. No longer would she present birth control as a revolutionary feminist demand. Rather, she would present it as a basic medical necessity. Physicians, she argued, should be allowed to provide information on contraception just as they did other forms of medical advice.
Not content to wait for the laws to change, however, Sanger joined with her sister Ethyl Byrne, and a third woman, Fanie Mindell, to open a family planning clinic in Brownsville. In reality, it was little more than a storefront operation that offered free counseling, medical consultations, and literature on contraception. Still, the police soon raided the facility and threw the women in jail.
Despite this setback, the winds of change were blowing in Sanger’s favor. The judge who upheld her 30-day sentence sided with her contention that physicians be granted greater freedom to disseminate information on contraception to their patients. Inspired by this development, Sanger soon founded the Birth Control League to lobby for legal reforms regarding doctors and contraception. In 1921 she took this effort nationwide with the founding of the American Birth Control League.
With remarkable speed, Sanger’s crusade gained support among Protestants, Jews, and others not affiliated with a particular faith. It must be remembered, of course, that the far more controversial issue of abortion rights, while certainly supported by radicals like Sanger, was not an issue.
Sanger’s greatest opposition came from the Catholic church, which stood by its traditional teaching against contraception. Sanger’s chief antagonist was Msgr. John A. Ryan, a priest many considered quite radical for his writings in defense of labor unions and a living wage. But on the matter of birth control, Ryan stood firmly on conservative ground, defending church teachings and denouncing Sanger’s crusade as a distraction from real social reform causes. “To advocate contraception,” Ryan told a congressional committee, “as a method of bettering the condition of the poor and unemployed, is to divert the attention of the influential classes from the pursuit of social justice.”
Others would find different reasons to criticize Sanger. Initially, she supported birth control as a means of liberating women and raising the health and living standards of the poor. But she soon grew increasingly infatuated, as did many Americans in this era (and later Hitler and the Nazis), with eugenics, a movement that championed race “improvement” by eliminating groups deemed genetically inferior. Birth control, Sanger declared, would reduce the population of undesirable immigrants and racial groups. “More children from the fit,” Sanger wrote in 1919, “less from the unfit — that is the issue.”
Despite unbending opposition from many quarters, Sanger and her crusade continued to gain public support. In 1942 the Birth Control League took on the more familiar name Planned Parenthood Foundation and continued the drive to eliminate laws restricting the distribution of information regarding contraception. It also raised money for scientific research into contraceptives, ultimately resulting in the successful development of the pill in the early 1960s.
Sanger remained active in the cause until her death in 1966 at the age of 87. By then the debate had shifted to the more contentious ground of abortion rights.

Oct. 18, 1881: Charles Stewart Parnell, imprisoned during Britain’s crackdown on the Land League, issues the No Rent Manifesto, calling upon Irish tenant farmers to withhold their rents,
Oct. 18, 1950: Cornelius “Connie Mack” McGillicuddy retires as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics after 50 years.
Oct. 19, 1989: A British court nullifies the guilty verdicts against Guilford Four, jailed for 14 years for a bombing they did not commit.

Oct. 16, 1890: Nationalist, government official, and military leader Michael Collins is born in Clonakilty, Co. Cork.
Oct. 17, 1803: Nationalist and leader of 1848 rebellion William Smith O’Brien is born in Dromoland, Co. Clare.
Oct. 22, 1920: Harvard psychologist and 1960s LSD advocate Timothy Leary is born in Springfield, Mass.

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