Margaret Sanger Birth Control

Margaret Sanger Birth Control

Margaret Sanger Birth Control

                  On May 6, 1917 about 200 people watched a private showing Margaret Sanger’s film, Birth Control. It had been scheduled to open publicly the next night, but New York officials banned it as obscene and it was never shown publicly. 

             Discomfort regarding sexually-related topics has long been part of American culture. A result of that attitude is that access to reproductive information and treatment for American women been limited socially as well as legally.

               On March 3, 1873   the Comstock Act [named after Anthony Comstock, a U.S. postal inspector] amended the Post Office Act . Within that act it was illegal to send any "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information. In addition to banning contraceptives, this act also banned the distribution of information on abortion for educational purposes.

               Vestiges of the act endured as the law of the land into the 1990s. In 1971 Congress removed the language concerning contraception, and federal courts until Roe v Wade in 1973 ruled that it applied only to “unlawful” abortions. After Roe, laws criminalizing transportation of information about abortion remained on the books, and, although they have not been enforced, they have been expanded to ban distribution of abortion-related information on the Internet.  [http://www.britannica.com/event/Comstock-Act]
               Margaret Sanger, 1879 - 1966, despite her eugenics statements, is in many ways the most important American in terms of reproductive heath care for American women.

               Sanger watched her mother Anne die  at the age of 49 after she had gone through 18 pregnancies (with 11 live births) in 22 years.

               In 1911 she and her husband moved to New York City where, as a visiting nurse, she saw the devastating effects of poverty on health, particularly women's health.

               As an aid to this heath issue, Sanger believed that women needed access to reproductive health information. Her activities in support of that belief were often illegal.
               For example:

               In March 1914,  Sanger produced The Woman Rebel which instructed women on times when it would be wise for them to avoid pregnancy, such as in the case of illness or poverty. She did not give any instructions regarding specific methods for contraception, but the New York City postmaster banned the journal under the Comstock Law category of "obscene, lewd, lascivious" matter.

Margaret Sanger Birth Control

Margaret Sanger Birth Control

               Despite intense social and legal opposition, on October 16, 1916 Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in Brooklyn. The clinic served 448 people that first day. Ten days later the vice squad raided and shut down the clinic. The squad arrested Sanger and Byrne and confiscated all the condoms and diaphragms at the clinic.

               On November 1, 1921  the American Birth Control League was created through a merger of the National Birth Control League and the Voluntary Parenthood League. Led by Sanger, the new league became the leading birth control advocacy group in the country. The American Birth Control League eventually became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. [Sanger did not like the term planned parenthood and continued to use the phrase "birth control."

               Margaret Sanger's long term goal was a birth control pill, yet laws against any form of birth control continued to be enacted and upheld in court [February 1, 1943, in Tileston v. Ullman, the Supreme Court upheld a Connecticut law banning the use of drugs or instruments that prevented conception.]
               In the early 1940s, researchers began to discover chemicals that could affect ovulation and on April 25, 1951,Margaret Sanger managed to secure a tiny grant for researcher Gregory Pincus from Planned Parenthood.  Pincus begins initial work on the use of hormones as a contraceptive.  Within a year his research supports the idea, but Planned Parenthood decided not to support further research because it was too risky. In 1953 Sanger was able to gain financial support for Pincus's research. In 1955 human clinical trials proved that the "pill" was 100% effective.

               It was still six years later before the Food and Drug Administration approved the pill. It first went on sale in December 1960. Despite continued social, legal, and religious opposition, by 1964 some four million women were using the drug.

               On June 7, 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court struck down the one remaining state law prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married couples.
               After an adult lifetime of fighting for women's heath rights, Margaret Sanger died on September 6, 1966. [NYT obit]

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