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Thursday, June 4, 2020  

Margaret Sanger: Pioneer and advocate for women’s healthPublished 12/16/2003

How refreshing (and inspiring) to find a comprehensive collection of letters, speeches, and other original documents from the life of Margaret Sanger. For those who are not familiar with her, Sanger was a trained nurse and founder of the modern birth control movement in the early part of the 20th century. During her campaign for birth control, the "Comstock Laws," (commonly known as the obscenity laws), held sway. Her attempts to publish and distribute information about women’s reproductive hygiene and family planning were repeatedly thwarted. The U.S. Postal Service confiscated the materials, and she was charged and fined with indecency. At one point, the police arrested her for her activities. After being released on bail, she fled to Europe to continue her research into women’s reproductive health and contraception. Meanwhile, her colleagues in the United States continued to distribute her writings illegally, getting arrested and fined for their activities. Despite the illegality of the information at the time, women of all social classes clamored for Sanger’s writings.

Upon her return from Europe, Margaret Sanger traveled the United States, lecturing and promoting the formation of local birth control leagues and clinics. The popular response proved phenomenal, as did the opposition. She had a vision and plan to start the very first birth control clinic, modeled after clinics she encountered in Holland. She and

other trained nurses would instruct women in health education, contraception, women’s hygiene, and family planning. Although she would not admit to actually ‘treating’ women at her clinic, she did apparently fit peccaries.

Then as now, poorer women suffered from a severe lack of access to health information and services. As a visiting nurse, Sanger witnessed first hand these women and their families living in horrendous squalor, giving birth to multitudes of children they could not feed or care for. This reality struck her as obscene, the true moral outrage. In contradistinction, the law of the land held that information about women’s reproductive functions and female anatomy was obscene! Sanger fought hard to challenge this brand of government-legislated morality. However, all of her activities and beliefs would not necessarily pass a litmus test today in terms of modern concepts of social justice. While in Europe, she became involved in the Eugenics movement, which advocated the sterilization of the so-called ‘feeble-minded.’ The idea was rooted in a kind of Social Darwinism, the thinking that society as a whole would evolve if ‘undesirable elements’ (i.e. the developmentally disabled, insane and criminal) stopped reproducing. The subject of forced sterilization, or even the idea of ‘limiting’ certain persons’ reproductive behavior, has a long and questionable history in this country. As late as the 1960s, instances occurred involving the involuntary sterilization of poor women, disproportionately from ethnic minorities. Given this history, minority women have stressed that comprehensive birth control must involve the freedom to reproduce. This in turn involves advocating for healthy pregnancies, safe deliveries, and healthy neonates.

Ultimately the police closed down Margaret Sanger’s clinic. The American Birth Control League, (which she founded), evolved into Planned Parenthood. Amazingly enough, the clinics are still under siege!

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