The current discussion about birth control brings to mind Margaret Sanger, who
a century ago fled her native land for Europe to avoid being put in jail for distributing birth control information via the U.S. Postal Service. Sanger spent the next two years in Europe gathering information on how women could try to regulate the number of children they wished to bear, and to choose the time when it was best to do so.
Sanger journeyed to Holland, where she studied the work of Dr. Aletta Jacobs, who in 1878 had founded her country’s first free clinic for poor women and children. Stillbirth and abortion dropped so dramatically in the vicinity of the clinic that the country followed Jacobs’ lead, and by 1914 the country had 50 such free maternal health clinics. The clinic’s female birth control method of choice was a rubber diaphragm, which eventually became the method of choice throughout the world.
Sanger returned to America and, together with her sister, opened the first free birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. When the clinic—a forerunner of Planned Parenthood–was opened, there was a line of women halfway down the block who wished “to her to stop the babies from coming.” As expected, the authorities closed the clinic within ten days, and eventually Mrs. Sanger was hauled off to prison, where she spent her time organizing reading and writing classes among her fellow prisoners.
After she served her term, Sanger, with the help of some lawyers and physicians, managed to modify existing laws so that doctors could prescribe contraception to married women for a great variety of reasons. It would take decades before this resource would be available for teens or the unmarried.
The search for contraceptives is as old as humankind itself. Mechanical methods, like condoms made from goat bladders, pieces of wool jammed up the vagina, and vigorous rinsing after intercourse, offered some protection, but magic and swallowing poisons never worked, at least not for their intended purpose. Effective oral contraception dates from the 1950s and not surprisingly it was Margaret Sanger who recruited the scientists who finally cracked the problem and discovered “the Pill.”
There were two reasons that convinced Margaret Sanger, a nurse, to become a contraceptive crusader. As a child she observed that, as a rule, poverty and large families went hand in hand, and that rich women knew how to limit the children they bore and raised. The other reason was that as a nurse she had cared for numerous women who died from self-induced abortion. Quoting from Margaret Sanger’s autobiography:
Her last patient had been “a small slight Russian Jewess, about twenty-eight years old…Jake Sachs, a truck-driver scarcely older than his wife, had come home to find the three children crying and her unconscious from the effects of a self-induced abortion. He had called the nearest doctor, who in turn had sent for me…
The doctor and I settled ourselves to fight the septicemia…Never had I worked so fast, never so concentratedly…
After a fortnight…as I was preparing to leave the fragile patient to take up her difficult life once more, she finally voiced her fears. ‘Another baby will finish me, I suppose?’
‘It is too early to talk about that,’ I temporized.
But when the doctor came to make his last call, I drew him aside. ‘Mrs. Sachs is terribly worried about having another baby.’
‘She well might be,’ replied the doctor…’Any more such capers, young woman, and there’ll be no need to send for me.’
‘I know, doctor…but…what can I do to prevent it?’
…The doctor was a kindly man, and he had worked hard to save her…but he laughed good-naturedly and said…’Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.'”
Within a few months Mrs. Sachs was again pregnant and died of another self-inflicted abortion. Margaret Sanger never forgot what was to be her last case. “I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost, I was finished with palliatives and superficial cures: I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose mineries were as vast as the sky.”
It is surprising that the right for women to avail themselves of adequate methods of birth control is still being questioned today. Here in America, nobody is forced to use these methods if they interfere with their beliefs or desires. But I am deeply grateful that my sisters and I are able to have the number of children we want when we want them.