A hundred years ago Margaret Sanger distributed five thousand flyers in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood that read:
Can you afford to have a large family?
Do you want any more children?
If not, why do you have them?
DO NOT KILL, DO NOT TAKE LIVES, BUT PREVENT
Safe, Harmless Information can be obtained of trained Nurses at…
On October 16, 1916, America’s first free birth control clinic opened. Rapidly a line of at least 150 women formed each morning. Ten days later, U.S. marshals closed the clinic and locked up the woman who had coined the term birth control. The principal charge against Sanger and her associates was that they had violated Section 1141 of the Penal Code, which specifically prohibited the dissemination of birth control information. At that time the U.S. Post Office enforced laws pertaining to the guardianship of America’s morals, which for forty years were masterminded by Anthony Comstock, U.S. Postal Inspector and founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Born in Corning, New York, a town neighboring Seneca Falls (known as the birthplace of women’s rights in America), Margaret Sanger discovered early on that wealth and small families went hand in hand. She never abandoned her belief. Sanger became a nurse, worked on New York’s Lower East Side and was traumatized by the deaths of patients who succumbed to botched abortions. Her poor clients begged her to let them in on the secret of how rich women managed “to keep the babies from coming.”
Using her own resources, Sanger went to Europe to investigate available methods of birth control. She was particularly impressed by “the Dutch, [which] had long ago since adopted a common-sense attitude…that having a baby is an economic luxury—something like a piano or an automobile that had to be taken care of afterwards.”* Holland had free health clinics for poor women and children. These clinics also dispensed diaphragms and other available methods of birth control.
During her long life, Sanger worked tirelessly at making these imperfect methods of contraception available to married women. Sanger also urged scientists to develop an oral contraceptive, and provided her recruit Dr. Gregory Goodwin Pincus, one of the three fathers of “the Pill,” with his first minuscule grant of $2300.
Margaret Sanger could not have fathomed the sexual freedom that effective birth control would engender among the population, including its young teens. Though there are now reliable contraceptives they are not always used or used properly. Thirty-seven percent of the live births in the U.S. are unplanned. Nevertheless we have been making encouraging progress. During the past 23 years America’s horrendous teenage pregnancy rate declined dramatically from a high of 61.8/1000 teens to 26.6/1000 teens. Abortions, too, have declined from about 1.5 million to 1.1 million.
The recent ruling of the Supreme Court that certain corporations don’t have to pay for birth control of their employees is anathema to the spirit of our founding fathers, who advocated religious freedom. It is also economically unsound. Many women who cannot afford birth control will either have makeshift abortions or unwanted babies. No one, regardless of their religious orientation, promotes abortions, which in addition to being emotionally distressing can lead to costly medical complications, especially when improperly performed. Unwanted children unfortunately often become a painful burden for our overstressed society and overcrowded earth. As Margaret Sanger would have predicted, costly contraception will further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Do we really want that?
*Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography. Norton & Company, 1938.
In 1973 Suzanne Loebl wrote Conception, Contraception: A New Look (McGraw-Hill Book Company), which retells humanity’s millennial struggle to discover reliable methods of birth control.
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