The Story of Margaret Sanger

The Story of Margaret Sanger
Americans today take for granted the availability of birth control information and access to contraception. Yet, contraceptive devices and instructions on how to use them were not always so easily obtainable. Margaret Sanger laid the groundwork for modern-day women to control their own fertility by challenging laws that criminalized the dissemination of birth control information, by raising the public´s awareness of the need for contraception, by securing funds for research into modern birth control methods, and by establishing the clinics that became Planned Parenthood.

Margaret was born in 1879, the daughter of Michael and Anne Higgins of Corning, New York. Mrs. Higgins was a devout Catholic who died at an early age from tuberculosis. Blaming her mother´s poor health and early death on 18 pregnancies and 11 live births, Margaret studied public health nursing, before becoming a nurse specializing in women´s health in an impoverished area of New York City. Her background led her to focus her efforts on contraception as a means to prevent the deaths of her patients from childbirth, miscarriage, and botched abortion.

In 1912, Sanger, by then married with 3 children, began writing a newspaper column, "What Every Girl Should Know," which provided information on birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Her explicit articles on syphilis drew the attention of government censors, and the column was banned in 1913. The following week, the newspaper ran an empty box in place of Sanger´s column. The headline read, "What Every Girl Should Know – Nothing! by order of the U.S. Post Office."

She then began publishing The Woman Rebel, a radical feminist monthly that advocated the right to use birth control. Sanger was arrested and charged in August 1914 with violating federal obscenity laws by encouraging the use of contraception. Facing 45 years in prison, Sanger fled to Europe, where she learned of new contraceptive methods not available in the United States, including the diaphragm. In October 1915, planning to challenge the laws in court, she returned to face the obscenity charges. However, shortly after her arrival in the United States, the sudden death of her 5-year-old daughter swayed public opinion in her favor, and the charges against her were dropped.

The death of her only daughter motivated Sanger to intensify her uphill battle against government censorship. Deprived of the opportunity to challenge the statutes against birth control, Sanger began a nationwide tour promoting contraception, culminating in the establishment of the first birth control clinic in the United States. The Brooklyn clinic helped more than 500 women before being shut down after only 10 days in operation. Sanger served 30 days in jail. Although Sanger´s conviction was upheld on appeal, the appellate judge handed her a major victory by reinterpreting the law to allow doctors to prescribe birth control for health reasons. Using this new interpretation of the law, Sanger opened the first legal, physician-run birth control clinic in the United States in 1923.

Sanger continued to work for reproductive freedom until her death in 1966. Her tireless efforts to make birth control devices and information generally available led to: the development of oral contraceptives; the federal ruling that permitted the importation of birth control materials by physicians; and the legalization of contraception by the U.S. Supreme Court. Couples who rely on modern-day birth control methods to choose when or whether to have children owe much to the pioneering work of Margaret Sanger.

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