Margaret Sanger, Birth Control Advocate

Profiles in Nursing

Margaret Sanger, Birth Control Advocate

This nurse went to prison for her conviction that women should be allowed to use contraceptives.

By Suzanne Ridgway
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In 1916, the penal code of the State of New York stated that, “no one could give information to prevent conception to anyone for any reason” (Section 1142). In spite of this, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in a very poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, filled with overworked or unemployed men and worn-out women living in overcrowded conditions with far too many children. Hundreds of women showed up the first two weeks. So did the police. Mrs. Sanger and her colleagues were arrested for violating Section 1142 and for “maintaining a public nuisance.”

One of eleven children, Margaret Sanger had always associated too many children with poor living conditions. Her own mother had died relatively young after 18 pregnancies. Trained as a nurse in 1900, she attended people in all strata of society, including the very poor, often in their homes. There she saw the effects of overpopulation: dire poverty, ill health, extremely high infant mortality rates, crime, and desperation. She became increasingly aware of the need for women to be able to control their own reproductive destiny.

Her defining moment came after the death of a patient from a self-induced abortion, a 28-year-old wife and mother of three. Sadie Sachs, terrified of having another child, had been seeking information about how to prevent pregnancy. Margaret Sanger then knew that she had to give up nursing to address larger questions, to learn all she could about contraception, and to fight for the right to disseminate that information. She believed a myriad of societal and health problems could be prevented by addressing the issue of unwanted pregnancy. She also believed that every child deserved to be wanted.

In 1913, she traveled to Europe to gather practical information on methods of contraception. Later she risked prison by publishing a magazine, The Woman Rebel, that did not print contraceptive information, only called for public education regarding “birth control” (a term coined by Margaret Sanger). Charged with obscenity, Margaret fled the country to avoid going to court unprepared. But a pamphlet she had written with very specific information about birth control, including a discussion of the diaphragm and spermicides, was secretly printed and distributed at her direction by a dedicated network of volunteers while she was out of the country. The government ultimately declined to prosecute. Margaret continued to collect public support through public speaking, edited Birth Control Review, and founded the American Birth Control League, which would later become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Although her arrest at her own Brooklyn clinic resulted in a conviction and 30 days in jail, she continued her work.

The first National Birth Control Conference occurred in New York in 1921, and it gathered much support for the notion of freedom of expression and public education as well as the specific topic of reproductive freedom. Although changes in access to birth control information and methods were gradual throughout the 20th century, Margaret Sanger’s courage and commitment eventually brought about huge societal changes based on the concept of a woman’s right to sovereignty over her own body. She effected these changes by pioneering what Gloria Steinem has called, “the most radical, humane, and transforming political movement of the century.”

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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