Adressing a Global Population Crisis: The Post-War Birth Control Movement




MS facing audience, 5ICPP

Internationally, birth control became relevant in the 1930’s, around the same time it did in the United States. However, the movement did not become prominent until after World War Two. This response was triggered in part to the unexpected post war baby boom, and concerns arose about the effects of this continued population trend. The very first post war sex conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1946. There were eight countries present at this conference, and all reported growing awareness regarding the importance of birth control. However it was not until the 1950’s that birth control really gained momentum, following the increasing concern about the rapidly growing global population. Throughout this decade, numerous conferences were held to address the issues and potential solutions dealing with overpopulation,

The third international birth control conference took place in 1952 in Bombay, India. Here physicians, scientists and demographers from the United States, and countries throughout Europe and Asia met to delve into the factors behind the growing human population. Their hopes were to begin research on human reproduction and encourage the establishment of national planned parenthood birth control organizations. This conference especially significant in that it was the first of its kind to be held in the far east. The International Planned Parenthood Federation was established at this conference, and it was the first global birth control organization. Unlike other branches of Planned Parenthood, the International Planned Parenthood Organization was not mainly focused on women’s rights, but instead it was focused on social and economic pressures that were arising from such a massively growing female population. The organization’s initial membership included Great Britain, India, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United States, Hong Kong, Singapore and West Germany. Much of the fourth international birth control conference held in 1953, again in Sweden, was focused on the logistics involved with the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Leadership roles were assigned, with Margaret Sanger being elected as the first president. The goals of the organization were also created, which was to allow for the complete acceptance of the planned parenthood organization, along with the development of programs focused on service research and education.

Bombay Conference

India, especially, was a country focused on birth control and family planning. By the 1950’s India was already overpopulated, and dealing with the social and economic effects. When the Indian government created their first five year plan, they included within it a family planning program, which was a huge event for the movement. The aim of this program was to provide services related to family planning and to conduct research on effective measure of fertility control.

By 1954, there was so much concern surrounding the growing international population that the United Nations hosted their first World Population Conference in Rome. The objective of this conference was to compile data regarding population trends. This conference clearly defined the severity of the population issue, and the use of population control and family planning became more effective than using maternal health as an explanation for the necessity of birth control. Notably, birth control began to be administered to the peasant populations in India, Pakistan and Ceylon in the same year. This action described that the effects of a quickly growing population were being felt.

While birth control was gaining more acceptance in some parts of Asia and Europe in the beginning of the 1950’s, it was not until 1955 that Latin America hosted an international birth control conference. The International Planned Parenthood Federation held their pioneer conference in San Juan Puerto Rico. Another major conference was held later in 1955 in Tokyo, with representatives from over twenty countries. Again this conference focused mostly on world population trends and methods of controlling a growing population.

MS, Wright, Lederer, O-Jensen, D-Wever, Pyke, 1951

The 1950’s brought a new importance to the birth control movement on a global scale. At a time when the human population was growing at an estimated rate of 90,000 people a day, birth control became recognized as a method to slow the population growth that could potentially lead to serious conflict over resources. This post war population growth shifted from a focus just on women’s issues, to the broader concerns of slowing the growth of the world population. Specifically, the International Planned Parenthood Federation was founded to address these arising global issues. The involvement of government and the United Nations was one of the major advantages of this approach. The global population crisis proved the necessity of family planning and birth control, as it seemed as though a population that continued to grow as quickly would lead to serious tensions over access to resources.

One Hundredth Anniversary of the Brownsville Clinic—A Media Opportunity


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On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United

Sanger in 1917 (courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sanger in 1917 (courtesy of the Library of Congress.

States. The Brownsville clinic violated Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code. This state law, similar to the federal Comstock Law, criminalized the distribution of materials on contraception due to their obscene nature. But Sanger’s violation of the state’s anti-obscenity statute was no mistake; it was a deliberate decision meant to capture the media’s attention and push the obscure topic of birth control into public debate.

At 46 Amboy Street, Sanger’s clinic was located in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn—a densely populated, impoverished area. The men and women who lived in Brownsville were primarily working class immigrants, a socioeconomic group that, in Sanger’s eyes, was most in need of access to birth control. To advertise the clinic’s services, Sanger produced trilingual leaflets written in English, Yiddish, and Italian. They read: “Mothers! 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 life, but Prevent. Safe, Harmless Information can be obtained of trained Nurses at 46 Amboy Street…All Moth
ers Welcome” (“Flyer for 46 Amboy Street Birth Control Clinic,” Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, N.Y., n.d.)


Fania Mindell (right) and Sanger at Clinic, October 1916


Her efforts were successful. On its opening day, 140 women visited the clinic. For the nine days it remained open, the clinic had a total of 450 visitors, and many of the women seen offered testimonials. One mother shared, “This is the kind of place we have been wanting all the time. I have had seven children, two are dead, and my husband is a sick man. Do you know how I got bread for them? By getting down on my knees and scrubbing floors for the baker; that’s what I did when we couldn’t pay the bill. Seven children…that’s enough for any woman.” Another simply commented, “It is so much easier to talk to a woman than a man” (Sanger, “A Day with Margaret Sanger in her Birth Control Clinic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 24 October 1916, 4).

The popularity of the Brownsville clinic came despite Sanger’s inability to secure a doctor. With no physician willing to provide contraceptive services, the social activist operated the clinic with her sister Ethel Byrne, a registered nurse, and the help of Fania Mindell, a friend and translator. Traffic and testimonials were not enough to keep the doors of the Brownsville clinic open though. On October 26, 1916 New York police shut down the country’s first birth control clinic before it had even been open for two weeks.

During the arrest of Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell, the three women resisted, creating a scene to publicly expose their violation of the law. In the trials that followed, Sanger obtained the platform she had been seeking. Her sister Ethel Byrne, convicted and sentenced to thirty days imprisonment in January 1917, immediately began a hunger strike—the dramatic protest attracting crowds of reporters. Sanger, commenting on her sister’s behavior, explained, “These unfortunate women go to their graves unnoticed and their agonies and deaths unknown. Mrs. Byrne feels that one more death laid at the door of the government of this state is of little consequence.” Byrne lasted five days before prison staff force-fed her through a tube, but the media her protest attracted was invaluable to their cause (Sanger, “Stirring Appeal Written by Birth Control Advocates,” Wilkes Barre Times-Leader, 27 January 1917, 13).

Following Byrne’s hunger strike, Sanger employed her trial as another media opportunity. During her hearing, she attempted to break the link many people saw between birth control and morality. As an alternative, Sanger advocated for the association between birth control and socioeconomic and medical issues. She called upon twenty-five Brownsville women as witnesses to garner support for her convictions. Her former patients elicited sympathy as they shared tragic accounts of failed abortions, miscarriages, and an endless series of childbirths.


Movie recreation of Sanger’s arrest at Brownsville Clinic (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

On February 2, 1917, Sanger was offered a suspended sentence if she would promise to abide by the law. The activist declined, proclaiming, “With me it is not a question of personal imprisonment or personal disadvantage. I am today and have always been more concerned with changing the law and the sweeping away of the law, regardless of what I have to undergo to have it done,” later reiterating to the court, “I cannot respect the law as it exists today.” As a result, Sanger was convicted and sentenced to thirty days of imprisonment at the Queens County Penitentiary—yet another media boon (Sanger qtd. in “Sanger on Trial: The Brownsville Clinic Testimony,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter, Fall 2000 and Sanger, “Liberty Scorned by Mrs. Sanger,” New York Tribune, 6 February 1917, 9).

Sanger went on to appeal the court’s decision, defending her violation of the law by pointing out its humanitarian purpose. While Sanger’s conviction was upheld, the Brownsville clinic trials led the court to “sufficiently broaden its interpretation of the law to enable physicians to prescribe birth control to women when medically indicated.” This legal shift was the first in a series of changes that would foreshadow systematized, physician-staffed birth control clinics in the U.S. (“Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Brownsville Clinic,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter, Winter 1991).

Following the 1916 Brownsville clinic and the legal wake it produced, Sanger went on to establish the American Birth Control League in 1921 and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau (BCCRB) in 1923. The BCCRB, like the Brownsville clinic, was another first for the United States; it was the country’s first legal birth control service provider. One year after opening its doors, the BCCRB was one of the most popular birth control clinics in the country. Fifteen years later, the BCCRB merged with the American Birth Control League. The resultant group was known as the Birth Control Federation of America. In 1942, the Federation changed its name and became known as Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Today, the country’s relationship with birth control—one in which we are just as likely to see a television commercial for birth control pills, vaginal rings, or condoms air as we are for the local car dealership—is dramatically improved. No longer a taboo topic hiding in the shadows, birth control is a part of the public conversation and widely accessible to women of different socioeconomic backgrounds. In 1916, Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell began a century-long process; their actions ignited a series of changes in how the public would regard contraceptives and how the law would increasingly allow for birth control services. One hundred years later, we have these three strong women to thank for the advancement of our country’s relationship with birth control services.


In Honor of Women’s History Month, We Remember Hannah Stone


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When we remember the birth control movement, we must commemorate the extraordinary women who willingly risked so much for the advancement of such a controversial movement. For these activists, giving all women new access and opportunities to contraceptives meant more than their own potential individual  advancements. Dr. Hannah Mayer Stone embodied this type of dedication. Chosen by Margaret Sanger in 1925 to be the head physician of the Clinical Research Bureau, Dr. Hannah Stone would prove to be dedicated not just to the cause, but also to the over 100,000 patients she saw during her time at the clinic.

Hannah M. Stone

While she defied the norm with her passionate involvement with the movement, Dr. Hannah Stone surpassed traditional 20th century women’s roles all her life. Born in New York City in 1893 as the daughter of a pharmacist, she went on to receive a degree in pharmacy from Brooklyn College in 1912. Following this, she attended New York Medical school, receiving her MD in 1920. In 1921, she attended the first American Birth Control Conference, where she met Margaret Sanger. Sanger opened the Clinical Research Bureau in 1923, and two years later she needed a new physician.Dr. Stone was already a member of the medical advisory board for the Clinical Research Bureau when Margaret Sanger offered her the position of physician. As she had this prior involvement, her interest in the birth control movement was known. Dr. Hannah Stone would work at the Clinical Research Bureau, which was later renamed Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in 1928, for 16 years without receiving compensation.

The main purpose behind the establishment of the Clinical Research Bureau was to do more than just administer birth control to patients; it was to also prove the effectiveness of different types of contraceptives through detailed record keeping. Dr. Stone handled both tasks methodically. By the end of her time at the clinic in 1941, she had helped over 100,000 patients and she had maintained a record for each one. But aside from just being thorough, Dr. Stone was compassionate and understanding with her patients. Her demeanor led her become known as the “Madonna of the Clinic.” In her writing, Sanger expressed her adoration of Dr. Stone. She commented on her attributes, listing  “her infinite patience, her attention to details, her understanding of human frailties, her sympathy, her gentleness” as reasons that she was invaluable to the work of the clinic. Dr. Stone understood the value of her work at the clinic, not just in her interactions with patients, but also with her responsibility of compiling data about her patients. During her 16 years of service to the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, Dr. Hannah Stone was able to leave a profound impact. Her detailed records helped the movement discover that the most effective method of birth control was the diaphragm used with spermicide. She later published some of her findings in “Therapeutic Contraceptives.” This article was one of the first involving birth control to be published within a medical journal.

16583009834Her passion for helping women extended past the realm of birth control. Dr. Stone and her husband, Dr. Abraham Stone counseled couples with relationship and sexual problems from within the clinic as well. This began casually, but it developed into the more formal Marriage Consultation Center which was ran out of the clinic and a community church. Through this work Dr. Stone again acted as a trailblazer, as these marriage counseling sessions had not been done in this manner before. In 1935, Dr. Stone and her husband were able to publish their counseling techniques in a book entitled A Marriage Manual.

From left: Sigrid Brestwell, Antoinette Field, Elizabeth Pissort, Margaret Sanger, Hannah Mayer Stone, and Marcella Sideri

Dr. Stone’s association with birth   control often caused her to put the movement’s progression ahead of her own career, as her work at the clinic cost her many opportunities. She had been working at the Women’s Lying-In Hospital when she first started to work for Margaret Sanger at the Research Bureau Clinic. Her new work at the clinic caused a conflict with her the Women’s Hospital and they asked her to give up her newly acquired position. She refused this request, and as a result she was asked to resign from the Women’s Lying-In Hospital. This would only be the first of many times where her work at the clinic would prove to be a detriment to her career. Later, in 1929, Dr. Stone was arrested with four others when the Research Bureau Clinic was raided. Although the charges that were brought against her were later dismissed, the picture that was taken of her in handcuffs permanently damaged her record. Dr. Stone felt the full impact of this when she applied to admission to the New York Medical Society in 1932, and her application was tabled. She continued to take risks for the movement, including her involvement with the test case US v. One Package, when a package of Japanese pessaries were shipped to her and later seized. This case ended up being monumental, as it was the first step in legalized birth control. Despite her involvement with the birth control movement, and the clinic itself proving to be a detriment to the furthering of her medical career, Dr. Stone’s dedication to the cause never faltered.

Dr. Hannah Stone died suddenly of a heart attack in 1942 at the age of 48. Her loss was deeply felt at the clinic, as she had dedicated so much of her time to assisting the patients. She was replaced by her husband, who carried on her legacy and dedication to the cause. Dr. Stone is remembered for her kindness, and her groundbreaking work. She was well respected for her tremendous knowledge on administering effective contraceptives. Thousands of medical students and doctors alike came to the Research Bureau Clinic to learn her methods. Even though Dr. Stone was recognized for her greatness, Margaret Sanger wrote extensively on her humility. She did not crave attention or recognition, and often others took responsibility for her advancements.

As a doctor, Hannah Stone was a trailblazer. As a woman, she exceeded the expectations society had for her at the time. But it is her selflessness that is most inspiring. Dr. Hannah Stone dedicated nearly her entire career to serving women and the birth control movement, and despite her vast achievements she never sought recognition for them.

“The World Center for Women’s Archives: A Look Back at a Novel Idea.”n Honor of International Women’s Day


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To celebrate International Women’s Day, the Sanger Papers want to remind everyone that the struggle to acknowledge the contributions of women is unfortunately not new. In that spirit, we thought we’d look back at an article  published in our newsletter  in 1994.

“We have worked intensively on this project; forming the organization first, raising money, collecting archives and, perhaps even more important, trying to make the United States archive minded….We have opened the minds of people all over the country to the necessity of collecting and preserving archives – especially about women.” (Sanger Papers, Library of Congress) While this sentiment accurately reflects the goals of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project (and most women’s archives and editing projects), the statement was actually made on September 16, 1940 by Inez Hayes Irwin describing the struggles of the World Center for Women’s Archives (WCWA). Historian Mary Ritter Beard had founded the WCWA out of frustration over the difficulty she encountered in trying to locate women’s papers. Beard realized that before historians could examine or interpret women’s contributions to civilization and incorporate their accomplishments into their books and curricula, they needed to examine primary source material on women’s lives. But such material was not easy to find.


Mary Ritter Beard

Beard’s quest to collect and preserve the documentary evidence of women’s history began in earnest when, in 1935, she was approached by Hungarian-born pacifist-feminist Rosika Schwimmer with the idea of establishing a center to document women’s roles in the peace movement. Beard quickly expanded the idea to establish an archive and education center for the study of women. The World Center for Women’s Archives (WCWA) had its first organizational board meeting in New York on October 15, 1935. In addition to appointing a board of directors (chaired by Inez Hayes Irwin) as its main decision-making body, the inaugural meeting invited well-known women sponsors to serve in an advisory capacity. With endorsements from prominent women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, and support from Fannie Hurst, Mary Ware Dennett, Georgia O’Keefe, Katharine Houghton Hepburn, Mary Van Kleeck, Juliet Barrett Rublee, Alice Paul and Margaret Sanger, among others, the WCWA was officially launched on December 15, 1937, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City.

“NO DOCUMENTS, NO HISTORY,” was the motto (coined by French historian Fustel de Coulanges) of the WCWA, reflecting Beard’s conviction that women’s history requires the preservation of women’s sources. “What documents, then, have women? What history?” she asked, for without these records “women may be blotted from the story and the thought about history as completely as if they had never lived….But what do the women of today know about the women of yesterday to whom they are so closely linked for better or for worse? What are the women of tomorrow to know about the women of today?” (WCWA Pamphlet, ca. 1939, Sanger Papers, Library of Congress) The creation of the WCWA was to be the answer for those concerned with preserving the history and achievements of women. Its purpose was: “To make a systematic search for undeposited source materials dealing with women’s lives and activities….To reproduce important materials, already deposited elsewhere, by means of microfilming and other modern processes…” (WCWA Brochure, International Organization Records, Sophia Smith Collection)

220px-Inez_Haynes_Irwin_1923 - Copy (2)

Inez Haynes Irwin

In the four years of its existence, the WCWA helped highlight the richness and depth preserved in the records of women’s history. Its preliminary work in soliciting women to donate, deposit, or pledge their papers and records to an archives proved to be invaluable. Materials which were promised to the WCWA included the records of the National League of Women Voters, the National Consumer League, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the National Association of Women Lawyers. Among the women who pledged their personal papers to the Center were Ida Tarbell, Eleanor Roosevelt, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Judge Florence Allen. Among the collections in the Center’s possession at the time of its dissolution were those of Lillian Wald, Kate C. Hurd-Mead, Catherine Beecher, and an impressive collection of records, maps, and charts belonging to Amelia Earhart.

Although predominantly reflecting the achievements of notable white American women, the WCWA also collected materials concerning the women’s movement in Germany and the history of Japanese women from the mythological age through 1935. Prefiguring the emergence of the new social history and feminist history, the founders defined the WCWA’s collection mission broadly, asserting that women’s history would be found not only in the written record, but also in oral histories, objects and artifacts. They mounted an exhibit of Native American women’s pottery that included a pictorial history and ancient medicine aprons which told the lore of herb women. From its offices in New York and Washington, the Center also compiled and distributed lists of secondary sources essential to the study of women, served as a clearinghouse for information about women at other institutions, and furnished information for a series of radio talks on women in American society.

Yet despite the wide publicity and initial support from prominent individuals, the WCWA was unable to build a permanent future for itself. By the end of the decade, the war in Europe preoccupied the WCWA’s sponsors, overshadowing their interest in documenting the lives of women. Faced with a lack of funding, weakened by disagreements among its leadership and Beard’s resignation in 1940, the Center was forced to close its doors on September 16, 1940. Though the Center failed, Inez Hayes Irwin sent a hopeful message to the Center’s sponsors: “When the quiet days of peace and reconstruction come, we are sure there will be many such organizations as we have worked so hard to form and perhaps ultimately the big central one that was our dream.” (Irwin to Sanger, 9/16/1940, Sanger Papers, Library of Congress)

After the Center’s closing, the collections gathered by the WCWA were either returned to their owners or entrusted to other repositories. Yet the WCWA left a lasting impact as several colleges and universities began collecting source material for the study of women, and individual women became aware of the importance of taking steps to preserve the records of their lives. Although Margaret Sanger never donated her letters to the WCWA, less than two years after it was disbanded, she began to transfer the first large collection of her papers to the Library of Congress; in 1949, encouraged by her close friend Dorothy Brush, Sanger donated her other papers to the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. Ironically, Mary Beard destroyed the majority of her own personal papers.

Committed to “put women in the record,” Mary Beard and the WCWA sought to do what the Sophia Smith Collection (Women’s History Archive) at Smith College and the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College are in fact doing – collecting and preserving the records of American women’s history. At the same time, editing projects such as the Sanger Papers and other women’s editions are working to assemble and disseminate women’s papers through both print and digital technology.

While Beard’s notion of one central archive for women’s records and papers remains the stuff of dreams the possibility of making it a reality is increasingly viable. Technological advances such as digital image storage may provide a way in which one central database can access images of hundreds of thousands of women’s records and papers. As the Sanger Papers project explores these new methods of disseminating the records of Sanger’s life, we are hopeful that it will take us a step closer to making Beard’s dream a reality.

Tracing Sanger’s Steps: The Beginning of Legalized Birth Control


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Throughout the history of the United States, the judicial system has been used as a mechanism for social change. Consider some of the most monumental decisions, from Brown v. the Board of Education to the more recent case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The decisions of these two cases reflected the evolving opinions among the American people, and enabled society to implement the necessary changes. In times when the situation requires a quick solution, the court room provides a benefit over legislation, as it takes less time to reach and implement a decision, then it does to pass new legislation. Therefore, when Margaret Sanger was faced with the restriction of censorship that was the by-product of obscenity laws, she sought a situation that would allow her to speedily remedy the situation. She believed that the repeal of the Comstock laws would allow the birth control movement to continue on past the problem of censorship, and towards legalization. Thus led to the filing her test case, U.S. v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries.



Sanger and Morris Ernst


By the 1930’s, Margaret Sanger had made strides in the fight for women’s access to birth  control, at least on a New York State level. However, her ability to provide both birth control and information about birth control was limited by the presence of the Comstock laws. Passed by congress on March 3, 1873, the Comstock laws were the first legislation to deal with contraceptives explicitly, and they defined contraceptives as obscene, and prohibited their circulation, and information regarding the prevention of conception. The development of this bill was essentially based on morality, as contraceptives were believed to provoke lust. Initially, this bill made it nearly impossible for women to obtain birth control, and despite being rarely enforced during the 1930’s, fear was enough to prevent the circulation of materials. At this point,  Sanger had realized that to open the access to birth control that had been so severely limited by the Comstock laws, she needed to create a case that could challenge its precedent. In June of 1932, she found her opportunity. A package of pessaries was shipped to her from Japan, only to be seized by customs and sent back to Japan. Sanger ingeniously built her test case on this result, asking Dr. Sakae Koyama,  president of the Juzen Hospital in Osaka, to send a second package to the United States, this time to Dr. Hannah Stone. As Sanger expected, the package was again seized


by customs, giving her a situation on which she could build her test case. According to Section 305 of Title III of Revenue Act, Dr. Stone did not have the right to import contraceptives. This test case was well thought out, as Sanger had spent time with her attorney, Morris Ernst, planning for this opportunity. They wanted to challenge the federal law’s ability to inhibit doctors from prescribing their patients contraceptives.


Hannah Stone

The presiding judge on the case, Grover C. Moskowitz, heard the case on December 10th, 1935. As there were in facts in question, the case was based on his judicial interpretation of the law. On January 6th, 1939, Judge Moskowitz ruled in the favor of the women’s rights activists. He dismissed the libel charges within the case, and stated that the pessaries that had been confiscated did not come within the scope of the Comstock Laws, as they were intended for a lawful purpose, which was to “cure and prevent disease.” Later, when the case went in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Augustus Hand upheld the decision made by Judge Moskowitz. According to Hand, the language used within the Comstock Laws was uncompromising; however it would be legal for contraceptives to be imported into the United States so long as they were being administered by a health professional for reasons pertaining to the patient’s health. Judge Hand believed that had 19th century Congress been familiar with the data discussing the dangers of multiple pregnancies, they would not have implemented such strict censorship laws on birth control. This 1939 decision is often accredited to being the first step in giving women full legal access to birth control.

Margaret Sanger’s calculated decision to use a court case to challenge the precedent of
the Comstock laws helped her to grant women further access to birth control. As the public’s attitude toward birth control was improving, Sanger utilized it to further her agenda of legalizing birth control. However, the scope for which birth control was legalized was narrow, as it was only permissible in situations relating to women’s health. Margaret Sanger’s reaction to the decision of her case was a mixture of dissatisfaction and caution, as she knew would continue to work towards giving women unrestricted access to birth control. While the One Package Decision was a crucial stepping stone, it left birth control activists with the realization that they still had a tremendous amount of work to do. For as Margaret Sanger once wrote, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body.”