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.

Comment on Removal of Sanger’s Name from Her Clinic


, , , ,

To the Editor:

Re “Planned Parenthood in N.Y. Disavows Margaret Sanger Over Eugenics” (Washington Post, July 22):

Sanger’s 1st clinic at 17 West 16th Street, NYC

Margaret Sanger pushed her way into the (then) widely respected eugenics movement in order to win greater acceptance for birth control, which was illegal and associated with promiscuity and prostitution. Yet she vehemently opposed the eugenics movement’s principal goal: increasing middle- and upper-class childbearing.

Sanger believed that every woman, regardless of class, religion, or race, should be able to decide when and if to have children. The exception she made, which was broadly supported, was for those who were incapable of caring for a child or were at risk of passing on a disease or defect. Today we see a troubling disconnect between Sanger’s lifelong fight for women’s reproductive freedom and her inability to extend rights and liberties to the mentally and physically disabled.

But it’s important not to let the decision by Planned Parenthood of Greater N.Y. legitimize the accusation made by many on the right that Sanger was a racist intent on limiting the reproduction of people of color. Sanger never defined fitness for parenthood in racial terms and worked closely with Black leaders and in Black communities to improve access to contraception.

Peter Engelman

Conway, Mass.

The “Feeble-Minded” and the “Fit”: What Sanger Meant When She Talked about Dysgenics


, , ,

The potential mother is to be shown that maternity need not be slavery but the most effective avenue toward self-development and self-realization. Upon this basis only may we improve the quality of the race.”

(Sanger, “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda,” Birth Control Review, Oct. 1921, 5)

Margaret Sanger’s discussion of dysgenics provides some of the birth control advocate’s most troubling and problematic texts. Her complex perspectives have both frustrated supporters and offered fodder for those seeking to discredit her life’s work. Attempts by those with ideological, political, or other agendas to mislead opponents by avoiding fact and foregoing accuracy are not unique to the current environment. By extracting misleading soundbites from her forays into eugenics, detractors have painted Sanger as a racist and repurposed birth control as a means of controlling minority populations for decades. Manipulating Sanger’s words to support such a claim is historically inaccurate—a gross misuse of quotes without context. However, given the contested nature of the activist’s attempt to wed the function of birth control to the ideology of progressive eugenicists, exploring Sanger’s actual relationship with terms, such as dysgenics and eugenics, presents a valuable learning opportunity.

Before delving into Sanger’s actual views on the subject, it might be useful to first examine the terms dysgenics and eugenics as they were in the early part of the 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines dysgenics as referring to “Racial degeneration, or its study”—that is the elements that can lead to the deterioration of the human race or subdivisions within it. Eugenics, according to the OED, is the science of selective breeding designed to improve and strengthen the human race biologically, psychologically, behaviorally, etc.

Francis Galton

By the end of the nineteenth century, selective breeding as a means of controlling the country’s genetic destiny and evolutionary tract was gaining popularity as a social and political ideal in America. This movement, most popularly linked to nativist groups, possessed two notable influences. First, the popularity of biological determinism encompasses both dysgenics and eugenics and came on the heels of Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton. Galton has been credited as the father of modern eugenics and for having laid the scientific and ideological groundwork for biological determinism—for many of the selective breeding ideas American eugenicists would eventually trumpet (Selden, Steven, “Transforming Better Babies Into Fitter Families,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149.2, June 2005, 202).

Then, following Galton’s numerous publications, changes in European emigration patterns began. Americans, who valued Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon traits, reacted defensively to new waves of immigrants, who did not possess these traits. In an attempt to both preserve and strengthen the national qualities they valued as “real American,” nativists turned to eugenics. By the early 1920s, as the movement surrounding theories of selective breeding designed to build stronger, healthier Americans had gained notable popularity, applications expanded. No longer did dysgenics and eugenics belong to the American nativists, but to a host of different groups with varying social and political aims (Selden, Steven, “Transforming Better Babies Into Fitter Families,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149.2, June 2005, 203).

It was in this atmosphere of blossoming enthusiasm that Sanger began to align the functionality of birth control with the ideology of biological determinism. In search of support from respectable professional groups, including eugenicists, Sanger highlighted how contraceptives could be used to pursue “the self direction of human evolution.”The Eugenic Tree.png

“The Eugenic Tree,” American Philosophical Society, 1932

But, a result of Sanger’s alignment with certain dysgenic and eugenic principles is that her work continues to be challenged even today. Perhaps most deleterious to her character are modern assertions that Sanger was a “racist promoter of genocide.” While Sanger can be considered racist and classist to the extent that many people were during the twentieth century, it is erroneous to overextend that allegation and claim the activist was a proponent of race control (“The Eugenic Tree, Announcements of the Third International Eugenics Congress,” American Philosophical Society, 1932 and Katz, Esther, “The Editor as Public Authority: Interpreting Margaret Sanger,” The Public Historian 17.1, Winter 1995, 44).

Sanger, who aimed to enmesh dysgenics, eugenics, and contraception, was primarily interested in the “racial health” of the human race versus one particular race. What the birth control advocate sought was for contraception to act as a control for the passing of “injurious,” hereditary traits on to future generations. Commenting in 1934 on the German government’s sterilization program, Sanger distinguished which hereditary traits she viewed as injurious and which hereditary traits she did not wish to involve in her eugenic mission:

I admire the courage of a government that takes a stand on sterilization of the unfit and second, my admiration is subject to the interpretation of the word ‘unfit.’ If by ‘unfit’ is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being, that is an admirable gesture, but if ‘unfit’ refers to races or religions, then that is another matter which I frankly deplore.

Sanger rejects race control, but her statement is troubling. Employing birth control and supporting forced sterilization to curtail the reproduction of those with mental or physical challenges causes even her most staunch supporters to raise an eyebrow (Sanger, “Margaret Sanger to Sidney L. Lasell, Jr.,” Feb. 13, 1934).

While unsettling to modern sensibilities, Sanger was not unique in her praise of forced sterilization. As early as 1907, the first compulsory sterilization law was passed in the United States. Specifically, the eugenicist statute passed in the state of Indiana applied to male “criminals, idiots, imbeciles, or rapists.” These groups—“criminals, idiots, imbeciles, or rapists”—coincided with Sanger’s understanding of the unfit. It is important to note that Sanger, along with other eugenicists, believed scientific studies that concluded that those with mental or physical challenges included criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. and that these groups were incapable of resisting their sexual urges. Her solution at the time, as was the state of Indiana’s solution in 1907, was sterilization. Sanger also considered gender segregation as a possible method for controlling the reproduction of the “unfit.” As science evolved its views, so did Sanger, and after the horrors of World War II, she significantly revised her views of forced sterilization (James B. O’Hara and Sanks, T. Howland, “Eugenic Sterilization,” The Georgetown Law Review 45, 1956, 22)

Beyond compulsory sterilization, Sanger’s alignment with dysgenics and eugenics materialized in her calls for the responsible breeding of the “fit” and the “unfit.” In Sanger’s eyes, “uncontrolled fertility [was] universally correlated with disease, poverty, overcrowding and the transmission of heritable taints”—in so many words, the proliferation of the “unfit.” As a result, she proposed “find[ing] effectual means of controlling & limiting the propagation of the mentally unfit, including feebleminded, psychotic & unstable, mentally retarded individuals.” Worth noting, Sanger specifically meant birth control, not abortion and never infanticide, when she spoke of controlling mentally and physically challenged populations. Her commitment to parents responsibly procreating, via the use of birth control when appropriate, long outlived her tryst with sterilization (Sanger, “The Limitations of Eugenics,” Typed speech, [Sept] 1921, Library of Congress Microfilm, LCM 130:0044 and Sanger, “[Birth Control and Controlling the Unfit Notes],” Autograph draft speech, [1938], Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Sophia Smith Collection, S71:1050).


To summarize Sanger’s relationship with such heated terms as dysgenics and eugenics is a dangerous task. While she married her social mission to that of progressive eugenicists—primarily in an attempt to garner mainstream support for birth control—it is difficult to easily consolidate her beliefs on this complex issue. What we can deduce from the literature she has left behind is that claims of her racism are misguided to say the least and that her dysgenic aims were colorblind. We can also conclude that Sanger understood the eugenic value of contraception to lie in strengthening and empowering the human race. She believed that “the great responsibility of parenthood” was to help diminish the potential of biological weakness in all people, but such beliefs were tempered by the science and the biases of the day. Moreover, these statements are liable to over-simplify perspectives that were more complex in nature and should be taken as the less than exact overviews that they are. Ultimately, Sanger’s campaign for the eugenic benefits of birth control was a divergence from her core mission: that every woman be freed from the shackles of unwanted pregnancy (Sanger, “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda,” Birth Control Review, Oct. 1921, 5).

What Every Girl Should Know

By Ann Ormsby

Sometimes a person changes the course of history and no one knows her name. Sadie Sachs is one such person. Who was she? She was a poverty-stricken young mother living on the Lower East Side in 1912 who ignited a passion in another young woman, Margaret Sanger, who changed the way women control their bodies today.

Sadie Sachs was a 28-year-old, married mother of three young children, when she found herself pregnant again. At that time, women could get an illegal abortion for five dollars and that is what Sachs did. Sanger, a nurse, was called on to go to Sachs’ home when Sachs started to bleed uncontrollably. The first time this happened, Sanger nursed Sachs back to health.

As soon as Sachs was recovered she asked her doctor what she could do to prevent another pregnancy. Legend has it that the doctor laughed and said, “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.” Sanger, overhearing this frivolous response from the physician, started to think hard about what she could do to help women understand their own bodies and what could be done to help them determine when and if they had a child.

Three months later, Sachs was pregnant again and resorted to a self-inflicted abortion that Sanger could not save her from. Sachs died of septicemia leaving her devastated husband to try and raise their three young children.

That night as Sanger left the dead woman’s home, a passion was born to help women control their reproductive lives. In her autobiography she wrote: “I walked and walked through the hushed streets…a moving picture rolled before my eyes with photographic clearness; women writhing in travail to bring forth little babies; the babies themselves naked and hungry, wrapped in newspapers…; six year old children with pinched pale wrinkled faces old in concentrated wretchedness pushed into gray and fetid cellars crouching on stone floors…white coffins, black coffins, coffins interminably passing in never-ending succession…”

Going forward, Sanger quit her nursing career and became the leader of a movement to educate women about their own bodies and how to control conception. Sex education was non-existent, so she wrote a seven-part series of articles entitled “What Every Girl Should Know” which gave women information about their reproductive physiology, venereal diseases, pregnancy, and more. There were actually laws that proclaimed birth control information to be pornography. The Comstock Laws, named after their principal architect, Anthony Comstock, made it a crime to send any material through the mail that contained information on contraceptive medications and devices. Congress also gave Comstock the authority, as an agent of the Post Office, to make arrests.

Four years after Sachs’ death, in 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States at 46 Amboy Street in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She coined the term “birth control” believing that it could stabilize families, enable the poor to have social mobility, and help to prevent violence against women and children by limiting the number of mouths husbands felt pressure to feed.

The clinic was open for ten days before the police shut it down and arrested Sanger. This would not be the last time Sanger was arrested, and for those ten days the clinic became the first of hundreds of clinics that would become the Planned Parenthood network. As Planned Parenthood turns 100 this year, we should celebrate Sanger’s tenacity and life-long passion to change the way women live. To give women options that they never had before. Allowing them to be equal sexual partners with men. Being able to control their bodies gives women freedom to be educated, to pursue a career, to be treated as equals in the world of work, and to choose when and if they will become a mother.

Not only did Sanger spend her whole life serving the reproductive justice movement she was a key player in the creation of the birth control pill. In 1950 she financed the scientist Gregory Goodwin Pincus to push beyond condoms and cervical caps and asked him to create an inexpensive, user-friendly, 100 percent effective solution to the timing of conception. She jump-started his quest when she gave him $2,000 to experiment with how progesterone regulates a woman’s body and eventually this led to the creation of the birth control pill.

Most American women today have no idea of the struggle that Sanger led to give them the ability to control their bodies. When her name is mentioned, people ask who she was but without her we would live in a very different society. Women take birth control as a given, a right. But Margaret Sanger made sacrifices that few of us would make to help change the path of history. We honor her now on the centennial of the beginning of her quest.


Ann Ormsby is the author of the “The Recovery Room” which tells the story of three women who find themselves unintentionally pregnant. It is available on






Election Special: The Politics of Margaret Sanger


, , , ,

When women awaken to the necessity of organizing a political method of their own, instead of relying upon or expecting understanding and help from the man-made brand, the politician as he expresses himself today will no longer be tolerated, and with the event of self-reliance and self-government, the race of politicians will, fortunately for humanity, become as extinct as that of the dinosaur.”

-Sanger, “Politicians vs. Birth Control,” Birth Control Review, 1921, 3-4

Much of what we remember about Margaret Sanger revolves around her role as the pioneer of reproductive rights. A social mission such as this necessitated a certain level of political entanglement, and this put Sanger in a unique position in terms of her attitude towards American politics. She understood politics were essential in “further[ing] the progress of Birth Control,” but she also claimed, “we can expect nothing of the politician of today.” With these seemingly incompatible views, Sanger causes us to question how she approached American politics during her lifetime (Sanger, “Politicians vs. Birth Control,” Birth Control Review, 1921, 3-4).

debsWithin America’s two party system, Sanger found the politicians that would not support the “birth control legislation and federally-funded birth control clinics” she ardently sought. As a result, Sanger voted almost exclusively for candidates running independently of the bipartite system. In particular, she voted for the extreme left, the Socialist Party. In 1928, she cast her ballot for Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president from his prison cell. Afterwards, Sanger repeatedly voted for six-time presidential hopeful Norman Thomas in all but two elections. The birth control advocate faithfully maintained her Socialist convictions, even throughout the nationwide paranoia of the Post-World War I Red Scare (“Presidential Politics: Margaret Sanger in the Voting Booth,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter, Fall 1992).

Her allegiance to the far left seems in part to be the result of the “pre-war radical bohemian culture.” The Greenwich Village renaissance blossomed in the 1910s, shortly after Sanger and her family moved to New York City. Surrounded by intellectuals and activists, such as “Max Eastman, John Reed, Upton Sinclair, Mabel Dodge and Emma Goldman,” Sanger expanded her already leftist leanings (“Biographical Sketch,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project).

During this time Sanger also became involved in such radical groups as the Liberal Club and the Women’s Committee of the NY Socialist Party. Additionally, Sanger supported the anarchist-run Ferrer Center and the Modern School, where her children briefly received a non-traditional education, and took part in labor demonstrations and strikes put on by the Industrial Workers of the World. Sanger’s participation in the intellectual atmosphere and in these socialist and anarchist activities further established her position on the far left.

Later, in 1917, Sanger again solidified her position when she joined the American Union Against Militarism. Despite being anti-war and pro-isolationist, she usually shied away from trumpeting such causes. Fear of the country’s suppression of anti-war rhetoric—the same suppression that landed Eugene V. Debs in prison—kept Sanger from being outwardly political. She was convinced that imprisonment would be detrimental to her reproductive rights efforts and was unwilling to put her primary mission in jeopardy. But in joining the American Union Against Militarism, Sanger concretized her radical political stance.

Despite Sanger’s allegiance to the far left, the birth control advocate paid attention to Democratic and Republican candidates and often even expressed opinions about them. In 1932, for example, Sanger wrote to Havelock Ellis predicting that Franklin

Socialist Norman Thomas, 1937

Socialist Norman Thomas, 1937

D. Roosevelt would win the election. In her letter, she indicates her preference for Roosevelt as “‘more agreeable’ than Hoover who had ‘given to bossing the job without consultation,’” (Sanger qtd. in “Presidential Politics: Margaret Sanger in the Voting Booth,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter, Fall 1992).

When faced with a Catholic presidential hopeful, Sanger’s political opinions soared to levels of irrepressible disdain. Roman Catholic Al Smith’s nomination in 1928 caused Sanger to record in her journal, “we are for Hoover, though ordinarily I’d be for Norman Thomas–except that Al Smith must be kept out!” Decades later she was unchanged, as John F. Kennedy’s 1960 nomination led the passionately

smith-hooveranti-Catholic activist to threaten a self-imposed exile. In a heated assessment of Kennedy, eighty-two year old Sanger asserted, “In my estimation a Roman Catholic is neither Democrat or Republican. Nor American, nor Chinese; he is a Roman Catholic” (Sanger qtd. in “Presidential Politics: Margaret Sanger in the Voting Booth,” Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter, Fall 1992 and Sanger, “If Kennedy Wins, Mrs. Sanger Is Going to Quit US,” 6 July 1960, Milwaukee Journal, 1).

After Kennedy won, Sanger reconsidered her exile and decided to give him a year before determining whether leaving the country was necessary. She eventually resolved to remain in the States. Due to Sanger’s belief in the direct threat the religion posed to her fight for birth control, opposition to any connection between the United States government and the Roman Catholic Church remained one of Sanger’s most passionate and enduring political stances.

JFK addresses Ministers' Association of Greater Houston on concerns about his Catholicism, Sept. 12, 1960. (Houston Chronicle/AP)

JFK addresses Ministers’ Association of Greater Houston on concerns about his Catholicism, Sept. 12, 1960. (Houston Chronicle/AP)

Like her contempt for Catholicism, the majority—if not all—of Sanger’s politics were aligned with her reproductive rights mission. This was the guiding force that shaped her political character and decided which candidate she would cast her ballot for. It was this guiding force—the ultimate goal of realizing the legalization and accessibility of birth control—that Sanger imparted to her followers, transforming her social mission into a political influence. The social rights advocate encouraged her fellow activists to always vote in favor of politicians and policies that would advance the cause of birth control. This dedication to the issue of reproductive rights was Margaret Sanger’s political legacy—one that we may look back on when we consider 2016’s tumultuous election season.

One Hundredth Anniversary of the Brownsville Clinic—A Media Opportunity


, ,

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.