On April 15, 1929, the New York City Police, led by detective Mary Sullivan, raided the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. The Bureau, opened in 1923, was directed by Margaret Sanger, but in adherence with New York State law, was staffed by licensed physicians. With over 13,000 patients served, the Bureau was the best known birth control clinic in the world.
The police arrested five clinic staff members for having violated section 1142 of the penal law and then collected a number of medical supplies, surgical instruments, anatomical charts, six case records, some books and, according to clinic staff (but denied by police) 150 index cards with patient contact and health summary information. The evidence was bundled into waste baskets, and the police escorted the arrested members of the clinic staff, accompanied by Sanger, in taxi cabs to the West 20th Street police station.
Those arrested included the clinic’s medical director, Hannah Mayer Stone (1893-1941), a physician and pharmacist who had been with the clinic since 1925. Stone treated patients and trained Bureau staff and visiting nurses and physicians in contraceptive practices and wrote numerous articles on birth control, sex education and infertility. Elizabeth Pissort (1897-1958) was a Belgian-born gynecologist and the Bureau’s assistant medical director. Pissort worked not only at the Bureau, but eventually at a number of New York city clinics in the following years. Antoinette Field (1888-?) and Marcella Sideri (1888-?) and Sigrid H. Brestwell (1898-1984) were nurses who assisted the physicians with patient examinations and advice and who sold contraceptive supplies to patients at reduced costs.
Press reports of the raid itself portray a disorganized affair. To the jeers of the patients present, police officers stripped the clinic of its contents, confiscating birth control equipment, books and pamphlets, even examples of fraudulent birth control devices. Sanger told a reporter from the New York World:
“The police were rather nasty, but what can you expect? They didn’t even know how to make a raid. I’ve had so much experience with raids I could have taught them something”
One of the arrested nurses claimed that the police could not tell the difference between the contraceptive devices and the equipment used to sterilize them.
The public response to the raid was extraordinary for the time. Though birth control was still seen as a somewhat suspect activity a variety of organizations publicly defended the Bureau defendants, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters. But it was the medical profession’s response to the raid that was especially potent. Even doctors who did not support the Bureau’s work were outraged at the seizure of the clinic’s medical records. As one physician argued, “what they did was unpardonable… They ransacked the clinic, and dumped all its private files, including case records, into a wastebasket and carted them away. Records were seized that had no bearing on the alleged crime, and that could be used for all sorts of ulterior purposes…” (New York Times, April 19, 1929).
With such support, not to mention the evidence that the clinic was operating within the state law, the charges were dropped on May 14. A few days earlier, Mary Sullivan was demoted, though no specific reason was given. Hannah Stone issued a statement for the Bureau doctors, saying:
“Those responsible for the raid were apparently entirely ignorant that the law expressly permits physicians to give such advice for medical indications. Our Clinical Research Bureau is a most signal and valuable public health service and aids in the working program of many important social service agencies in this city. This decision is a vindication.”
For more on the Clinical Research Bureau raid, see Sanger’s “The Birth Control Raid.”