Biography, Politics, Women's History

Margaret Sanger – Fighting for Reproductive Rights


Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger – The Brownsville Clinic Trial

Margaret Sanger was a leader in the reproductive rights movement. She made leaps and bounds in the fight for birth control and helped form the American Birth Control League, which was the predecessor of Planned Parenthood (“American Experience: Margaret Sanger”). Their goals and initiatives were to keep women safe and well informed. Sexual and reproductive health were issues that were not at the country’s forefront, and for that reason, 1/3 to 2/3 of mortality was connected with pregnancy. Planned Parenthood became essential to “maternal well being” (“Planned Parenthood”).

Planned Parenthood supports the fundamental right that each individual has to manage his or her fertility. Their mission is to provide reproductive health care services, as well as information about sexual and reproductive health. They advocate public policies that strengthen the rights individuals have to their own reproductive health. In a similar path to Sanger’s, Planned Parenthood wants to educate and inform people about human sexuality and provide educational programs to do so.

Sanger devoted her life to legalizing birth control and making it universally available for women. Starting in the 1910’s, she actively challenged federal and state Comstock laws to bring birth control information and contraceptives to women. Her ambition was to find the perfect contraceptive to relieve women from the horrible strain of repeated, unwanted pregnancies.

Sanger’s commitment to birth control sprung from a personal tragedy. One of eleven children born to a working class Irish Catholic family in Corning, New York, at nineteen Sanger watched her mother die of tuberculosis. Only 50 years old, her mother had wasted away from the strain of eleven childbirths and seven miscarriages. Determined to escape her mother’s fate, Sanger fled Corning to attend nursing school in the Catskills. Eventually, she found work in New York City as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side. Sanger saw her personal tragedy in the lives of poor, immigrant women. Lacking effective contraceptives, many faced unwanted pregnancies, and resorted to five-dollar back-alley abortions. It was after these botched abortions that Sanger was called in to care for these women. After experiencing many women’s trauma and suffering, she began to shift her attention from nursing to the need for better contraceptives.

In her line of work, Sanger treated many women who had illegal and dangerous abortion procedures. She fought for birth control information and contraception to be made available, and found it essential to women’s health for this information to be legal (“Margaret Sanger”). It was very dangerous for Sanger to provide her services and information and she often risked jail time in order to help women.

In 1914, Sanger began The Woman Rebel, a feminist publication. She wanted to provide women with information about contraception. Sanger openly challenged the state and federal Comstock Act, which criminalized contraceptives (“American Experience: Margaret Sanger”). In 1916, Sanger was arrested for opening the first birth control clinic in the country. She worked toward better forms of contraception other than the diaphragm, which was expensive. Sanger helped with the creation of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive (“American Experience: Margaret Sanger”).

‘The Woman Rebel’


In 1915, Sanger wrote the article “Birth Control in America.” She wrote in relation to how the topic of birth control was treated in America:

But in a country where there is the latest scientific invention, and the most up-to date machinery, if there exists by its side laws which execute ideals, and burn at the stake those who dare to speak and act for freedom, then it is time such places were exposed, and their much-boasted freedom and liberty challenged.

Sanger’s efforts helped push to legalize contraception in the United States. The first birth control clinic she opened helped establish the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She is iconic in the movement for reproductive rights and helped pave the way for many changes in women’s health.

Planned Parenthood is rooted in the courage and persistence of American women and men willing to fight for women’s health, rights, and equality.

Recent articles have reported on an unearthed video from 1947 of Margaret Sanger demanding “no more babies” for 10 years in developing countries. A couple of years ago, Margaret Sanger was named one of Time magazine’s “20 Most Influential Americans of All Time”. Given her enduring influence, it’s worth considering what the woman who founded Planned Parenthood contributed to the eugenics movement.

Margaret Sanger shaped the eugenics movement in America and beyond in the 1930s and 1940s. Her views and those of her peers in this movement contributed to compulsory sterilization laws in 30 U.S. states which resulted in more than 60,000 sterilizations of vulnerable people, including people she considered “feeble-minded,” “idiots” and “morons”.

Margaret Sanger presented at a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1926 in Silver Lake, NJ. She recounted this event in her autobiography:

I accepted an invitation to talk to the women’s branch of Ku Klux Klan … I saw through the door dim figures parading with banners and illuminated crosses … I was escorted to the platform, introduced, and began to speak. In the end, through simple illustrations I believed I had accomplished my purpose.

In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Sanger revealed:

I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world , that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin, that people can commit. (Sanger)

Despite her involvement with eugenics, Sanger was a forerunner in the fight for women’s reproductive rights. She was the spark that put women’s health on the nation’s radar. Her efforts and activism played a large role in the reproductive rights movement and broke tremendous ground for women to take control of their own bodies.

Gay Johnson and Anisa Ismailaj (c) March 2015

Gay Johnson is majoring in Health Policy Studies at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, with a concentration on Health Behavior and Education. Holding an Associate of Science Degree from Wayne County Community College, she transferred to the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Gay Johnson’s interests include traveling, volunteering and reading. Her daughter is a senior, graduating in Spring 2015 from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Anisa Ismailaj enjoys writing and reading and has an interest in health policy and women’s rights.


Works Cited

“Birth Control: We All Benefit.” Planned Parenthood. 27 January 2015.

“42 Years After Roe v. Wade, Abortion Rights Still Under Attack.” Malin, Joan. Huffington Post. 21 January 2015.

“Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc.” InfoBase. Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn.     FactsOnFile. American History Online. 2000. 2014.

“Planned Parenthood.” The Living Age (197-1941). ProQuest. Mar 1940. 2 Feb 2015. Norton,      Ray. American Periodicals.

“Margaret Sanger at her Brownsville clinic trial – 1917”  30 Jan 1917. 7 Feb 2015. Bain News Service. Wikimedia Commons.

“American Experience: Margaret Sanger”. 6 Feb 2015. PBS. American Experience.

“History & Successes.” Planned Parenthood. 2014. 5 Feb 2015.

“Margaret Sanger.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 7 Feb 2015.

“Birth Control in America,” Freedom. 5 June 1915. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Collection: Margaret Sanger Papers.

“GROSSU: Margaret Sanger, racist eugenicist extraordinaire.” The Washington Times. Grossu, Arina. 5 May 2014.

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