People & Events: Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
Margaret Sanger devoted her life to legalizing birth control and making it universally available for women. Born in 1879, Sanger came of age during the heyday of the Comstock Act, a federal statute that criminalized contraceptives. Margaret Sanger believed that the only way to change the law was to break it. Starting in the 1910s, Sanger actively challenged federal and state Comstock laws to bring birth control information and contraceptive devices to women. Her fervent ambition was to find the perfect contraceptive to relieve women from the horrible strain of repeated, unwanted pregnancies.
Tragedy Leads to Commitment
Sanger's commitment to birth control sprung from personal tragedy. One of eleven children born to a working class Irish Catholic family in Corning, New York, at age nineteen Margaret watched her mother die of tuberculosis. Just 50 years old, her mother had wasted away from the strain of eleven childbirths and seven miscarriages. Facing her father over her mother's coffin, Margaret lashed out, "You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children."
Nurses Botched Abortions
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. It was there that Sanger saw her personal tragedy writ large in the lives of poor, immigrant women. Lacking effective contraceptives, many women, when faced with another unwanted pregnancy, resorted to five-dollar back-alley abortions. It was after these botched abortions that Sanger was usually called in to care for the women. After experiencing many women's trauma and suffering, Sanger began to shift her attention from nursing to the need for better contraceptives.
Anger Turns to Militancy
Although married and the mother of three young children, Sanger devoted more and more of her time to her mission. Sanger's anger turned into militancy, and her family took a backseat to her crusade. In 1914 she coined the term "birth control" and soon began to provide women with information and contraceptives. Indicted in 1915 for sending diaphragms through the mail and arrested in 1916 for opening the first birth control clinic in the country, Sanger would not be deterred. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, the precursor to the Planned Parenthood Federation, and spent her next three decades campaigning to bring safe and effective birth control into the American mainstream.
Still More to Do
But by the 1950s, although she had won many legal victories, Sanger was far from content. After 40 years of fighting to help women control their fertility, Sanger was extremely frustrated with the limited birth control options available to women. Since the 1842 invention of the diaphragm in Europe and the introduction of the first full-length rubber condom in the U.S. in 1869, there had been no new advances in contraceptive methods. Sanger had championed the diaphragm, but after promoting it for decades, she knew it was still the least popular birth control method in America. The diaphragm was highly effective, but it was expensive, awkward -- and most women were too embarrassed to use it.
Worried about Population Growth
But Sanger, now in her seventies and in poor health, was not ready to give up. She had been dreaming of a "magic pill" for contraception since 1912. She was no longer just concerned about women suffering from unwanted pregnancies. Now, a firm believer in the theory of population control, she was also worried about the potential toll of unchecked population growth on the world's limited natural resources.
A "Magic Pill"
Tired of waiting for science or industry to turn its attention to the problem, Margaret Sanger set out on a mission. She sought someone to realize her vision of a contraceptive pill as easy to take as an aspirin. She wanted a pill that could provide women with cheap, safe, effective and female-controlled contraception. Her search ended in 1951 when she met Gregory Pincus, a medical expert in human reproduction who was willing to take on the project. Soon after, she found a sponsor for the research: International Harvester heiress Katharine McCormick. Their collaboration would lead to the FDA approval of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive, in 1960. With the advent of the Pill, Sanger accomplished her life-long goal of bringing safe and effective contraception to the masses.
A Dream Achieved
Not only did Sanger live to see the realization of her "magic pill," but four years later, at the age of 81, Sanger witnessed the undoing of the Comstock laws. In the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, the court ruled that the private use of contraceptives was a constitutional right. When Sanger passed away a year later, after more than half a century of fighting for the right of women to control their own fertility, she died knowing she had won the battle.
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