From Margaret Sanger to Mike Pence: A century of progress — and backsliding — for Planned Parenthood and the right to choose

Remembering the complicated history of Planned Parenthood as Trump and the GOP take aim at reproductive freedom

Published January 29, 2017 3:00PM (EST)

Margaret Sanger   (Salon/Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Margaret Sanger (Salon/Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

One hundred years ago — on Jan. 29, 1917 — Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, went on trial in New York for distributing birth control information and devices. The centennial anniversary of Sanger’s courageous stance for women’s rights comes as Donald Trump is leading the charge to destroy Planned Parenthood and repeal women’s reproductive freedom, and as a mass movement to protect those freedoms is gaining momentum, reflected in the more than 4 million Americans who took to the streets in hundreds of cities last week against Trump and for women’s equality.   

This past fall during a speech at Virginia’s Liberty University, Mike Pence, who as a congressman sponsored anti-abortion legislation and is now vice president, said, “A Trump-Pence administration will defund Planned Parenthood and redirect those dollars to women’s health care that doesn’t provide abortion services.” On Monday Trump took the first step in carrying out that agenda.

Trump signed an executive order barring federal funds from organizations that provide birth control and abortion services, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation. According to the Guttmacher Institute, U.S. funding for contraceptives in fiscal year 2016 prevented more than 2 million unsafe abortions and 6 million unintended pregnancies, and helped prevent 11,000 maternal deaths worldwide. But Trump’s order goes further than the ones imposed by previous Republican presidents, taking the unprecedented step of extending its reach to “all global health assistance,” jeopardizing as much as $9 billion in federal aid for HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, Zika, children’s health and other lifesaving programs.

In his Liberty University speech, Pence also said that he longs “to see the day that Roe v. Wade is consigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs,” referring to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. During the campaign, Trump had committed in writing to choosing Supreme Court nominees who oppose abortion. He sent Pence and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway to speak on Friday at an anti-abortion rally in Washington to reaffirm the administration’s anti-abortion commitment. Even though about 70 percent of Americans (and 53 percent of Republicans) oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, if Trump gets to appoint two justices, abortion could once again become illegal. 

Sanger, a nurse, and her sister Ethel Byrne, who was also a registered nurse, and Fania Mindell opened the nation’s first birth control clinic, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, on Oct. 16, 1916. Mindell translate for the clinic’s clientele of primarily immigrant Jewish and Italian women. They rented a small storefront and distributed flyers written in English, Yiddish and Italian advertising the clinic’s services. Sanger smuggled in diaphragms from the Netherlands, but she couldn’t recruit doctors to make sure they properly fit her patients. Although doctors were allowed to provide men with condoms as protection against venereal disease, it was illegal for doctors  to give women contraception. Instead, Sanger and her sister provided the services.

The first day the clinic opened, Sanger and her team saw 140 people. Women — some arriving from as far away as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts — stood in long lines to avail themselves of the clinic’s services. Margaret Whitehurst, a police officer working undercover, visited the clinic and told Sanger that she was the mother of two children and that she had not money to support more. Whitehurst discovered Sanger explaining to several women how to use birth control devices called Aseptikon vaginal suppositories. Nine days after the clinic opened, New York’s vice squad raided the facility and placed Sanger under arrest. She spent the night in jail.

As soon as she was released on bail, Sanger returned to work. Again, the police came, and this time they forced her landlord, a Sanger sympathizer, to evict the clinic. The clinic closed for good on Nov. 16, its one-month anniversary.

Following the eviction, Sanger, Byrne and Mindell were arrested for violating state and federal laws. In 1873 Congress had passed the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transportation of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material, and banned contraceptives and information about contraception from the mail. Twenty-four states, including New York, enacted their own versions of the Comstock law.

Byrne was sentenced to 30 days in Blackwell's Island prison. She went on a hunger strike. After 185 hours without food or water, she was force-fed by prison staff. Byrne’s hunger strike made the news and galvanized public opinion. Sanger’s trial, which began on January 29, 1917, became a cause célèbre.

That night Sanger’s allies held a rally at Carnegie Hall. Sanger spoke to the packed crowd, calling for repeal of the Comstock laws, which classified birth control devices and information as “obscene” and thus illegal.

“I come to you tonight from a crowded courtroom, from a vortex of persecution,” Sanger said. “I come not from the stake at Salem, where women were burned for blasphemy, but from the shadow of Blackwell’s Island, where women are tortured for ‘obscenity.’" She added, "My purpose in life is to arouse sentiment for the repeal of the law, state and rederal. It is we women who have paid for the folly of this law, and it is up to us to repeal it.” 

Sanger was convicted, but the judge offered her a suspended sentence if she agreed not to repeat the offense. She refused. Offered a choice between paying a fine or spending days in jail, Sanger chose the latter and served 30 days in jail. She appealed the decision, but a year later the New York Court of Appeals upheld her conviction. Nevertheless, the judge ruled that physicians could legally prescribe contraception for general health reasons, if not exclusively for venereal disease.

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Born Margaret Higgins in 1879, Sanger was the sixth of 11 children in a working-class family in Corning, New York. Her father, Michael Higgins, a stonemason, was a freethinking atheist who gave his daughter books about strong women and encouraged her idealism. Her mother, Ann, was a devout Catholic and the strong and loving mainstay of the family. When she died of tuberculosis at age 50, young Margaret had to take care of the family. She always believed that her mother’s many pregnancies had contributed to her early death.

Sanger longed to be a physician, but she was unable to pay for medical school. She enrolled in nursing school in White Plains, New York, and as part of her maternity training delivered many babies — unassisted — in women’s homes. She met women who had had several children and were desperate to avoid future pregnancies. Sanger had no idea what to tell them.

Soon after her 1902 marriage to architect and would-be painter William Sanger, she became pregnant, developed tuberculosis and experienced a very difficult childbirth, which was followed by a lengthy illness and recovery. The young family moved from New York City to the suburbs for Margaret’s health, but two babies and eight years later, Sanger insisted that they return to the city. 

In New York the Sangers were part of a progressive circle that included journalists John Reed and Lincoln Steffens, labor leader William “Big Bill” Haywood and anarchist Emma Goldman. As someone who had been smuggling contraceptive devices into the U.S. from France since at least 1900, Goldman greatly influenced Sanger’s thinking. Sanger joined the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, working with other radicals to support labor strikes.

Sanger also returned to nursing, working as a visiting nurse and midwife at community nurse Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side. There, again, women repeatedly asked her how to prevent future pregnancies. In those days, poor women tended to resort to dangerous methods to end pregnancies; some even used knitting needles. After one of her patients died from a self-induced abortion, Sanger decided her life’s mission would be fighting for the right of low-income women to control their destinies and improve their health through family planning.

Sanger visited France to learn more about contraceptive use and returned to the United States. She began writing on women’s issues for The Call, a socialist newspaper, and in 1914 launched a newsletter, The Woman Rebel, with backing from unions and feminists. As Sanger and her friends sat around her dining room table addressing newsletters, they brainstormed about what to call their emerging movement for reproductive freedom. From this conversation, the term “birth control” was born.

Encouraging working-class women to “think for themselves and build up a fighting character,” Sanger wrote that “women cannot be on an equal footing with men until they have full and complete control over their reproductive function.”

Anthony Comstock, the U.S. postal inspector, seized the first few issues of The Woman Rebel from Sanger’s local post office, but she got around him by mailing future issues from different post offices. Thousands of women responded to the newsletter, anxious for information on contraception.

Sanger expanded her magazine articles into two popular books, "What Every Mother Should Know," published in 1914, and "What Every Girl Should Know," in 1916. 

Her next project was an educational pamphlet, Family Limitation, that described clearly and simply what she had learned in France about not always effective birth-control methods such as condoms, suppositories and douches. Sanger had planned to print 10,000 copies, but demand from labor unions representing copper and cotton mill workers was so great that she scraped up enough money together to print 100,000 copies. Over the years, the pamphlet’s distribution reached 10 million and it was translated into 13 languages. In the 1920s in Yucatán, Mexico, feminists distributed the pamphlet to every couple requesting a marriage license.

But before she could distribute Family Limitation in the United States, Sanger had to appear in court for the “crime” of distributing The Woman Rebel. With very little time to prepare her defense and faced with a seemingly hostile judge, she jumped bail and fled alone to England. While in Europe, she visited a birth control clinic in Holland run by midwives, where she learned about a more effective method of contraception, the diaphragm, or “pessary.” 

After a year in exile, Sanger returned to the United States in 1916. By then Comstock had died and Sanger was hoping that enforcement of anti-birth control laws might wane and that she might not have to stand trial. A well-publicized open letter to president Woodrow Wilson, signed by nine prominent British writers, including H. G. Wells, praised Sanger and her work. She gained more sympathy when newspapers reported that her daughter Peggy had died suddenly of pneumonia at age 5. In the face of public pressure, the government dropped the case, although the Comstock laws remained on the books.

It was those laws that got Sanger in trouble after the 1916 opening of the Brooklyn birth-control clinic led to her famous trial.  

Sanger continued writing and advocating for reproductive health rights. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, the precursor to Planned Parenthood. And in 1923 Sanger founded the Birth Control Clinic Research Bureau, the first legal clinic to distribute contraceptive information and fit diaphragms under the direction of women doctors.

It wasn’t until 1936 that a federal district court in New York City ruled that the U.S. government could not interfere with the importation of diaphragms for medical use. In 1952 Sanger helped found the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the organization from which Trump just withdrew U.S. funding. Sanger spent the end of her career raising money for research, in efforts that contributed to the development of the birth control pill. She died in 1966. 

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Sanger’s ideas and actions were always controversial. Feminist and progressive reformers were divided over Sanger’s crusade for birth control. Alice Hamilton, Crystal Eastman and Katharine Houghton Hepburn (the mother of actress Katharine Hepburn) supported Sanger. But others, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Carrie Chapman Catt, argued that birth control would increase men’s power over women as sex objects.

In 1930, with the support of the prominent black activist and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, the Urban League and the Amsterdam News (New York’s leading black newspaper), Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem, staffed by a black doctor and black social worker. Then in 1939, key leaders in the black community encouraged Sanger to expand her efforts to the rural South, where most African Americans then lived. Thus began the “Negro Project,” with Du Bois, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and other black leaders lending support. 

Sanger explained that the project was designed to help “a group notoriously underprivileged and handicapped . . .  get a fair share of the better things in life." She added, "To give them the means of helping themselves is perhaps the richest gift of all. We believe birth-control knowledge brought to this group is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation.” 

And Sanger viewed birth control as a way to empower black women, not as a means to reduce the black population. According to Hazel Moore, who ran a birth-control project in Virginia in the 1930s under Sanger’s direction, black women were very responsive to the birth control education offered by the “Negro Project.” At the same time, a number of Southern states began unevenly incorporating birth control services into their public health programs, which were rigidly segregated, providing poorly funded health services to African-Americans.

To the detriment of her reputation and the cause of reproductive freedom, Sanger was also drawn to aspects of the eugenics movement. In the 1920s, some scientists viewed eugenics as a way to identify the hereditary bases of both physical and mental diseases. Others, however, viewed it as a means to create a “superior” human race.

But eugenics and contraception did not go hand in hand. The Nazis opposed birth control or abortion for healthy and “fit” women in their effort to promote a white master race. In fact, Nazi Germany banned and burned Sanger’s books on family planning.

Race-based eugenics was practiced in the United States as well. Blacks were used as unwitting subjects for medical experiments, such as the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972. Poor and especially black women were frequently sterilized in hospitals, often without their knowledge. Many of the eugenics movement’s leaders were racists and anti-Semites who promoted involuntary sterilization in order to help breed a “superior” race.

But Sanger was not among them. Her primary focus was on freeing women who lived in poverty from the burden of unwanted pregnancies. She embraced eugenics as a means of stopping individuals from passing down mental and physical diseases to their descendants, whatever we may think of that practice today. In a 1921 article, she argued that “the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”  

These words are certainly troublesome, but Sanger always repudiated the use of eugenics on specific racial or ethnic groups. She believed that reproductive choices should be made by individual women. Neither Sanger nor Planned Parenthood sought to coerce black women into using birth control or becoming sterilized. In the 1920s, when anti-immigrant sentiment reached a peak and some scientists justified restricting immigration on the grounds that some ethnic groups were mentally and physically inferior, Sanger denounced such stereotyping.

Even so, over the years Sanger’s flirtation with eugenics has provided fodder for attacks on her as a racist. As several of her biographers have documented, a number of racist statements have been falsely attributed to her. Anti-abortion activists and politicians continue to repeat the bogus accusations against Sanger and Planned Parenthood, to score political points with conservatives.  

In 2011 Herman Cain, an African-American businessman who ran for the GOP presidential nomination, claimed that Sanger’s original goal for Planned Parenthood was to “help kill black babies before they came into the world.” Cain also accused the group of “genocide” against African-Americans. During his own recent presidential campaign Dr. Ben Carson, soon be to Trump’s secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that Sanger “believed that people like me should be eliminated.” He later explained that he was “talking about the black race.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, less than 1 in 10 of all 1,800 clinics that perform abortions are located in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and only about 110 of Planned Parenthood’s 800 clinics are in areas where blacks make up more than 25 percent of the overall population. Planned Parenthood establishes clinics based on where medical needs, health care shortages and poverty rates are highest.

The politics of birth control have changed dramatically in the past half century. In 1961 Estelle Griswold, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, opened a clinic in New Haven with Dr. C. Lee Buxton, a professor at Yale’s medical school. They were arrested in November 1961 for violating a state law prohibiting the use of birth control. Their case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1965 ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that the law violated the right to marital privacy. The case established couples’ right to birth control and women’s right to privacy in medical decisions, which paved the way for the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the Republican Party embraced family planning and abortion. Prescott Bush, a Republican senator from Connecticut and father and grandfather to the two Bush presidents, was Planned Parenthood’s treasurer in the late 1940s. Former senator Barry Goldwater, the GOP’s 1964 presidential candidate, supported Planned Parenthood; his wife was a board member of its Phoenix affiliate. In 1968 while president Richard Nixon advocated federal funds for family planning, then-congressman George H. W. Bush, of Texas, argued, “We need to make family planning a household word.”

After the Roe v. Wade decision, however, Republican operatives and religious conservatives joined forces to promote a “family values” agenda that challenged the political and cultural victories of the women’s and civil rights movements. Since then conservatives have consistently sought to restrict abortion rights. In recent years, that effort has escalated into a fervent crusade, including state-level ballot measures that limit abortion access and daily vigils outside clinics. Protesters have gathered outside Planned Parenthood clinics, hoping to embarrass and frighten its patients into not using its services. The movement’s most extreme wing has engaged in clinic bombing and even encouraged, and in some cases carried out, the assassination of those who work at abortion clinics.

Today Planned Parenthood clinics offer a range of services, including birth control, sexually transmitted disease screenings, antibiotics, pap smears and education on breast self-examination. They also safely terminate pregnancies, protecting women from the hazards of self-induced abortion. In 2011 during a Senate debate on a bill to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, Arizona Republican Jon Kyl claimed incorrectly that abortion constitutes “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” (In fact, Planned Parenthood says that abortion accounts for less than 3 percent of its services.)

According to Planned Parenthood, last year the organization received from federal, state and local government $554 million, about half its total funding. About 75 percent of that government support comes from Medicaid which pays for direct medical services provided to low-income patients, including contraception, cancer screenings and sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment. None of the Medicaid funds may be used for abortion, under the longstanding Hyde amendment, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans from lying that federal funds are used to “kill babies.” In 2015, Republicans in Congress passed a budget bill to eliminate federal money for Planned Parenthood. President Barack Obama vetoed the bill.

Since November’s election, House Speaker Paul Ryan has insisted that federal funding for Planned Parenthood will be on the chopping block this year. He didn’t waste any time. On Tuesday, the House voted 238 to 183 for an anti-abortion bill. It not only bans federally funded abortions under Medicaid, but it also denies federal subsidies to patients with private insurance plans, purchased through the Affordable Care Act, that cover such services.  Trump has pledged to sign it if it passes the Republican-controlled Senate.

In 2015, 25 House Republicans campaigned to have a bust of Sanger removed from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Senator Ted Cruz issued a statement saying that Sanger didn’t belong there because of her “inhumane life’s work” and since she “advocated for the extermination of African-Americans.”  With Trump in the White House, that bust probably won’t be there much longer.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive, he would surely have been at last week’s mass protest for women’s rights. In 1966 he received Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award in Human Rights. Accepting the award, he wrote: “There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. . . . Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision.”

By Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books).

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