It was 100 years ago this month that nurse Margaret Sanger opened a secret birth control clinic in Brooklyn where she, aided by another nurse and a receptionist/interpreter (both female), risked arrest simply by providing verbal instructions to women on how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Today, her legacy lives on in the 650 Planned Parenthood clinics in the United States, which grew out of that modest—and illegal—Amboy Street clinic.
While the police combed the neighborhood in vain in search of the place, a secret birth control clinic opened yesterday by Mrs. Margaret Sanger in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn did a brisk business. Scores of women, mostly from the Polish and Italian districts of the vicinity, who had been informed of the secret address, flocked to the place, registered, paid their 10-cent fees and received verbal information.
In 1916, information on family planning was scarce. Promoting the use of birth control violated New York State law. Poor families in particular often found themselves struggling to support their increasingly growing broods, with mothers lacking the knowledge or resources necessary to take control of their reproductive health. Women were afraid to discuss birth control with their male doctors and exhausted from trying to make their families’ meager ends meet.
A few days after opening, a reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle spent a day at the clinic, speaking to the women seeking its help. One exhausted mother, in her early 30s and not unique in her circumstances, confessed:
This is the kind of place that 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.
As the reporter watched, the mail arrived, much of it simply addressed to “Birth Control Clinic, Brooklyn, New York.” In the pile were letters from women in other states who had heard of Sanger’s work, asking her to visit them.
“My husband is earning $11 a week and I have five children,” said one. “We have four children and it seems wrong for me to have any more as we can just about get along on what we have,” explained another. A woman traveled from Massachusetts simply to learn how to prevent another pregnancy.
In 2016, there is still a need for comprehensive, accessible family planning information, like that provided by Planned Parenthood. Yet, a hundred years later, the right of women to make decisions about their own health continues to come under attack—no longer through the threat of arrest, but in politicians’ attempts to subvert Roe vs. Wade and violence from anti-abortionists.
Lost in the angry rhetoric over the entirely legal abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood is what should be overtly obvious to all: By providing easy access to family planning advice and effective contraception, Planned Parenthood’s work has, for a century, prevented millions of unwanted pregnancies and resulting abortions. In 2013, the organization was estimated to have prevented 515,000 unwanted pregnancies a year through provision of birth control services, averting 216,000 abortions. Also often conveniently forgotten in the battle is that while Planned Parenthood’s abortion services, which are safe and overseen by qualified medical staff and provide 86 percent of Planned Parenthood’s non-governmental revenue, account for only three percent of its work. Preventative primary care is overwhelmingly its main service: each year, its clinics provide millions of women, men (yes, men!) and teens worldwide not just with reproductive education, but vital care that includes the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and potentially life-saving cancer screenings.
As the Washington Post reported this week, the United States has come a gloriously long way from the days of Margaret Sanger and her secret Brooklyn clinic, which only lasted nine days before the police shut it down. She and her two employees were arrested and tried in court; Sanger and her fellow nurse were consequently jailed. Twenty five percent of women who use birth control in 2016—now often free of charge, thanks to the Affordable Care Act—choose the pill as their preferred contraceptive. It’s particularly popular with teenagers, for whom an unwanted pregnancy can be especially traumatic and life-altering.
That the Washington Post and NPQ can report openly on women’s reproductive issues, that women feel comfortable talking about it with medical professionals, that contraception is free and easily accessible, and that women have the right to make their own often-life-saving choices about their bodies are in no small way the result of the work of Planned Parenthood over the last one hundred years. Regardless of which side of the abortion argument you land, it cannot be denied that Margaret Sanger’s legacy has not only saved women’s lives but significantly improved them. With that in mind, let’s all wish the organization a very happy birthday, with at least another hundred more years to follow.—Melinda Crosby