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Leader in Women's Health

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Margaret Sanger Leader in Women's Health
Vickie Doscher
Hampton University

Margaret Sanger Leader in Women's Health

The early twentieth century was a turning point in American history-especially in regards to the acquisition of women’s rights. It was a time of grave social conflict and human suffering. As Margaret Sanger found out, women, especially those who were poor, had no choice regarding pregnancy. 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 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. Sanger's commitment to birth control evolved 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 multiple childbirths and miscarriages. “Although she was now spitting blood when she coughed we still expected her to live on forever. She had been ill for so long; this was just another attack among many” (The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 41).
Sanger attends nursing school at White Plains Hospital in the Catskills. “I really wanted to train in the city but her mother knew someone on the board of the White Plains Hospital, which was just initiating a school. There I was accepted as a probationer” (The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 45). Eventually, she found work in New York City as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side. As a nurse who assisted in delivering babies, Margaret Sanger was very aware of how unwanted pregnancies affected lives. She witnessed the effects of self-induced abortions, the transferring of diseases from mother to child, and the deaths of mothers and children due to poor health conditions. “They were living, breathing, human beings, with hopes, fears, and aspirations like my own, yet their weary, misshapen bodies, “always, ailing, never failing, were destined to be thrown on the scrap heap before they were thirty-five” (The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 89). Lacking effective contraceptives, many women, when faced with another unwanted pregnancy, resorted to back-alley abortions. “Pregnancy was a chronic condition among the women of this class. Suggestions as to what to do for a girl who was “in trouble” or a married woman who was “caught” passed from mouth to mouth-herb teas, turpentine, steaming, rolling downstairs, inserting slippery elm, knitting needles, shoe-hooks” (The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 89). 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 feel the only solution was to attack the root of the problem - to make a lasting difference, families needed information on sexuality and birth control. “I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost, I was finished with palliative and superficial cures; I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as this sky” (The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 92).
In 1912, the New York Call hired her to write a column on sex education called "What Every Girl Should Know." The literature informed girls about their bodies and covered topics such as physical growth, mental development, puberty, menstruation, sexual impulses, reproduction, hygiene of pregnancy, and various venereal diseases. Deemed obscene by censors, this was her first of many battles with the law - in addition to social taboos, information on sexuality and birth control was considered obscene and distribution of it was illegal under the Comstock Laws of 1873. “The words gonorrhea and syphilis had occurred in that article and Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the suppression of vice, did not like them” (The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 77). Sanger was convinced that education about these topics was necessary. Still, two years later, Sanger began publishing The Woman Rebel, a feminist newspaper advocating women's rights, including the right to practice birth control. This endeavor produced another negative reaction and she was indicted for violating obscenity laws. By writing these works Sanger was trying to inform women that there were ways of preventing births.
In 1916, Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Her sister, Ethel Byrne, was the clinic nurse. In the first few weeks of the clinic's existence numerous women lined up—often with children in tow—to receive sex education and contraceptive information. “Halfway to the corner they were standing in line, at least one hundred and fifty, some shawled, some hatless, their red hands clasping the cold, chapped, smaller ones of their children” (The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 216). A few weeks later, the police raided the clinic and Sanger and her sister were arrested and jailed. “Two uniformed policemen came for me, and with them I was willing to ride in the patrol wagon to the station. As we started I heard a scream from a woman who had just come around the corner on her way to the clinic. She abandoned her baby carriage, rushed through the crowd, and cried, “Come back! Come back and save me!”(The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 222). In the years that followed, Sanger traveled the world to learn more about contraception and the politics of contraception. Her advocacy for reproductive rights eventually led to the founding of the American Birth Control League, which became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. Sanger spent her next three decades campaigning to bring safe and effective birth control into the American mainstream. “In the beginning of the birth control movement the main purpose had been the mitigation of women’s suffering, Comstock law or no Comstock law. Its very genesis had been the conscious, deliberate, and public violation of this statute. Later, to change it became imperative, so that the millions who depended upon dispensaries and hospitals could be instructed by capable hands” (The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 414).
The birth-control movement spearheaded by Sanger gave women the tools and choices they needed to manage their fertility. Her work was a catalyst that led to an evolution on how we view women's roles, pregnancy and prenatal care. 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 frustrated with the limited birth control options available to women. She had been dreaming of a 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. “I accepted one branch of this philosophy, but eugenics without birth control seemed to me a house built upon sands” (The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger, 2004, p. 374).
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. “Development of "the pill," as it became popularly known, was initially commissioned by birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and funded by heiress Katherine McCormick” ("This Day in History: FDA Approves the Pill," n.d., para. 2). She met Gregory Pincus 1951, a medical expert in human reproduction who was willing to take on the project. “In the early 1950s, Gregory Pincus, a biochemist at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, and John Rock, a gynecologist at Harvard Medical School, began work on a birth-control pill. Clinical tests of the pill, which used synthetic progesterone and estrogen to repress ovulation in women, were initiated in 1954. On May 9, 1960, the FDA approved the pill, granting greater reproductive freedom to American women” ("This Day in History: FDA Approves the Pill," n.d., para. 3). The pill is an instant hit and has enormous consequences in freeing women to control their lives. Finally women have an easy and reliable means to prevent unwanted pregnancies and plan their families. With the advent of the Pill, Sanger accomplished her life-long goal of bringing safe and effective contraception to the masses. Feeling strongly about the problem of unwanted pregnancies; Sanger devoted her life to acquiring the right for women to prevent pregnancies through the use of contraceptives. After years of dedication and hard work, Margaret Sanger not only accomplished what she had hoped for by making people understand the importance and necessity of birth control, but also accomplishes something greater by extending women’s rights as well.

References
The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. (2004). 31 East 2nd Street, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
This Day in History: FDA Approves the Pill. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fda-approves-the-pill

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