What is the significance of Margaret Sanger to birth control?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Margaret (Higgins) Sanger is credited with being the most powerful driving force in the birth control and reproductive rights movement in the United States and the world. Her extreme passion for this cause was undoubtedly prompted by her upbringing and her subsequent life experiences; however, there are two sides of her crusade for universal access to birth control.

Higgins was born in New York and her Irish-Catholic mother died of tuberculosis at the age of 49; however, Higgins was convinced that the hardships of bearing 11 children as well as numerous unsuccessful pregnancies was also a significant factor in her mother's untimely death. When her mother died, Higgins vowed to do what she could do to change society's thinking about reproduction and the choice to prevent it.

Higgins studied to be a teacher but was unsatisfied, so she trained to be a nurse. At 23 (late for this time), Higgins married William Sanger. Within the first year of her marriage, she had tuberculosis and nearly died bearing her first child. By choice (and no doubt careful planning) they did not have another child for five years; she gave birth for the third time two years later.

The Sangers were affluent and life seemed good for a time, but then they lost their beautiful home in a fire and Margaret had a crisis of identity. She began nursing on the Lower East Side of New York; her patients were poor women who desperately wanted to prevent more pregnancies but did not know how to do so while remaining faithful to their faiths.

One Jewish woman, Sadie Sacks, tried to abort her child and died. This added to Sanger's resolve to advocate for women's medical rights. She saw firsthand the effects of poverty on women's health and position in society. She fought for the right to educate women and others about venereal diseases, and this issue was actually her first clash with authorities. This only made her more determined to continue her quest to educate the public about women's health issues. 

She continued her fight and her sister, Ethel Byrne, opened a clinic in which they provided smuggled diaphragms (from Europe). In the 10 days it was open for business before the government shut it down, more than 500 women came to take advantage of the clinic's birth control devices.

In 1923, Sanger opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in Manhattan and it was allowed to stay open. For the rest of her life, Sanger was a spokesperson and advocate for women's reproductive rights and the right to safe, legal abortions--and later more broadly women's rights to control her body and health care choices--and spoke regularly and passionately about these issues all over the world. 

She made "birth control" a household phrase, and her efforts eventually resulted in the creation of Planned Parenthood with this slogan:

Every child a wanted child.

A closer look at her philosophy, however, reveals that she was a proponent of eugenics, and spoke of it as part of her crusade for birth control.

In 1920 Sanger publicly stated that "birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives."

She thought blacks, Jews and others were inferior races that did not deserve to live. She saw those poor, black neighborhoods as breeding grounds for criminals and presented this as a strong argument for birth control. 

While Sanger's goal may be considered praiseworthy, her tactics and motivations were questionable, at best. 

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vhk521's profile pic

vhk521 | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 2) eNoter

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I think it's important to note that although Sanger served as the president of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which is a pro-choice organization that supports safe abortion practices, Sanger herself was against abortion. She saw abortion as taking away a human life, and she promoted contraception as a way to prevent abortion altogether. IPPF broadened its movement for reproductive rights to include safe abortion methods in addition to contraceptives after Sanger's death in the 1960s. 

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