Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was a nurse and birth control activist from the United States.
She is one of the most well-known and respected figures in the women’s rights movement. She devoted her life to improving women’s access to safe, reliable contraception and advocating for reproductive freedom.
Sanger grew up in a large family in New York, one of 11 children..
Sanger grew up watching her mother be pregrant, nurse, or have miscarriage and learned first-hand the affects the lack of family planning has on women.
Her mother suffered numerous miscarriages due to the number of pregnancies she had, which sparked Sanger’s interest in birth control and women’s health issues.
After completing her nursing education (which she paid for by taking on odd jobs like tutoring), Sanger worked as a visiting nurse on New York City’s Lower East Side.
Through her work there, she saw firsthand the difficulties poor women faced in trying to use contraception and maintain their health when they had limited access to medical advice or resources.
In 1912, Sanger founded The Woman Rebel, an early pro-birth control magazine that advocated for women’s access to birth control information and services.
This publication resulted in criminal charges due to its controversial content (at the time, it was illegal to discuss or promote contraception). Instead of deterring Sanger, this experience only furthered inspired her passion for giving every woman the right to make choices about her body.
In 1916, she opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn – though it only lasted eleven days before it was shut down by police due to operating without a license.
This event brought attention to the need for affordable contraception across the U.S., and spurred more open dialogue around birth control which eventually led to legal reform on this issue within several states over time.
Two years later in 1918, along with author and fellow feminist Emma Goldman, Sanger co-founded what would become known as Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) – to provide health services related not only to contraception but also pregnancy testing, prenatal care, abortion care services etc., even in cases where these were restricted by law at that time then because of anti-abortion legislation laws of most states previously enacted.
Sanger continued her social justice activism until her death in 1966 due to congestive heart failure at age 87.
During this period, she wrote numerous books based on her experiences including:
- Motherhood In Bondage (1928)
- My Fight For Birth Control (1931)
- The Pivot Of Civilization (1920)
- Woman And The New Race (1920) among others.
She also spoke at various conferences and earned many awards.
Her contributions have helped pave way for modern day advocacy groups such as NARAL Pro Choice America and Women’s Health Matters who continue fighting against reproductive disenfranchisement worldwide today thereby helping create better conditions and options available till date safeguarding sexual choices, autonomy and dignity of women.
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Margaret Sanger: An Early Pro Abortion & Pro-Choice Activist
Margaret Sanger was supportive of abortion rights throughout her life. She wrote extensively on the subject in various books and articles, stating that women should have the right to choose when it comes to continuing an unwanted pregnancy.
In 1951, Sanger wrote an influential article titled “A Doctor’s Case for Legalized Abortion,” which argued that the physical, mental, economic and social consequences of unwanted pregnancies were devastating and often irreparable. She argued that having access to safe and legal abortions would enable women to choose a path that suited their own unique circumstances.
Her writings sparked conversations about reproductive freedom within the medical community and beyond.
Sanger emphasised that education around contraception is essential in order to reduce the need for abortions, as well as reducing the risk of fatalities due to unsafe backstreet abortions. In General Education about Birth Control (1934), she wrote:
“The greatest sin today is bringing children into world without a decent chance in life.”
It is a bit comprehendible that things that were clear to Sanger almost a hundred years ago, are still controversial in the USA today.
Margaret Sanger: Her Racist Views
Although Margaret Sanger is widely regarded as a champion of the women’s rights movement, she was also a racist who clearly believed in the superiority of white people.
For her, family planning was inextricable linked to the possibility of “demographic planning”, i.e. controlling the black population.
In particular, Sanger was a proponent of eugenics – the belief that human traits can be controlled for social betterment through selective breeding and sterilization – which was popular at the time but is now widely viewed as an unfounded and discriminatory pseudoscience.
Critics have also pointed to Sanger’s views on birth control access in minority communities.
In her book The Pivot of Civilization, written in 1922, she wrote that “birth control must lead ultimately to reduction of the Negro population.”
Similarly, during a 1939 speech in Charlotte, North Carolina titled “Birth Control and Racial Betterment,” Sanger argued that birth control access should be limited within certain groups she deemed to be “unfit” or “feeble-minded.”
Although Sanger did much work to advance women’s rights throughout her life, it must be acknowledged that her legacy includes holding beliefs which are despicable and profoundly racist.
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Margaret Sanger: Her Support of Eugenics
Margaret Sanger was a strong advocate of eugenics – an idea popularized in the early 20th century which suggested that human populations could be improved through selective breeding.
She argued that this could be done through controlling who had children and by preventing groups deemed undesirable from reproducing.
Though it is largely considered discredited today, the idea of eugenics had wide support at the time and Sanger saw it as a way to improve society.
In her 1938 book “Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography”, she wrote:
“The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”
Such despicable options were quite common at the time, among social reforms and even the Nazi party, who made eugenics a key competent of their policies.
Margaret Sanger: Her Contribution To Planned Parenthood
Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organization that provides reproductive health services, including contraception and abortion.
The organization was founded in 1916 by Margaret Sanger, an American nurse who dedicated her life to women’s rights and access to birth control.
Sanger grew up in an Irish family of 11 children in Corning, New York and became a nurse after completing her education.
Sanger believed that women should have the right to decide when and if they wanted to become mothers, and she fought for access to birth control for all women. She opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916, which was shut down by police nine days later. Despite this setback, Sanger continued her work and eventually founded Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) in 1921.
Today, Planned Parenthood provides essential health care services such as contraception, STI testing and treatment, cancer screenings, abortion care, and more.
They also provide education on sexual health topics such as consent and healthy relationships. PPFA has grown significantly since its founding over 100 years ago; it now serves over 2 million patients each year at more than 600 health centers across the United States.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Margaret Sanger: Mother of Birth Control, The Forum Podcast, BBC World Service
- Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, book by Ellen Chesler
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