When Sadie Sachs, recovering from an almost fatal self-induced abortion, asked a doctor how she could prevent another pregnancy, she was told, “Tell Jake (her husband) to sleep on the roof.”
The 28-year-old New York housewife died six months later from a second abortion, leaving behind three young children under age five.
Sachs’s death in 1912 shocked Margaret Sanger, a nurse who had attended the young woman for three weeks after her first abortion. Sanger soon gave up nursing and began a lifelong campaign for the right to birth control information — an undertaking that would bring her both glory and denunciations in life and death.
Upon her death in 1966 from heart failure, a New York Times obituary credited Sanger with pioneering the birth control movement in the United States. But her detractors have called her a eugenicist, a racist and an advocate of promiscuity.
Margaret Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins in 1879 in Corning, N.Y.
Later in life, Sanger was disappointed by the disparity between her parents’ fates; Her mother had died at age 48 after giving birth to 11 children and her father had lived past age 80. Her early years sowed the seeds for Sanger’s social activism, particularly for her campaign to free women from the burden of having too many children.
“Very early in my childhood I associated poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, quarreling, fighting, debts, jails with large families,” she wrote in her autobiography, published in 1938.
Margaret Higgins married William Sanger, an architect and aspiring artist, in 1902. The difficulty she went through giving birth to her first son, which nearly left her an invalid for life, contributed to her determination to fight for the right to birth control.
Margaret Sanger soon became an active socialist and suffragist. She joined forces with feminists such as Emma Goldman to demand women’s right to control their bodies.
“You can find her in the 1910s in and around all of those groups that were working hard for women’s right to vote,” said University professor Sara Evans, who used to lecture about Sanger in her women’s history class.
“She was one of the early people to talk about women’s right to their own sexuality and that the constant danger of pregnancy meant that women couldn’t experience and express themselves sexually,” Evans said.
Sadie Sachs’s death, together with Sanger’s witness of other women’s struggles, led her to refocus her efforts on campaigning for sexual reform for women.
“I came to a sudden realization that my work as a nurse and my activities in social service were entirely palliative and consequently futile and useless to relieve the misery I saw all about me,” Sanger wrote in her 1931 book “My Fight for Birth Control.”
Sanger began to search for safe, effective female birth control methods. When she found a void of such medical literature in the United States, she traveled to Europe, where there was a more permissible atmosphere for female sexuality and contraception.
Back in the United States, Sanger began publishing a series of articles about female sexuality in “The Call,” a weekly socialist periodical. One of the essays, written in the Feb. 9, 1913, issue, was banned by the United States Post Office for violating the 1873 Comstock Act. The act defined all birth control information as pornography and imposed a sweeping ban of its distribution.
Sanger started a feminist journal entitled “The Woman Rebel” in March 1914. The periodical was again declared non-mailable and Sanger was indicted for violating the postal code. Pending her trial and a possible conviction that could carry a 45-year jail sentence, Sanger fled to Europe. The charges against her were dropped in 1916.
A year after her return from Europe, Sanger founded the first birth control clinic in the United States with her sister Ethel Byrne, also a trained nurse. Within 10 days, 488 Brooklyn mothers received contraceptive advice through the clinic before it was closed down by police. The subsequent trial made Sanger a national figure and resulted in a re-interpretation of the Comstock Act to allow doctor-prescribed contraceptive advice.
Sanger began to push for professional advice on birth control. Many Sanger scholars observed that from this point onward, she began to switch the weight of her campaign from rights of poor women to building a following among middle-class people.
At the same time, Sanger courted socialites and philanthropists for financial support. With the endowments, she was able to organize the American Birth Control League. The group was renamed Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. By 1990, the New York City-based group had evolved into a voluntary reproductive health care network of 171 affiliates and 500,000 members across the country.
Sanger also founded the nation’s first physician-staffed birth control clinic in New York City. Sanger’s national committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control initiated a lawsuit in 1936 that lead to a court ruling reversing the Comstock Act. The ruling allowed physicians to receive contraceptive devices through mail.
A year later, the American Medical Association accepted contraception as a legitimate service to be taught in schools.
Despite a growing middle-class following, Sanger’s stand for female sexual expressiveness and reproductive rights irritated some groups and individuals, most notably the Roman Catholic Church. Some called her campaign a conspiracy against chastity.
“The emphasis (of Sanger’s work) was not on promiscuity. The emphasis was on planned parenthood. It was on sexuality within marriage,” Evans said.
Some groups have also accused Sanger of racism. Her efforts to make contraception available to African-Americans have been interpreted to be an attempt to control the black population.
“I would imagine she was less racist than probably even a majority of white Americans. I am saying that the whole society at that time was deeply racist (from today’s perspective,” said Linda Gordon, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has written about Sanger.
Yet greater controversy has centered on Sanger’s involvement with the now largely defamed eugenics movement.
Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin who ascribed to his theories, coined the term eugenics in 1883 as “the science of improvement of the human race germ plasm through better breeding.”
In the following decades, eugenics came to encompass a wide variety of ideas from radical compulsory sterilization to better care for women and children. It reached its heyday in 1927, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that it was constitutional to involuntarily sterilize the developmentally disabled, the insane or the uncontrollably epileptic.
Gordon said Sanger was only marginally involved in the eugenics movement.
“Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist in a certain period of her life,” said Gordon. “In that period of her life, eugenics was an enormous fad that took in virtually all Americans.
“We are all tremendously indebted to Margaret Sanger whether we like everything that she did or not,” said Gordon, “because often it takes that kind of really single-minded leader to force a change in public opinion.”