Friday, March 10, 2017

Interview: Alexander Sanger explains how his grandmother, Margaret, "challenged existing male power structures and institutions"

This is the third of four articles spanning my discussion with Alexander Sanger. The first and second pieces are available on-line. 
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Who was Margaret Sanger?
"Margaret Sanger devoted her life to legalizing birth control and making it universally available for women," PBS said of her in its American Experience series. "Born in 1879, Sanger came of age during the heyday of 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."
This is merely the tip of the iceberg, though. Sanger's activism was borne from observation, which led her to believe that the larger a family is, the less resources its members will generally enjoy. By promoting population stability, she reasoned, the world would be made a better place.
As the overwhelming popularity of contraceptives, prophylactics, and, to a lesser extent, abortion as well as sterilization evinces, Sanger was on to something. Planning a family, rather than falling victim to nature, proved an immensely beneficial effort -- perhaps the most integral element of rising above generational poverty.
No wonder that Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood.
It is also hardly surprising that she was met by the forces of reaction -- politicians, religions, and others who wanted to maintain the status quo. With an ever-growing group of people kept ignorant by circumstance, traditional authorities were able to profit off misery and prevent the masses from taking life into their own hands. Sanger offered them a powerful tool in building a brighter future, which aggravated the cloud manufacturers to no end.
"My grandmother was arrested when she first opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1916," Margaret's grandson, Alexander, explains on his website. "At that time, birth control was illegal and reproductive rights did not exist. Two generations later, we are still fighting for the right to talk frankly with women about their reproductive health care and options regarding pregnancy and to give them the services they need."
Though she has been dead for nearly half a century, controversy over her legacy rages on; manufactured by the philosophical descendants of Comstock supporters.
"My grandmother was arrested when she first opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1916," Margaret's grandson, Alexander Sanger, explains on his website. "At that time, birth control was illegal and reproductive rights did not exist. Two generations later, we are still fighting for the right to talk frankly with women about their reproductive health care and options regarding pregnancy and to give them the services they need."
The junior Sanger continues in his family tradition. As the International Planned Parenthood Council's chair, he travels the world -- parts of it tourists hardly ever visit -- to promote family planning. While his job is far from easy, he and his coworkers see the results of their efforts in real time; smaller, stabler, more educated family units. 
Sanger recently spoke with me about many issues relative to population stability and his grandmother's legacy. Some of our conversation is included below.

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Joseph Ford Cotto: Few people have attracted so many admirers and detractors as your grandmother, Margaret. Why do you suppose that her legacy has been so divisive?

Alexander Sanger: In 1914, my grandmother said a woman’s duty was “to look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; to have an ideal; to speak and act in defiance of convention.”  This was during a time when women couldn’t vote and married couples could be arrested for using birth control in the privacy of their bedrooms.  

Margaret Sanger challenged existing male power structures and institutions, and the societal norms around gender and sex.  She was jailed repeatedly for supporting a woman’s right to make her own decisions. Many men resisted. She challenged the church, Anthony Comstock’s “chastity” laws, and the social norms that governed women’s sex lives.  She had no fear of speaking out and no patience for those who stood in her way.  

Cotto: A new generation of anti-reproductive rights activists have essentially turned Margaret Sanger into a straw figure. Though it has been almost fifty years since she died, her life's work is subject to the most outlandish of accusations. Do you have any idea as to why this happened?

Sanger: It is a political truism that when you have no compelling ideas, you resort to personal slander. Those who oppose birth control have no biological or sociological argument to make, so they demonize a woman who has been dead for 50 years. Again, I think it has to do with the fact that the “radical” notion that women should be able to choose if and when to have children and how many—is under attack by an extreme movement fixated on rolling back women’s reproductive rights.

Cotto: What would you say motivated your grandmother to initiate the birth control movement?

Sanger: My grandmother started out as a nurse in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side.  She was struck by the mothers she met, the punishing routines they endured, and the life-threatening unsafe abortions she treated. Her own mother had 18 pregnancies and was dead at age 49. It was the attitude of the time that women alone were responsible for the consequences of sex, yet the Comstock Laws made it illegal to distribute information about sexual health or distribute contraception.   

My grandmother saw this as an impossible and unjust Catch-22 and began by opening the first birth control clinic in the United States.  She went on to co-found the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which today, continues to provide millions of women and young people with the services and support they need to make decisions that are right for them.  

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