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.
Joseph Ford Cotto: Over the last few years, there has been a massive push against abortion rights. Among other things, this has included the defunding of many Planned Parenthood programs. What is the socioeconomic cost of making abortions less available to those in need of them?
Alexander Sanger: First, I’d like to say that the efforts to shut down Planned Parenthood are not only a threat to abortion rights, but to women’s health at large. Millions of women, men and young people use Planned Parenthood each year--for many of them, Planned Parenthood is the only health care provider they can afford to see. And it’s important to note that every poll shows the majority of Americans support Planned Parenthood and strongly oppose these attacks--nearly half of Trump’s own supporters don’t want to see Planned Parenthood defunded.
Those hurt the most would be those struggling to get by and also individuals who already face tremendous barriers to accessing health care--especially people of color, low-income people and those who live in rural areas. Without Planned Parenthood, many patients would have nowhere else to go for care-- not just abortion services but preventative care like breast and cervical cancer screenings and reliable contraception which reduces the need for abortion.
Cotto: Religious belief seems to be a key aspect of many people's opposition to reproductive rights. From your perspective, is this actually the case, or simply a stereotype?
Sanger: I think its a generalization to say that opposition to reproductive rights is only driven by religious beliefs. For example, I currently sit on the board of International Planned Parenthood/Western Hemisphere Region, a network of local organizations that provide sexuality education and reproductive health care throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, a region that has historically been predominantly Catholic. There was much resistance when we first began distributing contraception, but today, several of our local members work in partnership with faith-based organizations to provide information, education, and services.
I think that deep-rooted sexism is at the core of opposition to reproductive rights, and our society’s double standard when it comes to women’s sexuality. These types of antiquated attitudes come in all shapes and sizes and religions, and we actively try to break these down through our educational programs. And I believe we will one day.