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: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career in the family planning field?
Alexander Sanger: It’s been an incredible journey- from my days with Planned Parenthood New York City to now working with the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region. I’ve seen incredible victories- like the Cairo Programme of Action and Roe v. Wade- as well as the effects of unjust policies like the Global Gag Rule.
I would say that through all these ups and downs, the most rewarding aspect has been working with such incredibly brave, talented and kind colleagues and volunteers throughout the world. This relentless commitment and firm determination to achieve equality and justice is what inspired my grandmother, and 100 years later, it inspires me and a global movement of women, men and young people.
One of my fondest memories was a trip I made with the mobile health unit of our Bolivian partner CIES a few years back. I spent two days on the road with doctors and staff, traversing narrow dirt roads and rivers to bring free health services and information to isolated mountain communities that would otherwise go without.
I met so many women who told me how their health, their lives, and their community had changed for the better since CIES arrived. One woman in Casapa told me of the years of pain she endured until the mobile health unit arrived and treated her cervical cancer. Today, she is healthy and spends her days as a volunteer peer health educator in Casapa and surrounding communities.
Toward the end of the trip, I found out that some of the staff I had been traveling with spent more than half of each month on the road with the mobile health units. This is typical of our staff and volunteers throughout the world- the determination, commitment and selflessness that I see day-in and day-out in everything we do continues to inspire and motivate me.