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: Population stabilization is a concept with which most of us are familiar. Why, in your opinion, does the United States need it at this time? Q: How does family planning relate to population stabilization?
Alexander Sanger: Policies that address issues surrounding population touch on some of the most sensitive aspects of people’s lives: sex, childbearing and family. The Programme of Action that arose from the historic United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, which I attended, was a marked departure from population policies and programs that had put governments in the driving seat when it came to influencing the size and well-being of societies.
The Programme of Action- agreed to by 179 governments—transformed the face of population policies, programs, and funding by putting women’s needs and women’s rights at the center. This means ensuring women have the right to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services- including modern contraception- to make decisions about their bodies, sex, and childbearing. Evidence shows that when a woman is able to decide if and when to have children and how many, her family and community is more likely to prosper.
The bottom line is that we cannot create a sustainable world until all women are empowered to control their own bodies and have the tools and rights to do so.
Cotto: In your opinion, what sort of family planning programs should government agencies promote in order to ensure a better quality of life for Americans?
Sanger: Women need access not only to a wide range of contraceptives, but a comprehensive set of sexual and reproductive rights services like prenatal care, HIV testing, and cancer screenings, among others. And these services need to be high-quality, confidential and affordable. Planned Parenthood embodies that model of care, and it’s no surprise that an estimated 1 in 5 women in this country will rely on Planned Parenthood in her lifetime.
Cotto: The issue of reproductive rights is subject to immense controversy, needless to say. Most Americans approve of contraceptives and do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. Nonetheless, political squabbles about these issues have continued for generations. During the years ahead, do you expect this to change?
Sanger: There was opposition to contraception back when my grandmother was arrested for opening the first birth control clinic in the states 100 years ago, and sadly, it continues today. Right now, we’re seeing extreme politicians that want to shut down Planned Parenthood and the rise of Vice President Mike Pence who tried to outlaw abortion when he was in Congress. But, right now, we are also home to the largest generation of young people the US has ever known. They are mobilized, active and vocal in their support of women’s rights.
This new energy and the millions of Planned Parenthood supporters mobilizing throughout the country makes me very optimistic that we will not only protect the gains we have made as a movement, but fight like hell against new attacks.