“For women, all freedoms hinge on bodily integrity.” -Ellen Chesler Author, Woman of Valor
100 years ago, a nurse named Margaret Sanger, responding to suffering and maternal mortality, began a movement to provide quality affordable healthcare to women. Margaret grew up in an Irish family. She had watched her mother’s health gradually decline after 7 miscarriages and the birth of 11 children. Her mother’s body had been so weakened after 18 pregnancies that she contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of 50. As she began her work as a nurse in New York, Margaret Sanger saw her mother’s same sad story repeated in other women. The lack of birth control was killing women and forcing many others into poverty. Although it was illegal in the U.S. in 1916 to educate people on birth control, Margaret Sanger decided that she must act.
After traveling to Europe to study birth control methods, Margaret, her sister Ethel and Fania Mindell opened a birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn on October 16, 1916. They were arrested nine days later and their clinic was shut down by police. Charged with “sharing birth control information,” they remained in jail for 30 days. Margaret Sanger left jail more determined than ever to fight for a woman’s right to plan pregnancies. She shared her vision that women should have information and proper reproductive health care. All women deserved to be healthy and to be given an opportunity to fulfill their dreams.
In 1923, Sanger opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in Manhattan to provide birth control devices and collect statistics on their safety and effectiveness. Planned Parenthood was created when this bureau merged with the American Birth Control League. The goal of Planned Parenthood was to give women control of their own reproductive health and in many cases, to fight against cruelty.
Such cruelty was evident in 1927, when the Supreme Court upheld the Virginia case of Buck vs. Bell. This decision is considered to be one of the worst in the history of the court. The state of Virginia had declared Carrie Buck to be epileptic and mentally disabled. She was neither. Having been raped by her foster parent’s nephew, she became pregnant. Her foster parents, embarrassed by her pregnancy, committed her to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-Minded. She was declared incompetent and her child was taken away from her. She was considered “unfit to reproduce” and told that she would be reproductively sterilized. The Supreme Court upheld the decision. As a result of this court decision 60,000-70,000 U.S. citizens, considered genetically or mentally inferior, were sterilized.
In their continued fight to protect women, Planned Parenthood clinics were opened in Harlem in 1930, Baltimore in 1932 and Houston in 1939. After a 20-year battle, in 1936, the Comstock laws were overturned in New York, Connecticut and Vermont. The Comstock laws had declared information on birth control as “obscene.” Those who violated the Comstock laws faced imprisonment with six months to five years of hard labor. Many members of the clergy recognized that women, immigrants and the poor were harshly impacted by a lack of birth control access. Citing the Bible verse, “You shall not oppress widows and orphans,” they worked with Margaret Sanger and Kenneth Rose to form the National Clergyman’s Advisory Council. The right to family planning wasn’t just a health issue, it was a basic human right.
Planned Parenthood continued their fight for women’s health in 1951, when they awarded a grant to Gregory Pincus, John Rock and M.C. Chang to develop the first birth control pill. The birth control pill gave women greater control of their own reproductive health. However, the use of contraceptives was still illegal by 1961. Estelle Griswold of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut opened a birth control clinic to test the state’s ban on birth control. In 1965, in Griswold vs. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that married couples could use contraceptives. Unfortunately, unmarried women were banned from obtaining birth control. In 1972, in Eisenstadt vs. Baird, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts statute that banned the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people.
Planned Parenthood continues its fight to educate women and men and to ensure that they have access to medically accurate information and confidential health services. Today, Planned Parenthood is the nation’s leading provider and advocate of high-quality affordable health care for women, men and young people.