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Margaret Sanger, Reproductive Rights Revolutionary; An American Story

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Despite the phrase being used quite often, very few people are or were actually larger than life. So, when I say Margaret Sanger was a larger than life figure, I truly mean it. She was born to a fundamentalist Roman Catholic mother and a secularist freethinking father in Corning, New York in 1884. One of eleven children, she began to question the idea of big families equaling big happiness early on. Encouraged by her father’s championing of women’s rights, a fringe notion at the turn of the century, she attended college and became a teacher in New Jersey.

Her mother became ill with tuberculosis, however, and eventually succumbed to it. This inspired Sanger to play a deeply personal role in the medical field. Feeling that most social problems could be proactively dealt with through selective pregnancy, she began to study nursing. After receiving her qualifications, she moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a notorious slum. There she found women in severe distress resulting from overpopulation and scarce access to adequate health services.

Determined to find a way of helping this overlooked segment of society, Sanger joined up with local socialist groups and became an influential writer. Her efforts went far beyond this, though. She actively researched the most effective and efficient means of birth control, drawing a blueprint from technological advancements on the rise in Europe. Her activities were deemed obscene, however, and criminal charges were levied. Thankfully, they were dropped after a lengthy battle.

Finding national prominence from her legal victory, Sanger traversed the United States as a public speaker. Upon returning to the Big Apple, she opened the nation’s inaugural birth control clinic, and was promptly arrested. Spending a month in prison, she found powerful benefactors willing to support her cause upon release. With the state judiciary’s increasingly progressive attitude, she was able to create a formidable lobby which would successfully erode anti-birth control laws from coast to coast, including at the federal level.

Sanger would attain global notoriety by addressing the Geneva World Population Conference in 1927. By the dawn of the next decade, no less than fifty five contraceptive distribution and educational centers had been built across the fruited plains. During the World War II era, the birth control movement reached the point of comfortable acceptance among medical professionals and the country as a whole. Mainline Protestant denominations no longer considered scientific pregnancy aversion to be a sin, and the stigma once associated with this had become largely relegated to history books.

Sanger proudly championed reproductive rights for the rest of her days, founding Planned Parenthood in 1946. As time passed, her political views moderated and she became a registered Republican. Believing that generational poverty could be remedied via providing the impoverished with birth control, she pressured legislators to include this in public assistance programs. She died in 1966 while enjoying semi-retirement in Tucson. Fortunately, she was able to see the culmination of her life’s work in the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision, which legalized contraception countrywide.

It is not possible to understate the impact that Margaret Sanger had on human civilization. The results of her career reached every end of the earth and allowed an untold number to take their respective futures into their own hands. From mainstreaming pregnancy prevention to quashing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, she did more than could possibly be put into words. Marrying twice and bearing three children along the way, though one did not survive childhood, she had the love, gratitude, admiration, and respect of many.

Who could honestly ask for more?

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About Joseph F. Cotto