“We should not have Planned Parenthood exist at all, because we should have a national health care system that covers men, women, and children, where they get full options for all their health care, including reproductive.”
—Alex Sanger, grandson of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger
Alex Sanger told Vox that he was twelve or thirteen years old when he saw his grandmother, Margaret Sanger, give her last speech in 1960. She was around 81. She “spoke for about 15 minutes about her struggles and about her vision,” he said. More Americans should know about those struggles and that vision.
You should read all of Vox’s interview of Alex Sanger to better understand how profoundly Margaret Sanger changed the world and how hard it was to do it. Along with her sister and a friend, Sanger—a hundred years ago—opened the country’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. That eventually led to the Planned Parenthood we know today. Here’s how the organization’s official website described what the courageous women’s rights activist faced in 1916:
In Sanger’s America, women cannot vote, sign contracts, have bank accounts, or divorce abusive husbands. They cannot control the number of children they have or obtain information about birth control, because in the 1870s a series of draconian measures, called the Comstock laws, made contraception illegal and declared information about family planning and contraception “obscene.”
Her grandson added this:
I mean, she saw women on the Lower East side of New York and in Brownsville, Brooklyn who were dying from self-induced abortions because they could not have any more children. They simply couldn’t. They couldn’t cope with the children they already had. She saw rampant infant mortality; the infant mortality rate was close to 40 percent in the slums of New York, and she considered this an affront to decency and civilization.
The city of New York’s solution was to open milk stations. And her solution was birth control.
Alex Sanger also remarked on what he called the “great universal among women,” even in 1916:
they wanted to make something of their lives other than childbearing. They wanted the chance to have their children survive. They wanted the chance to be good mothers and nurture the children they had.
Those things don’t at all strike anyone as outrageous demands here in 2016. And that is the point. That they don’t sound outrageous is due to people like Margaret Sanger. And it’s too bad that many young women today don’t fully appreciate that the long struggle to normalize women and empower them was directly related to getting women the right to control their own reproductive lives.
And those same young women don’t seem to understand that there exists in this country a reactionary movement that has as its number one goal the limitation, if not complete restriction, of a woman’s right to make her own child-bearing decisions. Donald Trump has pledged to defund Planned Parenthood, often the only resource for poor women seeking birth control. Right-wingers in Congress are more than willing to make sure the defunding happens. That’s a far cry from the historical fact that it was both Republicans and Democrats who fought to liberate women and give them control of their bodies and thus control of their lives.
Margaret Sanger went to jail many times. At one time she was exiled from her country. She started “the first scientific journal devoted to contraception.” She spent half a century trying to change laws regarding birth control, finally and fully succeeding in 1965, a year before her death. And as her grandson Alex said,
It was her idea to create a birth control pill, and she found the scientists, put together the money. It took her almost ten years, but the birth control pill was the result. She did that in her 70s — it was really extraordinary.
Yes. Extraordinary. And she was able to move her liberating message and resources around the world—International Planned Parenthood Federation is working in almost 200 countries.
Like any of our cultural heroes, Margaret Sanger wasn’t without blemishes. Her flirtation with eugenics is something even her grandson cannot condone. But Alex Sanger is on solid ground when he says,
I’m obviously biased, but I can’t think of anyone who’s done as much for the welfare of humanity as my grandmother. A hundred years ago, women and children were dying in droves. And now they’re not. Women are in the workplace, and contributing to the fabric of our society and to the world, and hopefully a women is going to be our next president. This is made possible by women being able to control their fertility, have the children they want when they want them. And she was the one who started it.
And Donald Trump can be the one who ends it.