Before modern science kicked in, conception was, for the most part, a game of roulette. Folk remedies and leather condoms weren’t nearly as effective as people wanted them to be, but they kept trying. All it took was some observation and life experience to see how inconvenient–and dangerous–the lack of control could be.
When a woman gives birth too young, she and the child suffer. (18 is the minimum recommended.) If she has children too close together, she and both children can suffer. Doctors and midwives knew these things; parents knew them. But what do you say to a couple who have had the number of children they want? Spend the rest of your lives together in separate beds? More babies happened.
Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood’s first president, was a remarkable woman who saw the effect this had on people, particularly poor people and women. She also saw this suffering as, at best, unnecessary. At worst, it was a deliberate means of keeping women in subjugation.
In 1912, after a fire destroyed the home that William designed, the Sanger family moved back to New York City, where Margaret went to work in the East Side slums of Manhattan. That same year, she also started writing a column for the New York Call entitled “What Every Girl Should Know.” Distributing a pamphlet, Family Limitation, to women, Sanger repeatedly caused scandal and risked imprisonment by acting in defiance of the Comstock Law of 1873, which outlawed as obscene the dissemination of contraceptive information and devices.
Sanger felt that in order for women to have a more “equal footing” in society and to have physically and mentally healthy lives, they needed to be able to decide when a pregnancy would be most convenient for themselves. In addition, access to birth control would also fulfill a critical psychological need by allowing women to be able to fully enjoy sexual relations without being burdened by the fear of pregnancy.
As Margaret worked in New York’s Lower East Side with poor women who were repeatedly suffering due to frequent childbirth and self-induced abortions, she began to speak out for the need of women to become knowledgeable about birth control. While she was working on duty as a nurse, Margaret met Sadie Sachs when she was called to her apartment to assist her after she had become extremely ill due to a self-induced abortion. Afterward, Sadie begged the attending doctor to tell her how she could prevent this from happening again, to which the doctor simply gave the advice to remain abstinent. A few months later, Margaret was once again called back to the Sachs’ apartment, only this time, Sadie was found dead after yet another self-induced abortion.
This was a turning point in Margaret’s life. Sadie Sachs’ predicament was not at all uncommon during that time period. Margaret came to believe then, more than ever, that she needed to do something to help desperate women before they were driven to pursue dangerous and illegal abortions.
She was also anti-abortion. In 1916 she said, “I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.” She believed that it was the taking of a life, and that the best means to prevent this tragedy was to prevent implantation. She promoted birth control pills when they became available in the 1960s.
Planned Parenthood centers may refer women to partner clinics, perform surgical abortions, or give medical abortificants. Sanger would see the need for abortions as a failure to provide education and contraception.
The government revoking federal funding from Planned Parenthood for providing abortions is a horrible blow to womens’ health. Planned Parenthood is the only option for many women, who may not have access to other services or cannot afford them.
If they stop offering abortion, Planned Parenthood can continue in its original mission of providing family planning services.
But who will help the women who have already conceived?