Past & Present: Margaret Sanger

Oct 16, 2018

On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The clinic distributed birth control and advice and information on birth control and sexual health. Just ten days later, Sanger and her coworkers were arrested in violation of the federal Comstock Act and in defiance of Section 1142 of the New York Penal Code. Both of these laws classified birth control information as obscene and forbade distribution of information or birth control devices in person and through the mail.

In response, Sanger defended her decision to open a birth control clinic as a humanitarian measure and that its focus on women’s health and families made it an integral part of the community. When Sanger insisted on reopening after each police shutdown, New York added changes of creating a public nuisance.

Sanger’s trial began on January 29, 1917. The judge, in an attempt to avoid making Sanger a martyr, offered her a suspended sentence if she promised to not break the law and reopen her clinic. Sanger declined, stating, “I cannot respect the law as it exists today,” and was found guilty. On appeal, the New York Appellate Division of the Supreme Court affirmed her conviction. However, the Court’s opinion offered legal justification for operating a clinic under medical auspices. While Sanger continued to face legal scrutiny, her clinics became the core of the American Birth Control League, and eventually the foundation of Planned Parenthood, a health clinic that continues to treat women and their families, including offering advice on and distribution of birth control.