Margaret Sanger's Long Battle for the Pill

  • 2016
  • Harper
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In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America.

At the time, contraception could be prescribed only by doctors, only to men, and only to prevent the spread of disease. Women might, and many did, die in childbirth, but men must be protected against the unwanted effects of their sexual peccadillos, or so the men who made the laws ruled.

Rather than promise to give up her battle, Sanger went to jail. (A month behind bars yielded better publicity than the payment of a fine.) In the coming years, she was silenced, pilloried, and repeatedly imprisoned for her efforts to make birth control—a term she and her colleagues coined—available to all women, but especially to those who were poor and could least afford another mouth to feed. Progress was slow, but thanks to her untiring work—more clinics were opened and raided, conferences held, demonstrations mounted, articles written, speeches given, Planned Parenthood formed—it did come.

In 1936, an appeals court ruled that physicians could receive contraceptives through the mail.

Six months later, the American Medical Association endorsed birth control. (Until then, many doctors had opposed it, while others were woefully uninformed about it.)

In 1965, the last barrier fell when the Supreme Court ruled that Connecticut's ban on contraceptives violated the right to privacy.

"I did not let the public into my bedroom." Margaret Sanger
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But long before that, Sanger had been battling for more. Thanks to her efforts, birth control was legal, it was available to many, but it was not accessible for most. She wanted a contraceptive that would be easy to use for the millions of women who lived in urban tenements without adequate plumbing or privacy, or rural hovels with outhouses, or anywhere without access to doctors who could fit a diaphragm and explain how to use it. She dreamed of an injection or a pill or a miracle drug of some kind. Dream on, skeptics told her, but she was convinced that if science could develop vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough, surely it could find a substance that would prevent conception.

To that end, she joined forces with Dr. Gregory Pincus and Katherine Dexter McCormick. Pincus, who had gained fame, or notoriety, by achieving in-vitro fertilization in rabbits, was working at a small under-funded foundation he'd set up in Worcester, Massachusetts, after being refused tenure at Harvard. Some ascribed his being passed over to the moral brouhaha surrounding his test-tube rabbits, others whispered of academic politics, jealousy, and plain old anti-Semitism.

McCormick, a biologist and the second woman to graduate from MIT, had inherited ten-million-dollars from her family and another fifteen from her late husband, who had suffered from schizophrenia. During his lifetime, her charitable efforts had been devoted to research of that disease, but after his death she wrote to Sanger asking where her funds would do the most good.

Sanger's grandson tells of the lunch where Sanger brought the scientist and the philanthropist together. When McCormick asked Pincus how much money he would need to develop and test an oral contraceptive, Pincus, whose shoestring budget meant he often had to serve as his own janitor, was struck dumb. As the silence dragged on, Sanger gave him a swift secret kick under the table. Pincus came up with an amount in the five-figure range.

Two million dollars (twenty-three million in today's dollars) later, in 1960, Enovid, the first oral contraceptive, was approved by the FDA. Since then, the Pill, as it is simply and familiarly known, has changed the lives of millions of men and children as well as women around the world; wrought a sexual revolution; and given women personal, sexual, and economic freedom most of them never dreamed of—but Margaret Sanger always did.

Ellen Feldman, 2015