In 1873 the Comstock Act was put into place in America. It became federal law that no one could sell, provide or promote contraceptives, abortion procedures, or pornography for that matter. Birth control was seen as obscene and a promoter of sexual promiscuity. This wasn’t really challenged until the 1920s when the American Birth Control League (ABCL) came along.
(The American Birth Control League) (An external condom from the 1800s)
The ABCL’s goals were to relieve the burden of unwanted pregnancies and to give women agency over their body,their family and their life, as well as to prevent botched abortions.The ABCL was famously lead by Margaret Sanger. Sanger seems, at the surface, like the ideal feminist activist. She dedicated her entire adult life to making birth control accessible. After her mother dying from having too many children, Sanger became a nurse specifically to be able to treat women who had botched abortions. She illegally educated women on birth control by handing out pamphlets and distributing contraceptives, and in 1916 she opened Americas first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. All of these things she was separately arrested for. In 1921 she founded the ABCL, and in 1939 the Birth Control Federation of America, which would later be renamed to a more palatable Planned Parenthood.
While the ABCL seems well intentioned, it was pushed by a dark and heinous undercurrent called eugenics. Eugenics means well born, or greek for ‘good origin’. This was a pseudo-science that is based on the belief that the human race could be perfected by selective breeding. Eugenics encourages ‘ideal’ people to reproduce and discourages the ‘unfit’ from it. ‘Unfit’ people were the poor, physically or mentally disabled, criminals, drug addicts and any racial minority or immigrant. The goal was essentially to create a monoculture of healthy, wealthy european white people.
(Margaret Sanger has her mouth covered in protest of Comstock’s law, 1929) (A Planned Parenthood poster, Date Unknown)
Its unclear whether eugenics was part of Sanger’s original agenda or if it was a strategy to gain the acceptance of people in power: population control was a big topic of discussion and provided a support for birth control that veered away from sexuality and was concerned with the ‘well being’ of the white race. Regardless, Sanger was undeniably involved with the carry through of eugenics practices. She was complicit in this by pushing birth control to the ‘less fit’ and placing clinics in lower income, inner city neighborhoods. This was an underhanded tactic. It’s true, birth control did help people who lived in poverty, and for this reason got support from high profile people in the black community such as W.E.B DuBois. However, the intentions behind Sanger’s work were coded in bigotry. Even worse, she aided thousands of forced sterilizations throughout the years.
“[The government needs] to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring,” Margret Sanger.
To this day Sanger is held as a feminist hero in the mainstream, though it is not hard to find her record of complicity in eugenics. Although she did create a lot of change regarding birth control reform that is revolutionary,at her core she was a horrible racist who created a lot of damage in her path, to understate it.