The Good, the Bad, and the Birth Control

Margaret Sanger was a feminist pioneer, but her personal history is controversial (and confusing), to say the least.


photo courtesy of ThoughtCo

Margaret Sanger helped to develop the first oral contraceptive in 1960.

Claire Majerac, Staff Writer

Planned Parenthood is a widely controversial federation that provides all Americans with reproductive healthcare and educates them about topics of sex education that are often left out of teaching in schools. The federation delivers people with what they call “preventative” methods about safe sex. They supply birth control to women in order to avoid unplanned pregnancy and educate about STDs and how to treat and steer clear of them. They even aid in the treatment and diagnosis of cervical, breast, and other cancers related to the female body. 

While their efforts appear to be in good consciousness, the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, is somewhat of a gray area in the history of women’s healthcare. The revolutionary scientist is often honored and applauded for her achievements in science and women’s health, but her muddled history of supporting questionable institutions makes her a suspicious character in American history.

An advertisement following the release of birth control. It allowed for women’s new freedom in expressing sexuality. (photo courtesy of Mic)

Sanger and another philanthropist named Katherine McCormick were responsible for the discovery and implementation of the world’s first oral contraceptive, called Enovid, in 1960. Although this was a huge moment in women’s history, Sanger had a difficult past. She was arrested in 1916 for opening a birth control clinic and sending forms of contraception to women in the mail.

It is widely believed that Sanger was a supporter of the eugenics movement. But, what was it? Simply put, it’s the now disproven belief that “breeding out” negative traits in the human race in order to improve it is possible. The philosophy targeted marginalized groups such as the disabled, mentally ill, and naturally (if US history has taught you nothing)—people of color. 

She was a vocal member of the eugenics group and was even quoted encouraging that developed countries should produce “no more babies” for the next ten years. In addition to this, Sanger once wrote in an article that the most crucial issue of the 1920s era was to “limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” 

However, as disturbing as her rhetoric surrounding eugenics seems today, an article written by Time Magazine in 2016 suggests that supporters of eugenics enjoyed “widespread support” from recognized doctors and scientists. So at the time, the idea of eugenics was believed to be true and accurate. This development raises the question: was Sanger in the wrong, or was she believing in the science of her time? Officials from Planned Parenthood have said that Sanger did reject the racist connotations of the eugenics movement and that her actions were done in the best interest of all people. 

Most of Sanger’s actions are largely controversial, such as her establishment of the Harlem Family Planning Clinic in 1930. Those in opposition to Sanger believe that her selection of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood—a notoriously Black neighborhood at the time—for a family planning clinic was in order to encourage Black women to seek abortions, thus leaving more room for the white race. But research indicates that noteworthy Black civil rights activists such as W.E.B DuBois “endorsed” the clinic, as it finally granted body autonomy for those who required it.

Other Black leaders that supported parts of Sanger’s livelihood include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. King received the Margaret Sanger Award in Human Rights in 1966 and stated that her “early efforts” had a “striking kinship” to his own Civil Rights movement. Obviously, King and Sanger would disagree on the eugenics idea, but King reminded people that they both had to break laws in order to pursue their “vision[s].”

Puerto Rican women were among the first trials who learned about birth control and it’s methods. (photo courtesy of People en Espanol)

Some of Sanger’s actions, however, have been widely perceived as wrong. An example of this is Sanger’s support and endorsement of the 1927 Supreme Court ruling Buck v. Bell. With this ruling, our nation’s highest court allowed for the sterilization of people who were declared “unfit”—including prison inmates. This sterilization was often done without patient knowledge, leading to the intentional infertility of tens of thousands of Americans. For the founder of Planned Parenthood to stand with a ruling so inhumane (in fact, it was so inhumane that the Nazis used it as a defense of their genocide during the Nuremberg Trials) is something that most Americans could see as deplorable. Buck v. Bell was later overturned in 1974.

In addition to this, evidence states that Sanger conducted human trials for her birth control pill on nearly 1,500 women in Puerto Rico. Although it appears harmless, these women had no idea that the drug was experimental or that dangerous side effects could ensue. At the end of the trials, three women were reported dead. Any correlation between the ingestion of birth control and their deaths is conjecture, as no autopsies were done. Sanger’s usage, whether it was purposeful or not, of Puerto Rican women as her first human “guinea pigs” for the drug objectifies and devalues them.

The bottom line is that Margaret Sanger was not perfect by any means.  Sanger’s discovery and distribution of birth control and safe sex methods have literally saved lives. Sanger’s mother died at fifty years old due in part to birthing eleven children and suffering through seven miscarriages. Although her beliefs of eugenics and endorsements of inhumane court rulings are inexcusable, her positive influence cannot be understated. Sanger represents both good and bad, but more importantly, the necessity of recognizing mistakes, correcting them, and moving forward.