The Legacy of the Birth Control Movement

Margaret Sanger and other birth control activists in 1920.

Planned Parenthood activists in 2017.

It took the work of thousands of dedicated people, mainly women, who made up the American birth control movement, to change both laws and societal attitudes surrounding birth control. Margaret Sanger’s contributions to this movement cannot be overstated. It was her willingness to dedicate herself to the single cause of promoting birth control and to choose to risk legal consequences in order to become a “test case” to bring about important legal changes. The organization Sanger founded, now known as Planned Parenthood, continues to provide birth control services around the United States. It also remains one of the most important advocacy organizations for birth control and abortion rights in the country. [1]

The Comstock laws were ruled unconstitutional by 1983, though the enforcement of these laws had significantly diminished before then. [2] The final nails in the coffin for these laws were the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that married couples could not be prevented from buying and using contraceptives. In 1972, the same was ruled to be true for unmarried couples in Eisenstadt v. Baird. [3]

Though Sanger was largely retired from the movement by the 1940s, she continued to advocate for birth control when she could. In the 1950s, Sanger was encouraged to work to fund research for a birth control pill. A solution to birth control as simple as a daily pill was she had dreamed of for years, though previous efforts at creating a birth control pill had been unsuccessful. Sanger raised $150,000 for research. In 1954, as a result of the research she had funded, it was discovered that the hormone progesterone could prevent conception by making the body believe that it was already pregnant. By 1960, the pill was approved by the FDA and by 1982, a majority of sexually active women were on the pill. [4]

As a result of the work of Sanger and other activists, women and children live better and healthier lives. Women’s lives are much less likely to be overturned by unwanted pregnancies, allowing them to better pursue higher education and work outside of the home. As of 2010, 99.1% of American women who are or have been sexually active have used at least one form of contraception. In 1917, American women bore on average 3.4 children. In 2016, they gave birth to an average of 1.86 children. [5] Today, women have many effective options to control if and when they want to have children. Though there are still some legal restrictions and stigma surrounding birth control, the climate has dramatically changed as a result of the work of tireless activists, including the work of Margaret Sanger.

[1] Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 230.

[2] Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” The History Teacher 51, no. 1 (2017): 127.

[3] Chesler, 230.

[4] Mundt, 128.

[5] Mundt, 128.

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