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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Every Child A Wanted Child

Just a couple of weeks after they brought down their own Speaker of the House, the rightwing Republicans who targeted Planned Parenthood seem to have forgotten that cause. When the end-of-October budget deadline neared, these hypocrites put a finger to the wind and acknowledged that voters – especially the businessmen they revere -- care more about continuity in government than about encouraging that government to interfere with a private organization dedicated to women’s most private decisions.

So I decided that the time is right for some context on Planned Parenthood. This is especially true because we are approaching the centennial of the first attempt to plan parenthood by introducing mothers to the notion that they could space their babies. When a birth control clinic opened in a blue-collar section of Brooklyn in October 1916, infant and maternal mortality rates were high all over the nation. In both rural and urban areas, unwanted pregnancies drained the health of both mother and child. In Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, the average life expectancy in 1912 was fifteen, a statistic that reflects the huge number of infants who died soon after birth. That the Brooklyn clinic was wanted is clear in the fact that almost 500 women visited during the ten days it operated before police closed it. Some of these women still were trying to figure out what caused pregnancy; all were trying to figure out how to prevent it.

Perhaps the most poignant historical research I’ve ever done was to read letters in the Schlesinger Archives at Harvard -- early twentieth-century letters to the Voluntary Parenthood League, handwritten by smart women who were pitifully ignorant on the subject of sex. I know these women were smart because I chose letters from women who were second-generation immigrants, and although they often lived on isolated farms, they nonetheless had learned enough English and had enough intelligence to seek out the League’s Long Island address and write a letter pleading for basic information. I used some of these for the revised version of my Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930.

Here, for example, is part of a letter from Mayville, North Dakota, which attracted wheat farmers from northern and eastern Europe: “My husband and I are happy and proud parents of a son… We want to bring up our child in the right way and in order to do this, we don’t want to have another come for about two or 3 years till I get real well and fit to bear another, also that we can afford. I want to know if it could be done… I believe in less babies and better babies.”

From Hibbing, Minnesota, an iron ore area with miners who came from western Europe: “It [is] quite an ordeal for me each time of pregnancy because I have such a lot of trouble with my heart. I’ll be thankful to you for the rest of my life for telling me. It don’t make any difference if we have to pay some to find out because things simple [sic] can’t go on this way. My life might go like a wink on one of these ordeals and all these little ones would be motherless.”

And from the farm country of Indianola, Iowa: “I find your name in my book on ‘Sex Hygiene’ and felt like you would be the one to help me, for no, my Dr. will not. I have six children all within nine years and now this last month I failed to mensurate [sic]… Is there some safe thing I could use to make me do so?”

One of relatively few urban writers was a woman whose name indicated a heritage in southeastern Europe. She wrote: “I am a mother and I have a very weak heart. I asked my family doctor and several others what to do [to] prevent conception. I could not get any satisfaction and know that the laws are such that you could not help me by mail, but is there not some society, on Birth Control in Detroit? or is there some doctor in this city you know could help me?”

Even health care professionals were stymied by the era’s laws, which equated planning pregnancy with being obscene. A pharmacist in Burlington, Iowa, for example, asked for an informational booklet that he could pass on to inquiring customers. That happened frequently, he said, and “it takes too long to explain these facts and often is quite impossible to do so in privacy… There is one thing above all, it seems to me, and this is that a child shall and ought to have a right kind of start in life and that means it ought to be born when and where it is wanted… They try to do that much for other domestic animals.”

He enclosed 35 cents in postage stamps, hoping it would pay for express mail -- which he assumed would be entitled to privacy from busybodies with the postal service. It did not, as Voluntary Parenthood League president Mary Ware Dennett reluctantly told him. Federal laws that prohibited information on sex from being sent through the mail had been passed at the insistence of crusading moralist Anthony Comstock. In 1873, during the presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant (Civil War general and known alcoholic), Comstock got a special appointment as US Postal Inspector; with renewals from other presidents, he continued his reign of intellectual terror until his death in 1915. Possessed of such a bullying ego that he boasted of having driven at least fifteen people to suicide, his censorship laws lived on after him. Even though the Brooklyn clinic was not using the mail to spread the word about birth control, it was closed as a “public nuisance.”

* * *

Its founders were Ethel Byrne and her more famous sister, Margaret Sanger. Their maiden name was Higgins, and they were raised as Irish Catholics in upstate New York. Despite longtime tuberculosis, their mother bore eleven children and died too young. From their youth, Ethel and especially Margaret were determined not to repeat their family’s sad history. They managed to become trained nurses, and Margaret continued this work even after marriage to a successful architect -- and becoming a mother of three. It was the death of a patient, Sadie Sacks, that was Sanger’s final epiphany: even though Sacks’ Jewish religion did not prohibit birth control or abortion, she could not get the information she needed. After her physician spurned her request for help in limiting her family, Sacks tried to induce an abortion – and paid with her life for her state-imposed ignorance.

It was another issue, though, that brought about Margaret Sanger’s first arrest. In 1913, before the clinic, she wrote a magazine article on syphilis – another huge killer of women, many of whom never knew the cause of their impending death. The post office not only refused to deliver the magazine, but also tracked her when she went to Scotland and France in search of information that could not be mailed to the US. Aware that officials were watching her, she included no information on birth control in her next publication, but its content was too feminist for Comstockians. Arrested and indicted by an all-male jury, she again fled to Europe in 1914.

Meanwhile, Mary Ware Dennett took over the National Birth Control League. Dennett never became nearly as famous as Sanger, but in some ways I admire her more. In time, and especially after marrying a millionaire who supported the birth control cause, Sanger would displace women’s individual rights in favor of physicians who emphasized eugenics. This change can be seen in the years between 1916 and 1923: 1916 was when she risked arrest to help working-class women, and 1923 was when she funded the scientists who opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in Manhattan.

Still, birth control was a phrase only whispered throughout the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression of the 1930s. World War II dominated the next decade, and military physicians were much more candid about sexual issues than they had been in World War I. In the first war, officials tried to prevent sexual encounters by imposing curfews on women who lived near military bases. In the second one, they put much more responsibility on men: they ordered the troops to watch movies that showed the details of venereal disease, and some commanders even handed out free condoms.

Although the military’s interest was healthy soldiers, the change was due at least in part to feminist insistence that information about reproduction not be verboten. Nor is it coincidental that Sanger changed the name of her organization to “Planned Parenthood” early in the war. The era was one of advertising and positive public relations, and this new name was intended to replace the prevalent image of birth control as being used only by prostitutes and wanton men. “Planned Parenthood” instead denoted responsible fatherhood -- and mothers who would delay pregnancy until after the war was won.

Margaret Sanger died in 1966, just as “the pill” was coming on the market. She had dedicated her life to this, doing her advocacy through worldwide speeches, fund raising for research, and filing or responding to lawsuits. Still one more major case remained after her death, when Massachusetts prosecuted birth control proponent Bill Baird in 1972. In Eisenstadt vs. Baird, the court upheld the right of unmarried people to purchase contraceptives, something that Massachusetts had forbidden. Roe vs. Wade, the US Supreme Court ruling about state bans on abortion, followed the very next year -- and that subject soon displaced birth control. But I am sure that in the historical context, this too shall pass -- especially when the issue is so misused as it was by congressional hypocrites last month. The personal choice of whether or not to be pregnant is here to stay. No group willingly gives up rights once they have obtained them, and women will not be the first.

One final point: Margaret Sanger’s consistent slogan was “Every Child A Wanted Child.” That is happening, as parents plan their pregnancies to have fewer children and give more time and resources to each. We can see the positive results of that investment in many ways, including falling crime rates as there are fewer throw-away children. We can see it even in war, as parents are less willing to encourage their children to fight. We will have a happier world when every child is indeed a wanted child. And although Ethel Byrne and Mary Ware Dennett should not be forgotten, historians of the next century will say that Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood were absolutely key to the one just past.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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