When was Planned Parenthood created

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Margaret Sanger, c. 1922.

As the women’s rights movement gained momentum in the early 20th century, women's rights activists demanded not only the vote, but also equality in marriage, access to divorce, an end to the sexual double standard, the right to refuse sex from their husbands, and the right to control their reproduction. The birth control movement of the early 20th century emerged in tandem with this wide-ranging feminist agenda and was easily adopted by the "New Woman" of the era.

What role did Margaret Sanger play in the creation of Planned Parenthood?

Sanger’s foray into contraception emerged from her own personal experience. She was the 6th of 11 children born to Irish Catholic immigrant parents. Her mother had a number of miscarriages, and by some accounts, she was pregnant 17 or 18 times over the course of her short life. She died before the age of 50 and Sanger blamed her mother’s death on constant childbearing and lack of access to contraception.

As a young woman, Sanger worked as a nurse and encountered many women who became sick and died from illegal abortions. She hoped that one day there would be a “magic pill” that could prevent pregnancy. She recalled one instance, specifically, where the physician told a woman patient that she should not get pregnant again, less she risks serious injury or death. When asked how to prevent pregnancy, the doctor recommended that she tell her husband to sleep on the roof. That woman later died from a botched abortion. Because of this instance, and other encounters with poor, often immigrant women who lacked legal access to contraceptives, Margaret Sanger decided to devote her life to this cause.

Sanger began to focus on spreading information about contraception to the masses--in direct violation of the Comstock Act. In 1914, Margaret Sanger began publishing The Woman Rebel after years of occasional articles in the New York Call. She was radical in the sense that she urged the working class to stop supplying the market with children to be exploited, by refusing to populate the earth with expendable worker-slaves. She coined the term "birth control" in 1915 and soon established herself as the leader of this movement. When it seemed like she was going to be arrested for violating the Comstock Act, Sanger went abroad to England and France to learn more about birth control. When Sanger returned to the United States, she opened the first birth control clinic in New York in 1916.

Sanger was constantly embroiled in legal battles for violating the Comstock Act, nevertheless, she maintained her clinic and began publishing the Birth Control Review. In the very first issue, she, Frederick A. Blossom, and Elizabeth Stuyvesant stated their aims very clearly. As proponents of contraception, they believed that men and women alike needed to fight for the right of voluntary parenthood. She tried to work with doctors to lend legitimacy to her movement—which helped in the long run. After repeated legal battles, by 1918, there was a medical exception n the law that allowed physicians to offer contraceptive advice to married women for the cure and prevention of disease. With this loophole, Sanger promoted the establishment of birth control clinics across the country to be staffed by physicians who could legally provide contraceptive information and devices.

In violating the Comstock Act, Sanger made public an understanding that some pregnancies were unwanted and that women should have the same sexual license as men.

However, Sanger also knew the dangers that could occur when poor women had to pay a cheap, back-alley abortionist. She believed it was better for women to have access to contraception first so they would not have to resort to the unregulated underworld. Not only would birth control reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy, Sanger believed it could allow women to enjoy sex and have opportunities to engage in other cultural and intellectual pursuits. In liberating women from the shackles of eternal pregnancy and child-rearing, Sanger’s efforts dovetailed with the newly independent, and employed, young woman of the 1920s.

While most today would not divorce abortion from discussions of birth control, birth control advocates of the early 20th century did. To Sanger and her colleagues, abortion was the last resort, not birth control. People like Margaret Sanger and other birth control advocates made an effort to distance themselves from a seemingly pro-abortion stance. Sanger and her peers did not have abortion laws at the center of their concerns. In fact, they attempted to distance their cause from abortion stating that birth control was their organization’s primary objective—not abortion—and that with access to contraception, abortion could all but disappear.

Towards Planned Parenthood

In 1921, Sanger established the American Birth Control League. This organization would serve as a precursor to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger served as its first president and oversaw the creation of more, legal, birth control clinics. Perhaps recognizing that the laws needed to change in order to provide access to contraception in the hands of many, Sanger continued to lobby for changes to allow legal access to contraception. Sanger's lobbying was ultimately effective in the 1936 case United States v. One Package. With this amendment to the Comstock Act, physicians were legally able to mail contraceptives across state lines.

Over the course of the next thirty years, Planned Parenthood was dedicated to provided access to contraception to those who needed it, but also to study the global impacts of population growth. In the 1940s, Planned Parenthood funded the development of a birth control pill. Eventually, these pills were tested in Puerto Rico--where other birth control methods were tested as well (sometimes unethically). The birth control pill was eventually approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960; however, there were still legal troubles. Specifically, contraception was still illegal in some states.

In the landmark ruling in the 1965 case Griswold vs. Connecticut, the Supreme Court argued that marital couples were entitled to a certain measure of privacy and that it was illegal to prevent married couples from accessing contraception. Unmarried couples would have to wait seven more years for the ruling in the 1972 case Eisenstadt v. Baird before contraception was legal for all persons--married or unmarried.


Despite the Rights Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Planned Parenthood has remained significant in American culture and is a political lightning rod--a call to action for those who are anti-abortion, and an important center of reproductive knowledge, education, and access for all others. While many have reduced Planned Parenthood as abortion central, it continues to provide important STD, STI, Pregnancy, Prenatal, Postnatal, and Preventative Health screenings to all.


"Anthony Comstock's "Chastity" Laws," American Experience, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-anthony-comstocks-chastity-laws/.

"Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)," American Experience, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-margaret-sanger-1879-1966/.

Margaret Sanger, "THE HISTORY OF THE BIRTH CONTROL MOVEMENT IN THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING WORLD," Speech. Fourth International Conference on Planned Parenthood, Stockholm, 1953, https://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/webedition/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=238954.xml.

Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Peter C. Engelman, A History of the Birth Control Movement in America (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011).