First American Birth Control Clinic Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first birth control clinic in the United States, opened by Margaret Sanger, publicized the need for safe and available contraception and ignited a movement to secure reproductive freedom for all women.

Summary of Event

By 1850, state and federal legislation had outlawed most forms of contraception in the United States. The “Comstock law,” Comstock law passed in 1873 and named for the antivice crusader Anthony Comstock, labeled information about contraception “obscene” and banned its circulation through the U.S. mails. Although government antagonism did not deter middle- and upper-class families from voluntarily reducing their birthrates—by acquiring contraceptive knowledge through sympathetic doctors or deceptive mail-order firms—legal restrictions and moral inhibitions prevented most poor and uneducated women from using birth control, although many resorted to crude, ineffective, and often dangerous practices. Attempts to distribute birth control information proved largely unsuccessful until Margaret Sanger began her pioneering crusade in 1916 by opening the first birth control clinic in the United States, a revolutionary event that initiated a social movement dedicated to legalizing contraception and liberating sexuality. Birth control;clinics Women;birth control [kw]First American Birth Control Clinic Opens (Oct. 16, 1916) [kw]Birth Control Clinic Opens, First American (Oct. 16, 1916) [kw]Clinic Opens, First American Birth Control (Oct. 16, 1916) Birth control;clinics Women;birth control [g]United States;Oct. 16, 1916: First American Birth Control Clinic Opens[04080] [c]Women’s issues;Oct. 16, 1916: First American Birth Control Clinic Opens[04080] [c]Health and medicine;Oct. 16, 1916: First American Birth Control Clinic Opens[04080] Sanger, Margaret Byrne, Ethel Mindell, Fania Goldstein, Jonah J. Crane, Frederick E. Comstock, Anthony

Margaret Sanger.

(Library of Congress)

Sanger first took an interest in sex education and birth control in the early 1910’s, when she was a young nurse in New York City, where she accompanied doctors to the tenement districts of New York’s lower East Side. There she met women who suffered from exhaustion, venereal disease, and the consequences of self-induced abortions—women who pleaded to know the “secrets” to controlling their fertility that were denied them by their churches and government.

Sanger’s experiences as a nurse persuaded her to seek a means of educating women about their bodies. Encouraged and advised by friends from New York’s intellectual salons and radical political circles, including such vocal advocates of birth control as Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Bill Haywood, Sanger left nursing to devote herself to helping women acquire safe and effective contraception, not only to prevent unwanted pregnancies but also to give women the choice of greater sexual freedom.

Over the next four years, Sanger published articles and pamphlets on sexual hygiene and contraceptive techniques, using information she had gathered during trips to France, England, and Holland and assimilated under the tutelage of the English sex psychologist Havelock Ellis. Ellis, Havelock In 1914, Sanger’s most controversial publication, an extremist newspaper called The Woman Rebel, Woman Rebel, The (newspaper) prompted postal authorities to indict Sanger for violating obscenity laws. The charges were eventually dismissed, but the publicity generated by her arrest and the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of her husband, William Sanger, for distributing a birth control pamphlet created a legion of new supporters.

From April to July of 1916, Sanger toured the United States, drumming up support for her controversial cause. She met vocal and stubborn resistance, but audiences overwhelmingly supported the notion of legalized birth control and Sanger’s demand for women’s sexual emancipation. The tour convinced Sanger of the need for affordable, accessible clinics. When she returned to New York in October, she moved quickly to capitalize on the publicity generated by her speaking appearances. She vowed to extend the fight for legalized birth control into a direct-action campaign—the opening of a clinic.

In early October of 1916, Sanger, with her sister Ethel Byrne, a nurse, and Fania Mindell, a language interpreter from Chicago, rented a small storefront apartment in Brownsville, a working-class Jewish and Italian neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. The three women canvassed the dingy grid of tenements and circulated flyers printed in English, Italian, and Yiddish that advertised the clinic and offered information on the prevention of conception from trained nurses.

On October 16, Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell opened the doors of a makeshift birth control clinic modeled on the state-run clinics in Holland that Sanger had observed in 1915. On the first day alone, more than one hundred women obtained contraceptive advice. For ten cents, each woman received one of Sanger’s sexual hygiene pamphlets and instruction on the proper use of contraceptives. The clinic also distributed suppositories and condoms.

Sanger and her coworkers kept careful records on each new client and listened to emotional accounts of difficult pregnancies, neglected children, and illegal abortions. One woman told Sanger, “When I was married, the priest told us to have lots of children, and we listened to him. I had fifteen. Six are living. Nine baby funerals in our house.”

More than four hundred women came to the clinic before an undercover policewoman and vice squad officers arrived on the tenth day and placed Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell under arrest for distributing contraceptive devices. After a night in prison and arraignment in court, Sanger reopened the clinic but was arrested a second time on November 14 and charged with maintaining a public nuisance. Sanger opened the clinic for a third time on November 16, but police forced the building’s landlord to evict his tenants, and the clinic closed its doors permanently.

The arrests of Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell and their ensuing trials thrust the issue of birth control onto the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, giving the cause its greatest publicity to date. Byrne came to trial first on January 4, 1917. She entered a courtroom filled with socially prominent women from New York, organized by Gertrude Minturn Pinchot Pinchot, Gertrude Minturn as the Committee of One Hundred, Committee of One Hundred a group that financed much of the early work of the birth control movement. Byrne’s attorney, Jonah J. Goldstein, argued that the New York state law that made it a misdemeanor for anyone to distribute contraception—except for doctors in cases of venereal disease—was in opposition to the best interests and well-being of the people. The court, however, refused to hear any medical testimony in support of Goldstein’s claims; Byrne was sentenced to thirty days in prison on Blackwell’s Island.

Byrne immediately went on a hunger strike, Hunger strikes;Ethel Byrne[Byrne] following the example of English suffragists. The publicity tactic succeeded, and the press ran daily reports on Byrne’s weakened condition. After 185 hours without food or water, Byrne was forcibly fed, prompting Sanger and the Committee of One Hundred to protest to legislators and state officials and to call for Byrne’s release at a giant rally for birth control at Carnegie Hall on January 26, 1917. Several days later, Sanger and Pinchot convinced Governor Charles S. Whitman to release Byrne before her condition proved fatal.

Sanger’s trial began on January 29 before a courtroom crowded with fifty women who had visited the Brownsville clinic. Several of them testified for the prosecution, stating that they had received contraceptive information from Sanger. Although these witnesses incriminated Sanger, their accounts of infant deaths, miscarriages, and severe poverty substantiated the need for birth control clinics for many throughout the country who followed the case. After several days of testimony, the court offered Sanger a suspended sentence if she promised to uphold the law. She refused and was sentenced to thirty days in prison. Meanwhile, the court convicted Fania Mindell of distributing obscene material and fined her fifty dollars.

Sanger served her time in prison without incident and appealed her conviction. Her case journeyed through the courts for nearly a year before Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals sustained Sanger’s conviction on January 8, 1918. Crane’s liberal interpretation of the law, however, enabled physicians to prescribe contraception for general health reasons, rather than exclusively for venereal disease, making the law non-gender-specific, as only men had previously received contraceptives for the prevention of disease. Crane’s decision also provided a degree of legal protection for future clinics that employed certified physicians. The new interpretation of the law was a small victory for the birth control movement but an emphatic first step in overturning a series of state and federal legal restrictions that denied women the right to control their own fertility.

Significance

The Brownsville clinic provided a rallying point and a cause célèbre for the early organizers of the birth control movement. Supporters of the first clinic went on to form, in 1921, the American Birth Control League, American Birth Control League a powerful lobbying group for legislative change, and, in 1923, the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau the prototype for a chain of doctor-staffed birth control clinics that opened across the country in the 1920’s. Moreover, the publicity generated by the Brownsville clinic brought the issue of birth control into the nation’s living rooms, churches, and schools, leading to more open discussion of sexuality, gender roles, and family planning.

In fact, the opening of the first clinic and the emergence of a viable national birth control movement marked a momentous shift in the sexual attitudes of middle-class America. The very idea of available birth control challenged traditional beliefs about marriage and family. The substantial support for legal, accessible contraception among the middle classes signaled a general approval of sex for pleasure and a growing acceptance of female sexual expression within the marriage bond. As birth control became more widely used in the 1920’s, more women had the option of choosing careers and other endeavors outside the home and found greater autonomy in both their public and their private lives. Critics of contraception and the contraceptive mentality, fearing adverse moral and social consequences, charged that the movement would erode the very foundations of family life and lead to increased promiscuity and divorce.

Despite the effectiveness of the Brownsville clinic in raising the nation’s awareness of birth control, the availability of contraception for the poor did not immediately increase. Rather, the legal consequences of the Brownsville case—giving doctors the only legal authority to dispense contraceptives—further excluded poor women from access to contraception, as few could afford medical care. Even in the 1920’s, few working-class women were able to obtain safe and reliable contraceptives; among these women, withdrawal and rhythm were still the most-used methods of birth control.

Furthermore, the increased dependence on doctors for birth control initiated an alliance between birth control activists and the medical profession that shifted the impetus of the movement from women’s rights to medical advocacy, leaving women with a diminished role in controlling the means of contraception. At the same time, Sanger turned for guidance and financial support increasingly to the socially prominent and wealthy, who were generally more concerned with reducing birthrates than with empowering women to achieve equality through the control of their own bodies. Not until the 1960’s and the rise of the women’s movement was birth control redefined as a reproductive rights issue rather than primarily a medical one.

The Brownsville clinic laid the foundation for the future work of the birth control movement and the personal crusade of Margaret Sanger. Sanger followed the same tactics she used in Brownsville—direct action, agitation, publicity, and education—to challenge further obscenity laws in the 1920’s and 1930’s and to solidify a network of clinics and sympathetic physicians so that a majority of Americans had access to birth control by World War II. Sanger’s crusade for safe, available, and effective birth control culminated in the 1950’s, when she organized the international birth control movement and arranged financial support for the development of the birth control pill. The activist, reformer, writer, and mother of three died in 1966 at the age of eighty-seven, having devoted her life to family planning, sexual enlightenment, and reproductive autonomy for all women. Birth control;clinics Women;birth control

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brodie, Janet Farrell. Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. Discusses nineteenth century contraceptive methods and the forces that led to their being restricted. Useful background for understanding the birth control struggles of the early twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Biography of Sanger presents previously unpublished information gathered from interviews and archives. Addresses Sanger’s personal life as well as her role as leader of the movement for women’s reproductive rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Scholarly interpretation of the history of sexuality in the United States includes two chapters on Sanger and a short account of the Brownsville clinic. Analyses of contraceptive techniques, devices, and availability make this a valuable resource for readers interested in reproductive freedom and the birth control movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Linda. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Thorough social history of women’s sexuality, feminism, and birth control in the United States. Argues persuasively that the birth control movement coalesced around women united by their shared experience, but Sanger, in particular, impeded women’s progress toward reproductive self-determination by courting elites and the medical establishment. Includes a short but insightful account of the Brownsville clinic. Features reference notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reed, James. From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society Since 1830. New York: Basic Books, 1978. Resourceful history of birth control with a biographical focus on four major figures: Sanger, Robert Dickinson, Clarence Gamble, and Gregory Pincus. Presents a short summary of the establishment of the Brownsville clinic. Includes a bibliographic essay and extensive index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reed, Miriam, ed. Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words. Fort Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books, 2003. Collection of Sanger’s writings includes materials presenting her views on socialism, prison reform, and pacifism in addition to birth control and sex education. Chronological order shows the progression of Sanger’s thinking as well as the impact her activism had over time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanger, Margaret. My Fight for Birth Control. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1931. Sanger’s first autobiography includes an extended but sometimes inaccurate account of the Brownsville clinic and subsequent trials. Largely a work of propaganda but offers insight into Sanger’s social and political vision. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. 1938. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2004. Sanger’s second and more polished autobiography condenses the account of the Brownsville clinic in My Fight for Birth Control but provides better context for the event. Also addresses how Sanger wished to be perceived. Includes an index.

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