Margaret Sanger and the Formation of Planned Parenthood


Planned Parenthood is the most visible product of early and mid 20th Century ideological debates over birth control within the women’s rights movement. This movement owes much to the efforts of Margaret Sanger, a highly complicated woman intricately involved in that movement. Unfortunately, the partial funding of Planned Parenthood in 2011 has become mired in political battles. Within this battle, Sanger’s “sexual revolution” has become one of the litmus tests separating the self-proclaimed champions of social morality and those that view the issue politically.

Abortion Politics and Social Morality

Barbara L. Lindheim and Frederick S. Jaffee, associated with the Alan Guttmacher Institute, correctly identify the abortion and birth control debate as a battle being waged by “individuals and religious groups…” with “sharply divergent and irreconcilable views…” These pro-birth control views arose out of what Sanger referred to as “religious scruples.”

Sanger’s advocacy of certain aspects of birth control led to some of the criticism she still faces. Many states, for example, conducted involuntary sterilization programs. In North Carolina, victims still living are pressing the state government for compensation. Forced sterilization was practiced well into the 1960’s.

Almost 8,000 citizens endured forced sterilization in North Carolina, primarily members of the poor working classes and minorities. A Republican bill sponsored by State Representative Paul Stam, would compensate the victims. This follows earlier legislative attempts by N.C. State Rep. Democrat Larry Womble.

Margaret Sanger and Birth Control in America

Sanger was born into a poor Irish immigrant family in rural New York, one of eleven children. Arriving in New York City, she trained as a nurse but never finished her studies. Caught up in the various aspects of the birth control and social purity movement, she opened the first birth control clinic in a New York working class neighborhood in 1916.

Because of her association with radical causes, such as her work with the League for the Amnesty of Political Prisoners, formed in part to take up the cause of Mollie Steimer, Sanger has always been identified with so-called socially subversive movements. This included her association with Emma Goldman.

In 1924, Sanger founded Planned Parenthood. Christian groups viewed Sanger’s actions as threatening. Was she a champion of women’s rights or a proponent of immorality? The question became the core of her movement, focusing on abortion. According to the political “right,” Sanger argued for racial superiority.

The efforts to legalize birth control came out of the sexual revolution of the 1920’s and 1930’s. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, “Under the leadership of Margaret Sanger, birth control gained a significant amount of liberal support…with roots in feminism and socialism.” These associations inevitably challenged codes of morality tied to both evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

Challenges of Pro Life and Birth Control Dominate the Political Debate

Abortion and certain principles that form the “choice” debate have united conservative groups. No domestic political issue in 2011 has become more identified with the conservative agenda. The federal funding of Planned Parenthood, although comprising less that five per cent of the Planned Parenthood budget, was enough to derail passage of the federal budget itself, threatening a government shutdown.

The debate will never be won by either side because it is rooted in views of morality. Just as Sanger was portrayed in the 1930’s as part of the Greenwich Village socialist movement, so conservatives in 2011 view birth control as unacceptable and part of their views of social immorality. Birth control, according to Sanger, was a highly personal choice: “…for the reason that each married couple have their own idea of what constitutes unreasonable hardship in the matter of bearing and rearing children.” (The Pivot of Civilization)


Elasah Drogin, “Margaret Sanger: Father of Modern Society,” 1980
John D’Elimio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (Harper & Row, 1988)
Frederick S. Jaffe and others, Abortion Politics: Private Morality and Public Policy (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)
Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War (Basic Books, 1988)
John Railey, “N.C. should help sterilization victims now,” Winston Salem Journal (April 17, 2011 editorial)