Nursing Stories: Margaret Higgins Sanger
In this series, we will tell nursing stories of influential practitioners who made a difference in the field of nursing.
Margaret Higgins Sanger broke the mold of women from her generation by demanding that the medical field pay attention to venereal disease, birth control and other issues that had serious impacts on women’s health. Spurred by her own experiences as a child living in poverty, Sanger campaigned for the role family planning played in the quality of life for women. Despite threats of jail and other harsh consequences, she helped establish Planned Parenthood and championed women’s rights by promoting honest, accurate reproductive information.
Fighting Against Sexism in Health Care
As a girl, Sanger experienced firsthand the connection between poverty and lack of access to adequate health care. Her mother was one of thousands of women who, without access to birth control methods, had too many children for her body or budget to support. Their family of 11 children often struggled to simply pay for basic necessities, and Sanger’s mother was vulnerable to infection due to the strain of giving birth so often. She succumbed to tuberculosis at age 49, leaving her husband and children behind.
Sanger finished her nursing degree, and then soon after she met and married the artist William Sanger. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl. They moved to New York City where they lived in the poorest neighborhoods. In Sanger’s neighborhood, she would come in contact with women suffering from careless self-performed abortions, because they had no other options.
One of her patients, having recovered, asked her doctor for birth control advice. He turned her away with a recommendation of asking her husband to sleep somewhere else. Because of laws on the books at the time, birth control had been demonized as obscene and had become completely inaccessible in the United States. Sanger’s patient returned to her months later after another poorly performed home abortion, from which she died. The experience inspired a determination in Sanger to ensure that laws and attitudes changed for the health and well being of women everywhere.
Fighting for Adequate Information and Accessible Family Planning
Sanger had made the connection between a lack of family planning and poor maternal and child health. She knew that in order to improve the quality of life for the poor that women would first need access to information about how to prevent pregnancy. Sanger began writing about taboo subjects that greatly influenced female health. After the authorities discovered that Sanger was educating the community on topics such as venereal diseases, birth control, controlling community health through population control and other subjects, she was arrested on more than one occasion. Facing the threat of prison sent her into exile abroad. (Sadly, while she was away, her five-year-old daughter died from pneumonia.) Her contemporaries also determined that her methods were too brash and refused to work with her. She responded by taking her message on the road, speaking before any groups that would listen and finally opening America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. The decision landed her in prison but not before she provided information and birth control to more than 500 patients.
The Establishment of Planned Parenthood
Sanger’s arrest led to a number of court actions that eventually overturned the law in reference to sharing information on venereal diseases. Seen as a major victory, it allowed clinics and doctors to promote the use of condoms, though they could only be advertised as a means of controlling the spread of STDs. Millions began using them to prevent pregnancy.
In 1936, Sanger was arrested again for using the mail service to deliver contraband by ordering diaphragms from Europe. The case spurred an overview of the Comstock laws regarding birth control and obscenity. Judge Augustus Hand ruled in favor of women’s reproductive rights, saying that the distribution of information and health care aids used for birth control was legal once again. A year later, the American Medical Association recognized that birth control was necessary for healthy family development. Clinics across the United States began espousing what Sanger had originally fought for.
Sanger’s philosophy on nursing and female health issues has been carried through to the nursing programs at Simmons School of Nursing and Health Studies today. The Nursing@Simmons program uses an innovative online platform to enable registered nurses to earn a Master of Science in Nursing and learn the skills to deliver quality care across the life span as Family Nurse Practitioners.