Margaret Higgins Sanger, born in 1879, was a feminist activist who established the organization (American Birth Control League) that eventually became Planned Parenthood.
As a young woman, Sanger worked as a visiting nurse in the neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side. Many of her patients were poor, immigrant women suffering the health consequences of botched abortions and repeated pregnancies. Thus she redirected her attention from nursing to advocating for the use and legalization of birth control and contraceptives. Access to contraceptive information was then prohibited on grounds of obscenity by the 1873 federal Comstock law and a host of state laws.
The Comstock Law was a federal act passed by the United States Congress on March 3, 1873, as the Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” The statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines. Soon after the federal law was on the books, twenty-four states enacted their own versions of Comstock laws to restrict the contraceptive trade on a state level. Thus, for example, in Massachusetts, anyone disseminating contraceptives — or information about contraceptives — faced stiff fines and imprisonment. In Connecticut, the act of using birth control was even prohibited by law. Married couples could be arrested for using birth control in the privacy of their own bedrooms, and subjected to a one-year prison sentence.
On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn, New York. She knew she was violating the Comstock Act but believed the only way to change the law was to break it. On October 29, she was arrested by the NYPD Vice Squad.
At the time of Sanger’s initial arrest, her bail was set at $500 and she went back home. Sanger continued seeing some women in the clinic until the police came a second time. This time both Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne (also a nurse), were arrested for breaking the New York state law that prohibited distribution of contraceptives, and Sanger was also charged with running a public nuisance. Sanger and Ethel went to trial in January 1917.
At the trial, the judge maintained that just because the defendent does not agree with the law does not make it unconstitutional. Further, “…the court is of the opinion that the public good justified the passage of this statute and requires its enforcement,” especially insofar as it helps keep “unmarried people from indulging their passions….” which would otherwise “result in an increase of immorality.” (People v. Byrne, 163 N. Y. Supp. 680, February 3, 1917)
Sanger and Byrne were convicted and sentenced to thirty days in a workhouse. Byrne went on hunger strike, “to die, if need be, for my sex.” Four days after she began her fast, New York City’s corrections commissioner announced Byrne would be the first inmate in U.S. history to be forcibly fed through a tube inserted in her throat. “The New York Times” ran daily coverage of the details of her feedings of brandy, milk, and eggs on its front page.
Nevertheless, Byrne grew weaker, and women rallied and pled with Governor Charles Whitman for her release. Whitman said he would only pardon Byrne if Sanger promised not to reopen the clinic. At first, Sanger refused, but after visiting her weakened sister, she reluctantly accepted the governor’s terms. Against her will, Byrne left the workhouse, carried on a stretcher.