Birth control of a nation

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One hundred years ago in Brownsville, our modern era began. In a squat building that no longer exists, a pretty and soft-spoken mom named Margaret opened an office where women could get something they’d never been allowed to obtain before.

Birth control.

The place wasn’t called Planned Parenthood in 1916.

“It didn’t really have a name,” says Sabrina Jones, author of an upcoming graphic novel, “Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist’s Encounter with Margaret Sanger.”

Back then, the idea of preventing unwanted pregnancies was so new and controversial, even Sanger herself didn’t expect to provide family planning to anyone other than … families.

At the time, Brownsville’s population was predominantly Eastern European and Italian, so Sanger made her flyers in Italian, Yiddish, and English.

“She assumed the clients would be mothers married with lots of children. Publicly, she never offered birth control to unmarried people — that was too far,” says Jones.

Sanger didn’t even seem like a revolutionary. Delicate and poised, she had three children of her own and had, for a while, been living a quiet suburban life up in Hastings. Her husband, a draftsman, worked for the architect Sanford White. He’d urged young Margaret Byrne to marry him while she was still in nursing school, because he was afraid that she’d fall in love with a doctor.

Sanger complied, but soon grew restless. As Jones put it, “She wanted a wider world.” Wilder, too.

So in 1911 she moved to the Village and was soon mingling (and more) with the socialists and revolutionaries she met. Her new comrade, Emma Goldman, was probably the person who introduced her to birth control, and did so with an economic argument: Why is it that poor people, who can’t afford more children, always have more of them, while the upper classes don’t?

The wealthy had something the poor did not, and that something was contraception. Back then, family planning was still dicey and pricey.

“Condoms were very expensive,” says Jones. They were made out of sheep gut. “People washed them and reused them.”

Poor women rarely even knew about these. For them, the only birth control was abortion. Sanger worked as a nurse in the slums, where desperate women begged her to tell them the secret: How could they avoid having kids they couldn’t feed, or the abortions they despised?

Legally, she wasn’t allowed to tell them. Nobody was. Discussing birth control was against the law, as was dispensing it. When she finally decided to open her clinic, it was “an act of civil disobedien­ce,” Jones says. Sanger went a step further and actually alerted the district attorney to her deed, because she wanted to go to court and get those laws thrown out.

The road to that goal was fraught with protest, prison, and a nearly lethal hunger strike on the part of Sanger’s sister. But in the end, the law cracked, and finally doctors were legally allowed to tell their clients about condoms.

Jones’s graphic novel tells that whole story along with the reason she felt compelled to write it. She woke up one morning, turned on the radio, “and I heard the story of a young woman testifying before Congress about the need for contraceptive coverage in student health plans.”

That woman, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, was immediately lambasted by Rush Limbaugh, who called her a slut and a prostitute.

“She wants to be paid to have sex!” Limbaugh told his listeners. “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contracept­ion!”

“I was horrified that in 2012 a woman could still be shamed for advocating birth control,” says Jones. “When I came of age, birth control was a done deal that had achieved near universal acceptance. All the battles were about abortion.”

Realizing Sanger’s crusade was back in the crosshairs, Jones reached for her drawing board — literally. Creating “social justice comics” is her standard M.O.

Her topics range from army recruitment wiles to Walt Whitman. My favorite is her book about mass incarceration — a graphic novel version of Marc Mauer’s “Race to Incarcerate,” which tells the story of how America came to imprison a bigger chunk of its population than any other country, including China and Iran. It is stunning in its clarity. Reading it feels like a punch in the gut.

Graphic novels have a way of making problems present in a way that simple paragraphs (like these!) cannot. Margaret Sanger had her clinic, Jones has her paintbrush, but they share the same mission: Freedom to live and to love.

Read Lenore Skenazy's column every Sunday morning on

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author of “Free-Range Kids.”

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

James from Bushwick says:
Pulling out isn't rocket science, and it's free, disease aside.
March 13, 2016, 11:17 am
b from gp says:

Isis has less control than they believe.
March 13, 2016, 12:47 pm
Jim from Cobble Hill. says:
Sanger was also a big fan of eugenics. So there's that. Not that PP doesn't do some of the most important work in America, but most modern people would hate that racist nutbag if they met her for real.
March 13, 2016, 1:25 pm
b from gp says:
Jim, is that you Mitt Romney?
March 13, 2016, 4:28 pm
Jim from Cobble Hill says:
No. Sanger was a racist, Thomas Jefferson was a human trafficking rapist, and that "product of their time" apologist argument is B.S. because there were plenty if people "of the time" who weren't racist jerks.

Anyone who makes statements like "assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit" is an awful f--k.
March 14, 2016, 12:47 pm
b from gp says:
Consider James Hemings, Jefferson's chef.
March 14, 2016, 1:17 pm
b from gp says:
And Jim, I believe the Sanger quote is pulled from an essay she wrote to distinguish her stance on birth control, from that of practitioners of eugenics via an effort to breach a divide. Perhaps she did not yet have the term 'genetics' as part of her vocabulary.
March 14, 2016, 2:03 pm
Jim from Cobble Hill says:
You say that like it excuses that kind of thing.
March 14, 2016, 2:06 pm
b from gp says:
I'm not the one confusing comprehension with consent.
March 14, 2016, 2:31 pm
Jim from Cobble Hill says:
And I'm not the one who wrote "women and the new race"
March 14, 2016, 2:44 pm
b from gp says:
I've not read it, as you must have?... Something to do with the viruses, not the insect carriers?

Are you a hater of Gandhi, because he supported sterilization in a failed effort to curb overpopulation?
March 14, 2016, 4:08 pm
b from gp says:
Jim, Here is some substantive to gnaw on... the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.
March 14, 2016, 5:42 pm
b from gp says:
Oh dear, Mahatma said, “As regards sterilisation I consider it inhuman to impose it as a law on the people. But in the case of individuals with chronic diseases, it is desirable to have them sterilized if they are for it. Sterilization is a sort of contraceptive and though I am against the use of contraceptives in the case of women, I do not mind voluntary sterilisation in the case of man, since he is the aggressor.”
March 15, 2016, 11:53 am
Daft Punk says: &submit=Search &submit=Search
March 16, 2016, 12:06 pm
Jim from Cobble Hill says:
Well Gandhi had this thing about sleeping with his teenage followers. Yeah you can look that one up too. So, yeah, the guy was a f--k
March 17, 2016, 7:58 pm

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