Newsletter #2 (Winter 1991)

Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Brownsville Clinic

On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first American birth control clinic at 46 Amboy Street in Brooklyn. Located in the Brownsville section, a poor, congested area populated by working-class immigrants, the clinic's services were advertised in English, Yiddish, and Italian leaflets.

When the clinic opened on the morning of October 16th, the line of Jewish and Italian immigrant women stretched almost around the block. Some 140 arrived on its first day and the women kept coming. Unable to persuade a doctor to provide contraceptive services, Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, a registered nurse, ran the clinic themselves with the help of friend and interpreter Fania Mindell. Nine days later, police closed down the clinic and arrested the three women.

In opening the clinic Sanger had deliberately violated a New York State law which classified contraception as obscene and banned it. She believed that by making possible the separation of sexuality from reproduction, birth control was the key to ensuring women's autonomy, but she recognized that in 1916 birth control was too radical for widespread acceptance. She understood that in order to change the laws she would first have to change the climate of public opinion which associated birth control with promiscuity and licentiousness.

The Brownsville clinic is the story of a media event – an event designed and led by Sanger to bring birth control out of the shadows and into the light of respectable public debate. It was a sophisticated campaign that dramatically identified birth control with the promise of happier marriages, healthier children, and overall social benefit. What Sanger was trying to get the public to accept was the notion of birth control as a socio-economic and medical issue rather than a moral one. Her strategy was aimed at courting the support of the moderate middle- and upper-class women who themselves had access to birth control, but remained reluctant to advocate it publicly.

Because she had broken a New York State law prohibiting anyone from giving contraceptive information for any reason, Sanger knew that the clinic would be quickly closed and she would be arrested. Indeed, the arrests and trials provided her with the opportunity to keep the issue of birth control in public view. When Ethel Byrne, tried, convicted and sentenced to thirty days on Blackwell's Island, went on a hunger strike and became the first American woman prisoner subjected to forced feeding, Sanger made certain Ethel's ordeal was so well-publicized that it shared the front page of the New York Times with the news of World War I.

At Sanger's own trial, she sought to connect birth control with a range of socio-economic issues. Among the witnesses called on her behalf were some 25 Brownsville women whose testimony was marked by tragic accounts of miscarriages, failed abortions, and an endless cycle of pregnancy and childbirth. While they did not convince the court to acquit her, the judge did offer Sanger a pardon if she promised not to break the law again, but Sanger replied "I cannot respect the law as it stands today." Like her sister, Sanger was convicted and sentenced to thirty days imprisonment. She spent her time in the Queens County Penitentiary lecturing fellow inmates on birth control.

Sanger appealed her conviction, insisting that the law compelled women "to unnecessarily expose themselves to the hazardry of death." Her arguments still did not impress the court which upheld Sanger's conviction. However, the court did sufficiently broaden its interpretation of the law to enable physicians to prescribe birth control to women when medically indicated. This laid the legal groundwork for the establishment of a system of physician-staffed birth control clinics.

To continue her educative and lobbying efforts, Sanger went on to establish the American Birth Control League in 1921. In 1923 she opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, the first doctor-staffed birth control clinic in the U.S. In 1938, the Bureau merged with the American Birth Control League to form the Birth Control Federation of America, which in 1942 changed its name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

But the significance of the Brownsville Clinic lay as much in its impact on public attitudes towards birth control as in the legal and organizational changes it signaled. In opening the Brownsville clinic, Sanger not only launched a public debate about birth control on her terms but expanded the public spaces in which it was discussed.