1917 February 2

Margaret Sanger Refuses to Obey New York Birth Control Law, Is Sentenced to Jail


Arrested on October 25, 1916, for operating the first birth control clinic in the U.S., in Brooklyn, New York it (opened on October 16, 1916), Margaret Sanger was offered a suspended sentence if she would agree to obey New York State laws outlawing birth control clinics. She refused on this day and, as a result, served a month in jail. Her sister, Ethel Byrne, who had also been arrested, had already been convicted and served her jail sentence. Byrne had gone on a hunger strike that seriously imperiled her health. With that in mind, Margaret Sanger chose not to do a hunger strike and instead spent that time educating the other inmates about sex and birth control, over the protests of the jail matron. She also read to the illiterate inmates.

On appeal, the court upheld her conviction but also interpreted the New York State law to mean that a medical doctor (which Sanger was not) could legally prescribe birth control devices and information for a patient’s health. The judge’s dictum was an important victory, but it also pointed birth control developments in the years ahead in the direction of control by doctors, a principle that many birth control advocates disagreed with.

Sanger’s career as a birth control advocate was filled with many dramatic events in addition to her arrest and jailing. Her magazine, Woman Rebel, was banned from the mails on April 2, 1914.  She was prevented from speaking on a number of occasions: See for example, October 25, 1916 and April 16, 1929. A planned trip to Japan in 1949 was cancelled because of sensitivity over birth control on August 30, 1949, but she had a triumphal visit several years later.

Sanger’s organization, the American Birth Control League, evolved into today’s Planned Parenthood Federation (see January 18, 1939).

Learn more about Sanger and her birth control crusade: Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (1992)

And more: https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/margaret-sanger/

Learn more at a timeline on the history of birth control: http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book/companion.asp?id=18&compID=53

Read: Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, 3rd ed. (2007)

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