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Bellingham Bulletin

Sanger Excommunicated for Teaching Birth Control, Says Hylander

Nov 29, 2018 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson
Dr. Gary Hylander returned to the Bellingham Senior Center on November 15th to continue his lectures about important women in American history.  Margaret Sanger was the topic of his discussion, and he opened by saying that although she was known as Mrs. Margaret Sanger, she would have gone by the name Ms. Margaret Sanger if she had had her way.  She was considered a Catholic girl gone astray and was thought to be difficult because of her controversial opinions about marriage and sex. Her thought was that marriage was suicide because with marriage came sex and with sex came children and too many children lead to poverty and illness.  Her opinions would eventually get her into trouble with the church and the law.
 
Sanger came from a rather large family, and her mother died at a relatively young age, purportedly around the age of 45. She was resentful of her father because she believed that the multiple pregnancies her mother had endured had taken a toll on her health and was eventually the cause of her death.  Despite these thoughts she would go on to marry William Sanger and would have two children of her own (though it's said that she did not really want to have anything to do with them).
 
At the beginning of the century there arose a movement called the New Woman movement.  It was a time when women were realizing that it was all right to be on their own and they didn’t need to have men in their lives.  Although Sanger herself married, she was a part of this movement, and she began to try to educate women about their bodies and how they could prevent unwanted pregnancies.  
 
Sanger and her husband moved from upstate New York to Greenwich Village.  There she became involved in medical school on the lower east side and encountered immigrant women who had many unwanted pregnancies.  These women had originally been taught that children were gifts, but Sanger sought to change this view.  She saw that too many children led to many mouths needing to be fed; unfortunately, a large part of the immigrant population did not have the means to keep so many children healthy nor could they provide an education for them.  Immigrant women would seek out “back alley” abortions or perform them on themselves.  Because these abortions were not performed in a sterile environment, some of the women died at an early age from sepsis infections. 
 
Women of those times would ask medical professionals what they should do to avoid more pregnancies, and they were advised to abstain, not exactly a feasible solution.  Sanger travelled to Europe because she knew that wealthy women went there to have access to devices that would help prevent pregnancies.  She brought her knowledge about these devices back to the United States and introduced the term “birth control” to the American public by way of operating clinics and passing out pamphlets to educate women.  She published a widely known pamphlet titled “What Every Girl Should Know” and opened the eyes of many with her frank talk about sex.
 
Sanger became excommunicated from the Catholic Church because of her teachings, which went against the church’s views.  Even the term “birth control” sounded terrible to some, so “family planning” became the socially accepted term.  Sanger, her husband and her sister were eventually jailed because of the information they were disseminating, and the way they were providing it was considered a felony.  After time in jail Sanger would divorce her husband and eventually marry an older man who had the financial means and resources to help her continue to educate women about their rights.  
 
Sanger was familiar with anarchists such as Emma Goldman and suffragist Alice Paul, two noted women who made waves in American history.  Sanger wanted to educate women so that they would have knowledge about their bodies, but her views about sex were considered very controversial.  In addition, believing that there were some people who should not have many children because of the high rate of birth defects, she was a proponent of eugenics.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had penned an opinion about using sterilization or a lobotomy on those who continued to have pregnancies when it was ill advised--such as criminals, deviants or those with very low IQ scores.  Sanger believed that birth control methods could help with this problem rather than the extreme measures of sterilization and lobotomies.
 
Hylander wrapped up his presentation by asking the audience how they had been given the talk about sex by their parents since many had parents who had grown up around the time of Sanger and her teachings.  Some told stories of how many in their generation did not know anything about sex until they were married.  Most had parents who had given them very limited information about such things, or they had been given a book by their parents; one even had a parent who had left a document lying around the house knowing that she would eventually read it to gain information.  Times are different now, but it’s thanks to Sanger’s work that we women have the access to contraception that we now sometimes take for granted.
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