October 19, 2016
Talking With Margaret Sanger’s Grandson on the 100th Anniversary of Planned Parenthood
On Sunday, Planned Parenthood celebrated 100 years since its first clinic opened its doors. That very first clinic, opened by birth-control activist and educator Margaret Sanger in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, was shut down after being open only ten days. Sanger was sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse for being a public nuisance. (She’d avoided jail only two years prior for distributing an illicit newspaper on the subject of birth control, called Family Limitation.) One hundred years later, there are 650 Planned Parenthood clinics serving communities across America — but the fight for women’s reproductive rights and access to care is not over.
Margaret Sanger’s grandson Alexander was the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood in New York City from 1991 to 2000; he’s now the chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, a role he performs as a volunteer. Though Sanger didn’t begin his career in Planned Parenthood, once he decided to work in the field he says he was so invigorated by his grandmother’s mission that he never looked back. Sanger spoke to the Cut about the momentous anniversary, his grandmother’s legacy, and what work still needs to be done.
What was Margaret Sanger like?She was feisty. The daughter of Irish immigrants, she grew up in pretty precarious circumstances. I think they were literally shanty Irish when they were living in Corning, New York. She had an 11th-grade education, and everything after that she was self-educated. She was very ambitious.
She started out as a kindergarten teacher and then, through a friend, she decided to go to nursing school. That was going to be it for her. Then she met my grandfather, who was an architect and a German-Jewish immigrant. He was the one who introduced her to the radicals of New York. He was the entry point for her into this world of activism.
Women’s health care was so poor and precarious at the time — this was around the early 1900s. She came to this breaking point — after being inspired by the radicals and labor organizers she was associated with — where she said, “I’ve got to do something.” She was indicted on nine counts of obscenity for distributing a newspaper called Family Limitation, which was a pamphlet all about birth control. She was facing 45 years in federal prison when she was 35 years old. She had three children at that point. In order to avoid standing trial, she ended up fleeing the country. When she came back, her daughter had died. The government didn’t want to make a martyr out of her more than she was, so they dropped the charges. She went on a nationwide speaking tour afterward, and that’s where everything started.
How did you come to understand the legacy that your grandmother had built? Why did you get involved in this work?The most extraordinary memory I have is of her giving her last speech. I was 12 at the time — it was 1960. She was not well; she was then 81, and had had several heart attacks. She came out on my father’s arm. The place erupted. Everyone was on their feet, cheering. I was sitting there, realizing who she was. I kind of knew she was famous, but I’d never seen a scene like this ever. In her speech, she said, “The law against birth control was asinine, so I broke it, and I went to jail.” She was not afraid. She was in jail about a dozen times. I think everybody on this planet is glad that she went to jail.
I was in college at Princeton when my grandmother died. Because of her ill health, I never talked to her about her work, and by the time I really knew what I wanted to ask her, it was too late. I read the obituaries, which only told part of the story. For my senior thesis, I wrote about my grandmother. I was the first person into her archives after her death. I was the first person to discover all of her affairs, affairs with some of the most prominent men of the 20th century.
I was working as a lawyer on Wall Street when fate intervened. I was at the ballet one night with my wife and I saw one of my partners there and he was with this woman who was on the board at Planned Parenthood. When I told her my name, she asked, “Are you any relation to Margaret?” I said yes. “So why aren’t you on my board?” I never looked back.
What role do men play in the fight for women’s reproductive rights in America?I said to one of my children once, who had asked me for life advice, that you’ve got to wake up in the morning and bounce out of bed because you feel so invigorated about the work that you do. Planned Parenthood and this movement is part of my soul. Men can feel this just as much as women. I’m not a believer in gender specific roles for men and women in this movement. I don’t pigeonhole myself as a male spokesperson. I’m an ambassador for Planned Parenthood.
Clearly men are a major part of women’s problems, but that’s why we work very hard to bring men and boys into our movement, so that they can understand what it really is to be a man. Being a man does not mean beating a woman or treating a woman as a possession. Men have just as much to contribute to solving the problems of reproductive rights in America as women do.
What would reproductive rights look like under a Trump presidency?He’s said that he wants to defund Planned Parenthood. He’ll propose more justices like Scalia. I fear a Supreme Court being packed with people wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade. Private fundraising never makes up for public dollars; we would be faced with turning women away. The rest of the country would become Texas.
That’s why this election is so vital. The fact is, we have one party in favor of reproductive rights and one totally opposed to them. That is not a healthy future for women in this country. It’s really up to Republican women and like-minded men who are progressive thinkers on this issue to say, “Enough is enough.”
We’re celebrating 100 years of Planned Parenthood this year. What is the next frontier for the organization — say, in the next 10, 20 years?
The reality of operating health-care clinics is that we’re part of a health-care system. Every state is different. It’s a very difficult environment to operate in. I have suggested on more than one occasion that Planned Parenthoods in America need to look abroad for examples on how to operate, how to be better embedded in the communities, to defuse opposition, to reach even more women who need help.
In Morocco, they not only operate a clinic, they operate an elementary school, a cooking school. They’re providing career paths for young men and women. The people view Planned Parenthood as a community center. It’s important that women and girls in America see these organizations as their allies in the pursuit of better lives.
On Planned Parenthood 100th anniversary, the birth control pioneer’s grandson discusses her legacy.
100 years of Planned Parenthood celebrated at NYC City Hall
By Special to Newsday
An Op-ed by Alexander Sanger for The Guardian
October 16, 2016
My grandmother served a month in jail 100 years ago. Her crime? Opening the first birth control clinic in the US. Her name was Margaret Sanger, and she was the founder of Planned Parenthood. That first clinic was open for just 10 days in 1916 before the police shut it down; its very existence was considered a “public nuisance”. Today, Planned Parenthood is the single-largest provider of reproductive healthcare services in the country.
At 81, when she was very ill, I saw her give her last speech. “The law was wrong,” she said, standing in front of a crowd in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, “and I broke it.” She recounted her early struggles and the multiple arrests she endured, all to bring reproductive healthcare to women. I have never forgotten that day. Even into her 80s, my grandmother was always on the move. No sooner would she come to visit us in the suburbs than she would hop on a train to New York, an hour away, to attend a meeting, give a speech or lobby her supporters. She was indefatigable.
Her example led me to join her unfinished fight. As chair of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) council for the past 15 years and president of Planned Parenthood of New York Cityfor a decade before that, I have helped continue my grandmother’s legacy. However, she would be appalled that, a century after the founding of Planned Parenthood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the fight for reproductive rights is far from over.
When you live to be 100, you have either good genes or are doing something very right. For an organisation, it is both. Three million women a year, every year, need Planned Parenthood in the US. We have no national health service. Women are forced to rely on charities to fill the gaps that our federal, state, county and municipal clinics don’t cover. Its mission, to get birth control information to the poor and needy, should have been taken over by government health services, much like countries in western Europe. In the rare US cities where municipal clinics do offer birth control, like New York City, women still come to Planned Parenthood because they know they will get unbiased advice and full options.
It shouldn’t be this way. But Planned Parenthood is doing something right and the US government is doing something, if not exactly wrong, then certainly inadequately. This is made all the more plain by a recent report showing that Texas, a state in the richest country on Earth, has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world.
Of course, the severe stigma surrounding women’s reproductive rights and health isn’t limited to the US. At least 47,000 women die every year from unsafe abortion, many in countries where it is legal. US political posturing around reproductive rights negatively impacts countless women beyond US borders.
The Helms amendment, passed in 1973, prohibits US foreign aid from going to organisations that provide safe abortion among their reproductive healthcare services – even if abortion is legal in the recipient country. The exportation of a policy inconsistent with US law means women suffer, whether in Syria, where rape is a weapon of war, or in Latin America, where the Zika virus threatens the health of women and babies. The US should prioritise policies that help to reduce, not exacerbate, the severe health challenges and unnecessary deaths caused by limited access to reproductive healthcare services – including safe abortions – in all countries.
My grandmother insisted that women could not call themselves free until they could decide whether or not to be a mother. That was her mantra. Born poor, Irish, Catholic, tubercular, with an 11th-grade education, my grandmother was a tough and determined woman. She witnessed injustice and was determined to fix it. As a nurse, she saw women having children they didn’t want or, all too often, dying from illegal abortions. “Enough,” she said. Her eye was on women and their babies.
Let all women decide for themselves: that is Planned Parenthood’s mantra, and it transcends national borders. My grandmother was also one of the founders of International Planned Parenthood, launched in 1952. Just last week, I visited IPPF’s member association in Morocco, called the Association Marocaine de Planification Familiale. The association not only operates a reproductive health clinic, but also runs a community school for orphans and offers training facilities in hairdressing, dressmaking and cooking, providing career paths for underprivileged boys and girls. The Moroccan people trust and respect our organisation, as do people in 172 countries where IPPF operates.
To the poor and underserved, to the young and marginalised, to the minorities and immigrants that the US government doesn’t reach, my grandmother said: “We are here for you, all of you, no questions asked.”
A century ago, she was persecuted for this by the government, the churches, and many of her fellow citizens. She went to jail. When she got out, she continued the fight. At Planned Parenthood, we have fought the government, politicians, protestors and many anti-choice institutions, including churches and corporations. We have plenty more to do, nor least repealing the Hyde amendment, which prohibits Medicaid – social healthcare for US citizens of limited resources – from including abortion services, thereby depriving poor women of the right and means to decide on whether and when to have children.
Our international movement has never backed away from the fight to give women a choice. And we aren’t tired, even at 100 years old.
Alexander C. Sanger, the grandson of Margaret Sanger, who founded the birth control movement over eighty years ago, is currently Chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council.
Mr. Sanger speaks around the country and the world and has served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund.
The new book by Alexander Sanger published by PublicAffairs
Purchase from Amazon.com
Click here for full book information
With reproductive freedom in jeopardy, Alexander Sanger, grandson of renowned family planning advocate Margaret Sanger and a longtime leader in the reproductive rights movement, has taken an urgent, fresh look at the pro-choice position—and even the pro-life position—and finds them necessary, but insufficient. In Beyond Choice he offers the first major re-thinking of these positions in thirty years.
“Well researched and readable, Beyond Choice should be required reading for both pro-choice and pro-life supporters.”
—Governor Christine Todd Whitman
» Much more on Beyond Choice, including an excerpt, discussion guides, reviews
Hypatia, Indiana University Press
Tina Morlock, Oklahoma City Pioneer
» Advocate: Abortion does involve morality
Paul Swiech, The Pantagraph
» Planned Parenthood founder: Republican Party is pro-choice
Elaine Hopkins, The Journal Star
» Women's Studies seminar covers controversial topic
Jamie Smith, The Daily Vidette
» Luncheon promotes teen responsibility
Dahlia Weinstein, Rocky Mountain News
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