Places that Matter

Margaret Sanger Clinic (former)

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Margaret Sanger Clinic building exterior, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Margaret Sanger Clinic building exterior, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Flyer, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
The first birth control clinic in the United States
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Place Matters Profile

By Emma Jacobs

Margaret Sanger's Brownsville Clinic was the first birth control clinic in the United States and an incubator for the birth control movement. A small, two-room, curtained storefront in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the clinic remained open for only nine days in 1916, but created an impact we still feel today.

The Comstock laws of the 1870s--named for their architect, Anthony Comstock--had declared birth prevention, and education or distribution of birth control as immoral and obscene. These laws ensured that the practice of "birth control," a term Margaret Sanger later coined, would remain dangerously uninformed and largely unobtainable, especially for the less privileged.

Active in socialist politics at the time, Sanger began her fight by challenging birth control prohibition as a free speech issue. She believed it was a fundamental right to discuss contraception, sexuality, and women's health needs. As a nurse on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Sanger witnessed too many women, especially poor women, dying from multiple births, lethal chemical douchings, and self-pregnancy terminations because of their limited knowledge about birth control options. Sanger identified birth control as a tool for women's emancipation, a social justice issue. She wanted to deliver education to women about their health, their choices, and their rights, and eventually make contraception readily available.

After being indicted for publishing Woman Rebel (1914), a feminist journal that discussed sexual independence and birth control options, Sanger fled to Europe where she witnessed firsthand systems that provided contraceptive goods and services. On a visit to the Netherlands she learned about a new, more flexible diaphragm that with careful fitting had proven to be the best contraceptive device yet. After her return to the U.S., she worked to make such options available to Americans.

The Brownsville Clinic became Sanger's text case. After a female supporter from California gave her $50, she rented the storefront at 46 Amboy Street, near Pitkin, in Brownsville Brooklyn. The Brownville location was chosen carefully, Sanger later recalled. "The selection of a suitable locality was of the greatest importance. I trampled through the streets of the Bronx, Brooklyn, the lower sides of Manhattan, East and West. I scrutinized the Board of Health vital statistics of all the boroughs--births and infant and maternal mortality in relation to low wages ...." Her choice of Brownsville was decided when a group of Brownsville women suffering from the effects of multiple births came to her pleading for help.