Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger

By David M. Kennedy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Birth Control and
American Medicine

At Dr. Johannes Rutgers's clinic in 1915, Margaret Sanger had learned the indispensability of medical support to the success of birth control. Only doctors could ensure a safe and effective contraceptive technique. The New York Court of Appeals' decision in 1918 added, at least for New York State, another imperative: only licensed physicians could prescribe birth control legally. Accordingly, Mrs. Sanger for the next two decades pleaded for medical endorsement of contraception. During that time the tortured relationship between Margaret Sanger and the organized medical profession revealed much about the birth control movement and about the nature of American medicine.

Mrs. Sanger had made scant reference to medical doctors in her pamphlet "Family Limitation" and none at all in the Woman Rebel. 1. Others, however, had considered contraception an essentially medical question well before Mrs. Sanger learned that lesson in Holland. In the 1830s a Massachusetts physician, Charles Knowlton, had written the most famous of the nineteenth-century "underground" tracts on contraception. In the 1880s and 1890s, medical doctors not infrequently discussed contraceptive techniques in their professional journals. Rarely, however, did they

____________________
1.
In describing the "French pessary" or cervical cap in " Family Limitation," she said: "Any nurse or doctor will teach one how to adjust it; then women can teach each other." Medical men who saw the pamphlet must have been horrified at the suggestion of an army of New Women practicing lay gynecology. Margaret Sanger, "Family Limitation," 1914, copy in MSP-LC.

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