101 Years Ago Today: Sanger’s First Clinic Opens its Doors

Clinic at 46 Amboy Street

“The poor, century-behind-the-times public officials of this country might as well forget their moss-grown statutes and accept birth control as an established fact. My new national plan makes it as inevitable as night and day.” – Margaret Sanger, October 22, 1916

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, said these words a full century ago, denouncing lawmakers who wished to throw obstacles between women and access to contraception. Her vision for the future was one in which reliable birth control was widely available without controversy. It is frustrating and outright embarrassing that we are still fighting for the right of women to control their own bodies, especially when it comes to reproductive health care.

Different methods of birth control have been used since the ninth century. However, birth control as we know it today was not easily accessible in the United States until the early 1900s.

Sanger helped popularize the term “birth control” because she felt that women had the right to control their own bodies and determine when, and if, they would have children. Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, on October 16, 1916 — 101 years ago today. She and her sister, Ethel Byrne, had spent time researching reproductive health care access in the Netherlands, which inspired them to start their own clinic in the United States. They spent time talking to residents in Brooklyn to ensure that the community would be comfortable having a birth control clinic in their neighborhood. Continue reading

Celebrating Mexico’s Contributions to the Birth Control Pill

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month. We’re celebrating by shining the spotlight on Mexico’s role in developing the birth control pill, one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.


Humanity cannot fully unlock its potential until we release the bonds of oppression from all marginalized groups.


Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses in traditional medicine — and it would change history forever when scientists figured out how to wrest valuable chemical compounds from it, a discovery that led directly to the development of the birth control pill.

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University ArchivesIn the 1940s, hormones held an untapped potential for research, but there was no cost-effective method of producing large quantities of them — including progesterone, the Pill’s essential ingredient. An American chemist named Russell Marker set out to find a way to synthesize progesterone in abundance, hypothesizing that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be a good source for starting material. After some research, he set his sights on wild-growing yams that were found only in Mexico.

Marker’s hunch brought him south of the U.S. border, where locals helped him find and gather these yams, enabling him to develop a method for synthesizing large batches of progesterone — more than had ever been in one place. When pharmaceutical companies would not invest in further research in Mexico, Marker relocated to Mexico City and put his money where his mouth was. In January 1944, he co-founded a lab named Syntex — a portmanteau of “synthesis” and “Mexico” — devoted to finagling hormones from wild Mexican yams. That yam was called barbasco by the indigenous population, and it was the industry’s choice for the raw material in hormone synthesis. Continue reading

A Thanksgiving Post: An Intern’s Expression of Thanks

1911-SuffragettesThe following guest post comes to us from Sophia Mayberry, one of the communications and marketing interns for Planned Parenthood Arizona. She is a junior in college studying public relations and event planning.

It seems like every Thanksgiving I am thankful for the same things: my family, my friends, my health, and the opportunities I have had the over past year. There is nothing wrong with being thankful for those things, but since I have started my internship with Planned Parenthood Arizona my eyes have been opened to a whole new set of things for which I am very thankful.


We must fight for women’s health care so our daughters can be even more thankful on future Thanksgivings.


As a young woman in 2013, I have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to women’s health care rights. I have health care and access to adequate health services. Abortion is legal. Emergency contraception is available over the counter and birth control is available without co-pay. This hasn’t always been the case. Many women who came before me had to fight for every one of those things I just listed. They rallied, they marched, brought issues to court, and did whatever they had to do to fight for better health care rights for American women.

Women like Margaret Sanger, who pioneered birth control for women. Sanger led the birth control movement in the United States and fought to educate women about their bodies. She opened multiple clinics and started multiple organizations in the name of women’s health and education. She is the founder of Planned Parenthood and an amazing example of a woman who dedicated her life to fighting for the reproductive rights of all women.

Women like Katharine McCormick, who gave incredible amounts of money to fund contraceptive research. McCormick was determined to see a pill form of contraception created in her lifetime and she succeeded. She believed in Sanger’s mission and she was dedicated to women being able to decide when and whether to have children. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 4: Margaret Sanger’s “Magic Pill”

Katharine McCormick

Katharine McCormick

Welcome to the fourth installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, progesterone, the birth control pill’s active ingredient, could only be administered intravenously. Scientists working in Mexico figured out how to alter its chemical structure so that progesterone would be active when taken orally.

Katharine McCormick was born into a moneyed family and was, in 1904, the second female graduated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving her degree in biology, she married a wealthy man, but shortly into the marriage she gained control of her husband’s estate due to his illness. She put a lot of this money to good use: In the 1920s, she aided Margaret Sanger’s efforts to smuggle diaphragms into the country.


Katharine McCormick, a philanthropist and one of the first scientifically trained women, provided early funding for the Pill.


Her involvement with Sanger didn’t end there; indeed, both Sanger and McCormick had a lot in common, despite Sanger’s working-class childhood and McCormick’s privileged upbringing. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, McCormick and Sanger both had “a tremendous faith in the possibility of science,” and Sanger “believed that science held the key to contraception and to women’s emancipation.” Back in the ’20s, Sanger wrote:

Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself. Science, the only possible savior of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.

In 1950, McCormick again joined forces with Sanger. In the mid-’40s, after a countrywide tour of family-planning clinics, Sanger had come to the conclusion that the diaphragm was not an adequate form of birth control, revitalizing her hope for a “magic pill.” Neither pharmaceutical companies nor the government wanted to invest in contraceptive research, considering it a “disreputable” area of study, so Sanger hatched a scheme to bankroll the independent development of an oral contraceptive. At Sanger’s behest, McCormick provided the lion’s share of funding for the project — more than $2 million (compared to the value of a dollar in the year 2000, that would be about the equivalent of $12 million). Sanger and McCormick tapped Gregory Pincus to conduct the research. McCormick, thanks to her education in biology, oversaw the research in addition to funding it. Continue reading

Expanding Options for Male Contraception

Condoms are the only contraceptive device that does double duty in preventing pregnancy and STD transmission. But will men’s birth-control options expand?

Many have wondered why there is not a male equivalent to the Pill. The short answer to this question is that the release of one egg is easier to prevent than the flow of millions of sperm. The longer answer to that question includes a litany of failures in the search for such technology. Currently, however, there are some interesting developments in male birth control.

The condom, of course, is the only birth-control method to do double duty in reducing risk for both pregnancy and STD transmission, but many heterosexually active males would like more options than the tried-and-true rubber, and their female partners, despite having expanded contraceptive options — including the Pill, the patch, and the IUD — might prefer for the men in their lives to help shoulder the birth-control burden.

One method under investigation is ultrasound, a technology that has been around for quite some time. Though scientists have been aware of its contraceptive potential since at least the 1970s, most studies have been conducted on nonhuman animals (though human trials could be on the horizon). Ultrasound involves the application of high-frequency sound waves to animal tissue, which can absorb the sound waves’ energy as heat. The possibility for ultrasound’s use for contraception operates on the idea that briefly heating the testes, which in mammals are normally kept a few degrees below core body temperature, can halt sperm production, leading to temporary infertility for about six months. Additionally, ultrasound could affect cells’ absorption rates of ions, which itself could create an environment unfavorable to spermatogenesis. Its extremely localized effects on animal tissues make ultrasound an attractive candidate for research.

One small study conducted on five dogs applied ultrasound to the canine testicles three times over a period of a few days. The researchers compared sperm count before the procedure to two weeks after the procedure. After the ultrasound treatments none of the canine sperm samples contained sperm. Side effects included tender testicles that had been reduced in volume. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Book Club: Histories of Oral Contraceptives

Hormonal birth control has an incredible history that stretches back almost a century, when Margaret Sanger wrote of her dream of a “magic pill” in 1912. In the ensuing decades, scientists were busy piecing together the complex system of the body’s “chemical messengers,” hormones, and when they learned how to synthesize them in the ’40s, Sanger’s dream was but a few steps away from being fulfilled. Three engaging accounts of the Pill’s development — The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World by Bernard Asbell (1995), America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May (2010), and Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill by Gabriela Soto Laveaga (2009) — contain some overlap, while offering different perspectives.

Each author tells the inspiring story of Russell Marker, the chemist who first finagled progesterone from a wild-growing Mexican yam. Despite a near lack of support from pharmaceutical companies and the scientific community, he traveled to rural Mexico on a hunch — and ended up co-founding a laboratory that became the world’s top hormone supplier for the next few decades. Before Marker formulated a way to synthesize hormones in abundance, they were derived from slaughterhouse byproducts and were prohibitively expensive. Marker’s experiments enabled further medical research in hormones, and progesterone was soon used not only in oral contraceptives, but as a precursor for other medications such as cortisone.

While Carl Djerassi is often credited as the “father of the Pill,” both Asbell and May tip their hats to Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the Pill’s “mothers.” These two women also have fascinating biographies. As a nurse in the early twentieth century, Sanger was acquainted with the horrors that arose when women did not have control over their fertility. Many of her patients became infected or even died as the result of illegal or self-induced abortions, which motivated Sanger to become an activist for contraception’s legalization — an avocation that saw her illegally smuggling diaphragms into the country and serving time in jail after opening a family-planning clinic in Brooklyn. Continue reading