Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Brownsville Clinic

On this day in 1916, Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne, and Fania Mindell opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York.

Margaret Sanger, an obstetric nurse in New York, became a dedicated birth control advocate after witnessing the havoc uncontrolled fertility wreaked upon women. As a nurse she saw high rates of infant mortality, maternal death, and deaths from illegal and self-induced abortions among the poor whom she served. Birth control was not unknown at the time (well-to-do women used it), but it was seldom talked about openly. In fact, disseminating information about birth control was a federal crime under the Comstock Act of 1873.  
In 1916 Sanger and her sister Ethyl Byrne (also a nurse) opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn. They chose the impoverished Brownsville neighborhood, which was home to many immigrants. Social worker Fania Mindell served as their interpreter.
The opening of the clinic was a direct challenge to the Comstock law. It was also a rousing success. The women had leafleted the neighborhood with signs printed in English, Yiddish, and Italian offering birth control information. One hundred and forty women came to the clinic that first day. Hundreds more sought information at the clinic before it was shut down by the authorities nine days later. The three women were arrested as public nuisances, tried separately, and each convicted.
The opening of the clinic forced a public discussion about birth control. The arrests of Sanger, Byrne, and Mindell were widely covered in the media. Sanger’s ongoing appeals kept it there. Her challenge led directly to a reinterpretation of the Comstock Law, allowing physicians to legally prescribe contraception for “general health” reasons.

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