Planned Parenthood: The First 50 Years

By Jim Sedlak

In the first article of this series, we discussed Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, and her three basic philosophies that still drive the organization today. In this article we will look briefly at how Sanger led the organization to achieve its initial goals during its first 50 years.

Although it was clear from Sanger’s early writings (e.g., Family Limitation) that she included both contraception and abortion in her description of birth control, the political and legal situation in October 1916 did not allow her to go after the legalization of both of these entities right away. Sanger and her friends faced four major obstacles in 1916: 1) abortion was illegal in the United States, 2) contraception was also illegal, 3) contraception was condemned by every major church denomination, and 4) it was illegal to send any information about contraception through the U.S. mail (Comstock Laws).

As getting contraception accepted was a daunting task, it was decided that they would separate abortion and contraception and first remove all the barriers to the production, sale, and distribution of contraception. They would also put heavy emphasis on the acceptance of contraception by churches as a sure way to achieve their goals.

The first victory

Sanger disclosed her thinking on a variety of subjects in her 1922 book entitled The Pivot of Civilization. In this book she wrote of working with William Ralph Inge, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, to convince the Church of England that, as Inge put it, “birth control is an essential part of Christian morality.”

At the very beginning of Chapter IX of this book, Sanger revealed her strategy: Blame the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for all opposition to contraception and convince the Protestants that contraception is a “moral necessity” opposed only by Catholic leadership. Sanger wrote in this chapter: “We should make clear that advocates of birth control are not seeking to attack the Catholic Church. We quarrel with that church, however, when it seeks to assume authority over non-Catholics and to dub their behavior immoral because they do not conform to the dictatorship of Rome.”

Sanger’s strategy worked, and at the 1930 Lambeth Conference the Church of England recognized the use of contraception by married couples under certain limited circumstances. It was the first major church to allow contraception use, and it—as Sanger knew it would—opened the floodgates to many other church denominations also accepting the use of contraception.

As was documented in ALL’s report to the Vatican on why Planned Parenthood is an enemy of the Catholic Church, Planned Parenthood still uses the same strategy as Sanger to drive a wedge in the religious objections to its various activities.

The second victory

From a legal standpoint, Planned Parenthood’s biggest problems came from the Comstock Act on the federal level, and various state laws that not only banned the sale and distribution of contraception devices, but also banned the distribution of information about contraception.

Sanger’s opening of a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York, on October 16, 1916, was done as a purposeful challenge to these laws. Sanger’s clinic was closed down within days and she was charged with a crime. As her legal case began, she fled to England to allow time for a public relations campaign to unfold. She was eventually convicted, but an appeals court ruled that physicians could distribute information on contraception to married women for “the cure and prevention of disease.” Ordinary citizens were not allowed to do so. But this case provided a crack in the federal law, and Planned Parenthood (originally called the American Birth Control League) jumped on the opening. PP aggressively began pushing contraception publicly.

The third victory

The third major victory of Planned Parenthood came in two parts that were separated in time by almost 30 years.

The first came in the striking down of the federal restrictions on contraception. In its Winter 2011 newsletter, the Sanger Papers Project of New York University traced a series of court cases that undercut much of the impact of the Comstock Laws. This culminated in a 1936 case known as U.S. v. One Package. This, again, was a purposeful effort by Sanger to challenge the federal laws against the physical distribution of contraception. She ordered a shipment of contraceptive diaphragms from Japan and was charged with a crime. She won the case, and as the newsletter headline proclaimed: "Tracing One Package—The Case That Legalized Birth Control."

Having had great success at eliminating the federal laws on birth control, Planned Parenthood turned its attention to the still-existing state laws and worked in several states to get the laws overturned. The most restrictive of these laws was in Connecticut where it was even illegal for a married couple to use contraceptives in their own bedroom. Penalties included a fine and up to a year in prison. Although law enforcement generally ignored this particular provision of the law, it did enforce the laws against the public sale and distribution of contraception.

After some unsuccessful efforts at overturning the Connecticut laws, Planned Parenthood finally devised a winning strategy. It opened a birth control clinic in Connecticut. The clinic manager was Estelle Griswold, who was also executive director of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. The clinic sold contraceptive devices, and when police raided the clinic, Griswold freely admitted to selling the contraceptives and provided the names of two customers who would testify that they had purchased them.

Griswold was arrested, tried, and convicted of breaking the law. She appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. On June 7, 1965, the Court handed down the decision in the Griswold v. Connecticut case. That decision not only struck down all the laws against contraception in Connecticut and all other states, but it found a “right to privacy” in sexual matters emanating from the penumbra (shadows) of the Constitution. This latter finding would set the stage for many other deplorable Supreme Court decisions in the future.


Margaret Sanger died on September 6, 1966, but she lived long enough to witness Planned Parenthood’s “accomplishments” during its first 50 years of operation. PP was able to change the position of many churches on contraception, eliminate federal laws on sending contraceptive information in the mail, and eliminate federal and state laws on the sale and distribution of contraceptives.

It had not, as of 1966, eliminated restrictions on abortion, but it set the stage with the Griswold decision. Clearly Planned Parenthood set out in 1916 to change American culture in regard to sexual matters and it achieved its goal. What was left was for it to capitalize on all of this and build a financial empire on the bodies of our children and the souls of our young people.

Jim Sedlak is executive director of American Life League and founder of STOPP International. He is recognized as an expert in fighting Planned Parenthood in local communities.