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New York v. Sanger

Civilly Disobedient

Sanger threw herself into promoting birth control. On 16 October 1916, using a $50 donation, she and her sister, Ethel Byrne, opened the country's first birth control clinic--an act of civil disobedience.

The clinic occupied two rooms on the ground floor at 46 Amboy Street, near Pitkin Avenue in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York. Its staff consisted of Sanger, Byrne, Fania Mindell--who spoke Yiddish--and a social worker, Elizabeth Stuyvesant. During the ten days before police closed the clinic, nearly five hundred women came through its doors.

On the ninth day after the clinic's opening, a "Mrs." Whitehurst walked in to buy a ten-cent sex education pamphlet. A member of the vice squad, she returned the next day with three other officers, shouting, "I'm a police officer. You're under arrest."

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the police "half-dragged, half-carried" the sisters to a paddy wagon. The local station freed them after they posted a $500 bail. A few weeks later, Sanger reopened the clinic, but again police shut it down, charging Sanger with creating a public nuisance. They arrested Byrne soon after.

Sanger immediately hired attorney Jonah J. Goldstein to represent them. During Byrne's trial, he argued that New York's Comstock Law--which permitted the distribution of birth control information only in case of medical need--denied the poor their right to chose the size of their families. Nonetheless, the court found Byrne guilty of distributing "obscene" birth control information, sentencing her to 32 days in the workhouse on Blackwell's Island.

Byrne announced she would go on a hunger strike, "to die, if need be, for my sex." Four days after she began her fast, New York City's corrections commissioner announced Byrne would be the first inmate in U.S. history to be forcibly fed through a tube inserted in her throat. The New York Times daily covered the painful details of her feedings of brandy, milk, and eggs on its front page.

As a result of all the publicity, the National Birth Control League stepped in to defend the sisters. Called the "Committee of 100," they held a rally at Carnegie Hall shortly after Byrne's sentencing. Three thousand people showed up to hear Sanger speak. Several days later, some of the group took Sanger to the office of Governor Charles Whitman to plead for her sister's release. Whitman said he would only pardon Byrne if Sanger promised not to reopen the clinic. At first, Sanger refused, but after visiting her weakened sister, she reluctantly accepted the governor's terms. Against her will, Byrne left the workhouse, carried on a stretcher.

Meanwhile, Sanger and Mindell went to trial on 29 January 1917, at the Court of Special Sessions in Brooklyn. The court fined Mindell $50 for selling copies of Sanger's article What Every Girl Should Know. Sanger was tried for trafficking in obscene materials. Policewoman Whitehurst testified she had found a box of suppositories and a rubber pessary (a contraceptive device that works something like a diaphragm) in the back room of the Brownsville clinic. Other witnesses implied Sanger had gone beyond verbal instruction to actually fit clients with the devices.

One of the three-judge panel, Freschi, was the most empathetic. He permitted the defense to call a long list of Brownsville mothers who recounted their problems with venereal disease, poverty, and unwanted pregnancies. Eventually Freschi agreed to suspend Sanger's sentence if she promised not to reopen her clinic. She refused: "I cannot promise to obey a law I do not respect." The court, having found her guilty, allowed her the choice of a $5,000 fine or one month in the workhouse. She chose the workhouse.

However, Sanger vowed to repeat her sister's hunger strike, so the workhouse on Blackwell's Island refused to admit her. Instead, she went to the penitentiary for women in Queens, New York.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940New York v. Sanger - Significance, Up From Poverty, Comstock's Law, Civilly Disobedient, The Door Is Opened