The pioneering birth control clinics of New York

BrownsvilleclinicThe first clinic got its start in October 1916. It opened in a storefront on Amboy Street in working-class Brownsville, Brooklyn (left).

Fliers attracted 100 women on opening day.

“For ten cents each woman received [a] pamphlet What Every Girl Should Know, a short lecture on the female reproductive system, and instructions on the use of various contraceptives,” states this NYU website.

amboystflyerpopThis was radical stuff a century ago. No wonder it only took days for the woman who started the clinic, social reformer and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, to be arrested.

Sanger was charged with violating the Comstock Act. Established in 1873, it made discussing and administering birth control a crime.

Sanger spent a month in jail in Queens. But there was one upside: though an appeals court upheld her conviction, the judge determined that nothing in the Comstock Act prohibited doctors, rather than activists, from giving out contraception.

With this in mind, Sanger founded her second clinic, what she called the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, in 1923.

Staffed by MDs, the clinic disseminated information about contraception and offered birth control devices—serving more than 1,200 women in its first year, according to The Encyclopedia of New York State.

The clinic moved into this lovely circa-1846 row house at 17 West 16th Street in Chelsea in 1930.

“By the 1930s it served over 10,000 women per year and was the largest birth control clinic in the country,” the authors state.

Margaretsangerclinic

For decades it was the only clinic giving out birth control to unmarried women, and interestingly, it treated men too. In 1969, it opened the first outpatient vasectomy center in the country.

After 50 years and a huge change in acceptance of birth control, the clinic closed in 1973. The 16th Street house is now a private home, albiet with a plaque designating it as a national historic landmark.

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5 Responses to “The pioneering birth control clinics of New York”

  1. therealguyfaux Says:

    Margaret Sanger’s work, viewed through a 21st C. prism, can seem like a eugenics program– stop poor women from having too many children. When you consider that many women were abandoned by their husbands, or were widowed at an early age, in an era where children were customarily fostered and not maintained in their households when their mothers had to go to work or were too sickly to work themselves to support the children, home relief being unknown in most cases, it makes sense. But when I tried to explain to an indignant Leftie woman once that Sanger’s work benefited the poor, by allowing parents to plan when to have children so as not to be trapped in penury trying to feed too many mouths (see: Jude The Obscure, “we are too many”), I was called everything but my proper name for suggesting women might really have had to think twice about when and how often to have children in the pre-Roe days. A little historical, as opposed to hysterical, perspective mightn’t have gone amiss.

  2. oldmastic Says:

    Sanger’s efforts toward birth control were racially motivated to cut back or eliminate the Black population in the U.S.

  3. Links 4/15/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist Says:

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  4. Kaleberg Says:

    Margaret Sanger was a real pioneer. She was offering women a choice they had never had before and never even realized existed, to control how many children they had. Given that pregnancy was a common way of getting killed back then, this was pretty amazing. The ability to control pregnancy has many enemies, and these enemies have lots of talking points: It’s immoral. It will wipe out the less fortunate. It will castrate men. It will prevent unnecessary suffering. (Suffering is good. That’s still a common argument.) Good grief!

    There was a desperate desire and need for birth control. Most women wanted to satisfy their sexual and romantic needs without fear of death or disability. Since they loved their children, they didn’t want to have to starve one child to feed another. That’s why the early adopters of birth control were wealthier women (and men who could afford condoms). Margaret Sanger wanted to offer the same benefits to the poor. That was a lot of the scandal. Why should poor women get to enjoy sex? They’re poor. They should suffer for their sins. There are a lot of societies today where the very idea of any woman enjoying sex is something to be remedied surgically.

    (When a friend’s father first pointed out the clinic to me way back in the 1960s, it still had a sign with its bottom caption saying: “Entrance in rear”. Talk about bad birth control humor, but that was considered an option back when he was a boy, and Canal Street was still the red light district in New York.)

  5. Cathy Moran Hajo Says:

    New York hosted a large number of birth control clinics from 1916 on, more than any other city. Sanger’s were the best known and best attended, but the Committee on Maternal Health sponsored a number of clinics in hospitals in the 1920s, like the New York Infirmary for Mothers and Children (321 East 15th Street), Woman’s Hospital (141 West 109th Street), Lebanon Hospital (Westchester and Caldwell Aves), Mount Sinai Hospital (5th Avenue and 100th Street), the Sloane Hospital for Women and Children (620 West 168th Street), the New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital (161 West 61st Street), the Lenox Hill Hospital (112 East 77th Street), Beth Israel Hospital (70 Jefferson St.), and the Fifth Avenue Hospital (at 105th St.)

    Others were founded by New York-based birth control and social welfare leagues, such as the Harlem branch of Sanger’s Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, opened in association with the Urban League, the Jewish Maternity Aid Association (239 East Broadway), the Stuyvesant Polyclinic (137 Second Avenue), and the Recreation Rooms and Settlement House (84 First St.) and the Judson House (241 Thompson St).

    In the 1930s, a series of clinics was opened by the New York Committee for Birth Control (a local branch of the American Birth Control League) at settlement houses like the Madison House Society (226 Madison St.), Christ Church House (344 West 36th St.), Council House (1122 Forest Avenue), the Union Settlement (237 East 104th Street)., Prescott House (Unitarian Church, 247 East 53rd St.), among others.

    For a complete list of clinics I found conducting research for my book, see http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/hajo/appendix.php

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