Brooklyn: The Birthplace of Birth Control

  • Image by Dave Herr

Last week, sex-crazed pinko liberals everywhere celebrated new requirements forcing insurance plans to offer free birth control to women, among other reproductive health services.

Except for the usual uptight suspects, most people were excited knowing our society is one step closer to the day when combination birth control and weed dispensaries line our streets like so many KenTaco Huts.

Just for fun, let’s take a moment to gloat at this victory even more, because really, it all started in Brooklyn. Go team!

Yes, this country’s very first birth control clinic was set up in Brownsville by eventual Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger nearly a century ago. The clinic, located at 46 Amboy St., was shut down just 9 days after it opened in 1916 and Sanger was arrested for “public nuisance.” A trial and media circus ensued, and she started a publication called The Birth Control Review.

Obviously we all know which side won out in the long run, but while we’re reminiscing, a few fun facts about Brooklyn’s relationship to one of the most important medical and social advances of the past century:

– Brooklyn still has just one Planned Parenthood location, but it’s now one of 47 total family planning information centers keeping unintended pregnancy in our borough (relatively) at bay.

-The old Amboy street location has been a government housing project since 1975, boasting 321 apartments and 847 residents.

– According to data taken in 2011, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights have the highest rates of abortion in Brooklyn at 59%, while Borough Park has the lowest, at 8.5%. The overall average for New York City is 40%. This actually indicates a steep drop of both unintended pregnancy and abortion rates over the past few decades, which researchers directly attributed to “more effective birth control at work here.”

– As you’d expect, Sanger received quite a bit of hate mail in her day, much of which is now preserved in archives. Here’s one sent to her from an unnamed Brooklyn resident in 1941:

“Dear Madam: You have been a shameless “murderess on parade” for a long while. […] You, if you ever had any real Christian upbringing, must have developed a cast iron conscience to be able to carry on your soul the innumerable times you are guilty of having the Commandment—Thou shalt not kill—broken by poor innocent people who listened to your advice. The average schoolboy or girl knows more about contraceptives than you do and that is well-known; which makes your birth-controllers hopelessly out-dated. If you were a sincere person you would devote your time to something clean worthwhile.”

I’d like to think that were this anonymous letter-writer alive today, he’d be leaving just as long-winded, if slightly less formal, hate comments on blogs like this one. Seems likely, no?

Anyway, this has been a nice look back at Brooklyn In History. Ladies, keep on taking those pills other people fought so hard for us to get. Or not, your choice! That’s the whole point, I’m pretty sure.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.

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  1. Of course, Sanger was all too happy to lower the birth rate against people she viewed as inferior, like the (mostly) Jews and (some) blacks and “Syrians” who then overwhelmingly populated Brownsville. Still, the Jews in my family supported the clinic and my great-grandmother on one side and great-great-grandmother on another side contributed some money to the clinic, according to what my grandfather told me. My great-great-aunt reportedly had so many kids that she had a couple of illegal and dangerous abortions because they just couldn’t afford any more and they were very grateful for the clinic. As a 20yo boy with a girlfriend in 1970, I went with her to the Planned Parenthood at 44 Court Street downtown and they helped us enormously, and I’ve been an avid supporter of Planned Parenthood ever since. Sanger may have had some very bigoted views and motivations, but most of the people in the neighborhood of Brownsville whom she looked down upon were happy to take advantage of her clinic’s services.