Planned Parenthood has its roots in founder Margaret Sanger's work with birth control and birth control clinics in the early twentieth century. Sanger (1879–1966) was a social advocate who believed that a woman's right to control her body was fundamental to women's human rights; that every person should be able to decide whether or not to have a child; and that women have the right to sexual fulfillment and pleasure (Knowles 2004). As such, she worked against the Comstock laws that prohibited the distribution of information about sex, reproduction, and contraception. Sanger's work in advocating for birth control—a phrase she is credited with coining—resulted in her founding the American Birth Control League in 1921, which then became Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942 (Knowles 2004). She did not, however, promote abortions because they were both illegal and dangerous during her time. Yet Sanger did urge women to use contraception so they would not have to resort to "back-alley abortions."
Through her creation of the birth control clinics—the first one was established in 1916—she made contraception and information about sex and reproduction available to low-income, minority, and immigrant women (Knowles 2004). Her focus on these particular communities has drawn criticism because it is often linked with Sanger's association with eugenics, a popular sociological movement in the 1920s and 1930s (Knowles 2004). Planned Parenthood repudiates the accusations that Sanger subscribed to the overt racism of the eugenics movement, contending, rather, that "she agreed with the progressives of her day" (Knowles 2004, p. 3). Sanger and her contemporaries in the eugenics movement believed in "incentives for the voluntary hospitalization and/or sterilization of people with untreatable, disabling, hereditary conditions, the adoption and enforcement of stringent regulations to prevent the immigration of the diseased and 'feebleminded' into the U.S, and placing so-called illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, and dope-fiends on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the strengthening and development of moral conduct" (Knowles 2004, p. 3).
Sanger's controversy was not limited to her involvement with the eugenics movement. Because she promoted birth control and knowledge of sex and reproduction, Sanger often clashed with the Catholic Church and law enforcement, which frequently resulted in court battles. Also, Sanger came under fire for her alleged Marxist leanings, which, some argued, contributed more to her political agenda than her humanitarian efforts (Spooner 2005).
Despite the debate surrounding Sanger's politics, she brought to light women's health issues, began the birth control movement, and founded Planned Parenthood as part of her efforts. Sanger's family continues its involvement with Planned Parenthood. Her grandson Alexander Sanger chairs the International Planned Parenthood Council and previously served as the President of Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC) and its international arm, the Margaret Sanger Center International (MSCI) (AlexanderSanger.com).
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Planned Parenthood served more than five million men, women, and children yearly, and there were 120 affiliates and 860 health centers ("By the Numbers" 2006). According to the organization's mission statement, Planned Parenthood believes in "the fundamental right of each individual, throughout the world, to manage his or her fertility, regardless of the individual's income, marital status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, national origin, or residence," and "reproductive self-determination must be voluntary and preserve the individual's right to privacy" (Planned Parenthood 1998, p. 1). Also, Planned Parenthood envisions its goals to be: "to provide comprehensive reproductive and complementary health care services in settings which preserve and protect the essential privacy and rights of each individual; to advocate public policies which guarantee these rights and ensure access to such services; to provide educational programs which enhance understanding of individual and societal implications of human sexuality; to promote research and the advancement of technology in reproductive health care and encourage understanding of their inherent bioethical, behavioral, and social implications" (Planned Parenthood 1998, p. 1). The organization works with a range of populations, and it estimates that 74 percent of its clients are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line ("Planned Parenthood by the Numbers" 2006). In addition to working with economically disenfranchised populations, Planned Parenthood assists young adults and teens; yet 74 percent of its clientele is over the age of nineteen ("By the Numbers" 2006). It further approximates that its contraceptive services prevent 617,000 unintended pregnancies, and only 9 percent of its clients receive abortion services ("By the Numbers" 2006).
The organization currently addresses a variety of issues, including reproductive freedom, universal access to services, universal access to sexuality education, abortion, adolescent services, censorship and first amendment rights, early pregnancy detection, international family planning, women's rights, voluntary sterilization, and population (Planned Parenthood 1998). To attend to these concerns, Planned Parenthood engages in educational campaigns from the preschool through the collegiate level, in effect reaching approximately 1.3 million people per year (Planned Parenthood, May 2006). In addition, the organization works with the federal and state governments to advocate in the area of public policy. Planned Parenthood is using the Internet to raise awareness about and challenge the "war waged on women and their reproductive rights by executive and legislative branches"). In particular, the organization targets issues concerning contraceptive equality, access to abortion, emergency contraception, family planning funding, sexuality education, censoring free speech, and replacing science with right wing ideology, and it maintains watch on federal and state court proceedings regarding reproductive issues, such as South Dakota's 2006 ban on abortion (overturned by voters).
Planned Parenthood also campaigns against and raises awareness about contraceptive access like the birth control prescription policy at the Target chain of department stores. In 2005 Planned Parenthood responded with a letter writing campaign to a Target pharmacist in Fenton, Missouri, who refused to fill a woman's prescription for emergency contraception. Following the campaign, Target made public its policy, which Planned Parenthood summarizes as "Target does not guarantee that all prescriptions for birth control, including emergency contraception, will be filled in-store, without discrimination or delay" ("Planned Parenthood Targets Target" 2005). Planned Parenthood is still working to challenge Target's policy and has even dedicated part of SaveRoe.com to this campaign (see http://www.SaveRoe.com//campaigns/target).
In addition to addressing domestic concerns, Planned Parenthood also works internationally. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) was founded in 1952 and has five priority areas: adolescents, HIV/AIDS, abortion, access, and advocacy (IPPF.org). The IPPF is a "global network of Member Associations in 151 countries and the world's foremost voluntary, non-governmental provider and advocate of sexual and reproductive health and rights" (IPPF.org). The organization works "to improve the quality of life of individuals by campaigning for sexual and reproductive health and rights through advocacy and services, especially for poor and vulnerable people; defend the right of all young people to enjoy their sexual lives free from ill-health, unwanted pregnancy, violence and discrimination; support a woman's right to choose to terminate her pregnancy legally and safely, and strive to eliminate STIs and reduce the spread and impact of HIV/AIDS" (IPPF.org). IPPF's facilities, operating in more than 180 countries, provide a variety of services, including counseling, gynecological care, HIV-related services, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, infertility services, mother and child health, emergency contraception and abortion-related services (IPPF.org). In 2005, for example, 1.3 million HIV-related services were provided and over 8 million sexual and reproductive health services were provided to people under the age of twenty-five (IPPF.org).
Knowles, Jon. 2004. "The Truth about Margaret Sanger." Available from http://www.plannedparenthood.org.
"Our Issues." Available from http://www.SaveROE.com.
"Planned Parenthood Federation of America Mission and Policy Statements." 1998. Available from http://www.plannedparenthood.org.
"Planned Parenthood by the Numbers." April 2006. Available from http://www.plannedparenthood.org.
"Planned Parenthood Services." May 2006. Available from http://www.plannedparenthood.org.
"Planned Parenthood Targets Target." Nov. 2005. Available from http://www.SaveROE.com/blogs/2005/11/16/planned-parenthood-targets-target
Spooner, Victor. 2005. "Margaret Sanger." Available from http://www.DiscoverTheNetwork.org.