Connie Gao needed birth control. She was 19 and in college in Michigan, and wanted to make sure she could finish her education and start her career before she had kids. Like 1 in 5 women in this country, when she needed accurate information and quality care, she came to Planned Parenthood.
In 2016, Connie’s story is completely unremarkable—but it took 100 years of care and advocacy to get here.
On Oct. 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger, along with her sister Ethel and Fania Mindell, a volunteer who believed in the cause, opened the first birth control clinic—a storefront in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. Their vision was that women would be able to live healthier lives by having control over the timing and spacing of their children—or whether to have children at all.
Over the last century, thousands of volunteers—from sex educators to clinic escorts—have helped build Planned Parenthood into leading sexual and reproductive health provider and advocate in the U.S.
When the first clinic opened, for 10 cents each woman could buy a pamphlet with information on how to prevent pregnancy—information that was completely illegal at the time. From the first day, women lined up down the block.
Nine days later, an undercover police officer posing as a mother arrested Sanger and threw her in jail, where she taught all of her fellow inmates about birth control.
Birth control, as well as access to safe and legal abortion, has opened up possibilities for women’s lives that few could have imagined in 1916.
In 1916, the two most common causes of death for women of childbearing age were tuberculosis and childbirth. Today, while maternal mortality still affects far too many, and in particular black women, it is no longer a leading cause of death. Women live longer, healthier lives because they can choose whether and when to have children.
This progress has allowed women to become half the workforce, more than half of undergraduate students and earn half of all doctorate degrees. One study shows that one-third of the wage gains women have made since the 1960s are the direct result of access to oral contraceptives. In every sector, women’s leadership is more visible than ever before. There are three women on the Supreme Court, 20 women in the U.S. Senate, and for the first time in history, a woman is within reach of the presidency.
This dramatic impact on how people live, love, learn and work is why The Atlantic named the pill one of the top 50 inventions since the wheel, ranking it above the telephone, the alphabet and photography. Today, more than 95% of sexually active women in the U.S. have used contraception at some point in their lives. And at every step of the way, Planned Parenthood was helping lead the way to better access to reproductive care.
For 100 years, generations of doctors, clinicians, educators and activists have continued what these three women started—challenging unfair laws, innovating and leveraging the best medicine, and continuously expanding our ability to provide care to people, no matter who they are or where they live.
Planned Parenthood has grown from that one storefront to nearly 650 health centers nationwide. Those health centers see 2.5 million patients a year. Since the legalization of abortion in 1973, Planned Parenthood has proudly provided abortion care and fought every effort to roll back our rights. We are part of the fabric of American life in all 50 states. And Planned Parenthood Global provides support to more than 100 partner organizations in Africa and Latin America that ensure access to sexual and reproductive health and education to more than 1 million people.
Still, our work is far from complete, and our history is uneven and imperfect.
Too often, as progress was made for some in securing access to reproductive health and rights, others were denied those gains. In 2016, too many people still go without access to safe and legal abortion and other basic preventive care. Across the country, and especially in states like Texas, maternal mortality rates are on the rise. And while teen pregnancy rates are at an all-time low and still dropping, too many young women of color do not have equal access to affordable and effective contraceptives. More than 10 million women of color are in need of publicly funded contraception—because of their income. Yet less than 8 million women, of all races, are getting the publicly supported services they need.
If our first century was about securing our rights, our second century must be about ensuring everyone has full access and also full reproductive autonomy. And like any organization or movement that started 100 years ago, we must continually address the systemic roots of race and class discrimination—in the world and in our own organization—that have kept women of color, women with low incomes, LGBTQ people, immigrants and others from fulfilling their destiny.
Planned Parenthood’s first century was fueled by a defiant fight to secure the right to reproductive health care. In our second century, we’re not settling for rights in name only, or for only a few. We will build a world where neither income nor zip code nor race nor gender determines whether a person can get reproductive care, where no one is shamed for making their own sexual and reproductive health choices. One hundred years in, we are proud of our legacy—and we are just getting started.
Cecile Richards is the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
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