Jewish community’s support was essential for Detroit’s first family planning clinic in 1927.
Detroit was a boomtown during the 1920s — a center of manufacturing for the automotive and other industries. Its rapidly expanding population included many European immigrants and a Jewish community of 35,000.
But the city’s rapid economic growth didn’t help all families. Poverty was common, exacerbated by large families. Detroit had a high birth rate and one out of eight babies born in the city was a “public charge,” according to Robbie Terman, director of the Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Terman spoke at a recent Jewish History Detectives Lecture, one of a series sponsored by the late Dr. Robert and Joan Jampel that is presented by Temple Beth El.
Terman is a devoted historical researcher with a master’s degree in library and information science and archives/archival administration. By chance, she came across records of the important role of Detroit’s Jewish community in opening the city’s first birth control clinic in 1927.
At the time, the health of many women suffered from frequent pregnancies. Many infants didn’t survive, and families struggled to provide for large families. A few forms of birth control were available, but they required funds and connections that were typically only available to people of means. Low-income women sometimes used ineffective and dangerous tactics to avoid pregnancy, such as douching with a Lysol solution. Some individuals resorted to illegal, risky abortions.
According to Terman, distribution of birth control devices such as condoms and diaphragms was limited by the federal Comstock Act, passed in 1873, which made it a crime to use the U.S. Postal Service to mail any “obscenity, contraceptives, abortifacients or sex toys” through the postal service.
Early in the 20th century, Margaret Sanger, a nurse, became a national advocate for “family hygiene,” a common euphemism for birth control. Sanger, who came from a poor family with 11 children, was convinced that “birth control was crucial to end the cycle of poverty.” (She was married to a Jewish man with whom she had three children).
Sanger opened the first family planning clinic in New York in 1916 and was quickly arrested, convicted and served a month in jail. Eventually, a New York court overruled her conviction, loosening the laws against contraception somewhat. In 1919, Sanger spoke in Detroit and a local Birth Control League was established, Terman learned.
Bringing Family Planning to Detroit
Katharine Dexter McCormick, a Michigan woman married to the heir of the International Harvester Company, became an advocate for birth control because her husband had schizophrenia, and they feared that this illness would be passed on to any offspring. When she was unable to open a birth control clinic in Detroit, she passed out devices at a downtown hotel.
Other prominent individuals, including Dr. C.C. Little, president of the University of the Michigan, supported the birth control movement. Terman was particularly intrigued to learn of local Jewish support for family planning services. Morris Waldman, a rabbi who became a social worker and advocate for social welfare, was executive director of United Jewish Charities of Detroit during the 1920s. After meeting Sanger, he helped her open a birth control clinic in Detroit in 1927 — the only one between New York and Chicago. Detroit’s Jewish Federation provided $3,000 annually for the clinic.
Elsie Sulzberger, an active member of Temple Beth El and organizer of the National Council of Jewish Women, was instrumental in this project. The “Mother’s Clinic for Family Regulation” operated from an apartment and was staffed by one physician and one nurse. Their goal was to help mothers have fewer and safer pregnancies and reduce abortion.
The clinic required referrals from local social service agencies for its patients. Typically, the criteria included ill health of the parents, another child’s disability or poverty.
The majority of patients were Protestant, with about 24% Catholic and approximately 9% Jewish. The clinic served African American women, but the racial climate of the times required that these patients were seen on a separate day.
The Jewish Federation supported the Mother’s Clinic for six years, but it closed during the Depression although Terman said that Sulzberger continued her support for birth control services. She started the Birth Control Center of Dunbar Memorial Hospital (a segregated Black hospital in Detroit), was a member of the Michigan Birth Control League and served as vice president of the Detroit Maternal Health Section.
According to Terman, the Mother’s Clinic eventually reopened as Planned Parenthood. Today, the board of Planned Parenthood of Michigan includes several members of the local Jewish community.