The LOS ANGELES TIMES reports that nation of Iran is flip flopping once more on its population policy. This is not new news but is worth examining.

Iran launched a family planning program in 1967 as part of its development plan. The age of marriage was increased for girls from 9 to 15 (and 18 for boys) and family planning was promoted by the government. The birth rate remained stubbornly high at over 6.

This program ended with the onset of the Iranian Revolution, and births were heavily promoted as a defensive measure during the war with Iraq. The age of marriage for girls reverted to 9. Family planning services, however, continued to be offered.

This policy, in turn, ended after the Iraq ceasefire. The government promoted birth spacing, discouraged births by women under age 18 and promoted a family size of three, preferably two. Contraceptives were promoted and widely available. The birth rate plummeted. The annual population growth rate fell from 4% in 1985 to 1.1% in 2005

In 2014, the government reversed course once again, restricted access to contraceptives and promoted larger families. Abortion has been criminalized except in cases of rape, incest and threats to the mother’s life. Maternity leave has been instituted as well as zero interest loans to families having children. The government plans a website to track pregnant women. Sounds like several U.S. states. Sterilizations are generally prohibited.

The main obstacle to the government’s plan is the Iranian economy – people cannot afford large family and they will do whatever it takes not to have one. The risks to women’s health are real and dangerous. Illegally obtained abortion medications are rife, as well as the risks to women. As with Romania and other countries who have instituted draconian policies to require childbearing, these policies will end up with the death or involuntary sterilization of women of childbearing age, and the stunting of lives of girls and women.

The age of marriage is now 13 for girls and 15 for boys.

Current figures from the World Bank show that the birth rate has increased from 1.8 on 2010 to 2.1 in 2020 (The LA Times reported it to be still at 1.8 and the Statistical Center for Iran reported it at 1.7). Any increase in birth rates will be marginal at best. The harm to women will be greater.


Great leaders

Nafis Sadik, Avabai Wadia and Mechai Viravaidya, great leaders all, have been in the news lately.

Nafis Sadik

Nafis died in August at age 92. I met her during the preparations for the Cairo Conference in 1994. At PPNYC, our international division, The Margaret Sanger Center, worked in many countries in the Global South on family planning and sex ed programs. I attended the Cairo Conference and, thanks for Nafis, was on the agenda to speak on the final day. I had to depart Cairo before then, and our wonderful board member, Hector Prud’homme, delivered my remarks. The conference, thanks to the diligent work of Nafis, Fred Sai and many women’s advocates from around the world, was a great success, putting women at the center of aid programs for family planning.

ACS with Nafis Sadik and Tim Wirth in Cairo 1994

Avabai Wadia

Avabai Wadia was the subject of a laudatory article in The Better India. A lawyer by training, she helped organize the Bombay Conference in 1952, which resulted in the founding of IPPF. In 2002 for its 50th anniversary, I went to India with IPPF to celebrate. In 2008, Avabai invited me to address the Family Planning Association of India in Mumbai. Then over 90, she was as sharp and opinionated as ever, but always loyal to the principles of the IPPF and my grandmother’s vision.

Avabai Wadia front and center in orange and yellow and ACS in blue shirt way in back – Mumbai 2002

Mechai Viravaidya

Mechai Viravaidya was the subject of a feature in The New York Times. His work in Thailand has brought modern family planning and AIDS prevention to millions. Known as Captain Condom, he founded the restaurant Cabbages and Condoms in Bangkok where I was welcomed in 2007. At 82, he carries on the work of Population and Community Development Association with he founded 50 years ago.

Mechai Viravaidya and staff members with ACS and Jeannette Sanger at Cabbages and Condoms in 2007

Our movement has been fortunate to have such dedicated and untiring leaders around the world.

Speech at fundraiser for Governor janet mills and congresswoman chellie pingree – august 4, 2022

With the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the United States has joined such undistinguished company as Poland and Honduras as the only countries in recent decades that have enacted criminal abortion laws or made their already strict criminal abortion laws more Draconian. 

About half these united states are busy right now criminalizing abortion. 

Half our country, Kansas excepted, is now a foreign land. 

Since 2000, 37 countries have liberalized their abortion laws: Argentina, Thailand, Ireland, Mexico and most recently Colombia. Chile proposes to put reproductive rights in its new constitution. Save that thought.

We know what happens when reproductive health care, including access to safe abortion, are curtailed: More unintended and unwanted pregnancies, and for women who decide or are forced to keep the pregnancy: less prenatal care, riskier pregnancies and deliveries, especially with young women, and increased maternal and infant mortality.

And for women who decide not to keep the pregnancy:  Abortion when criminalized does not go away it just goes underground, and is later, riskier, costlier with attendant increases in maternal mortality and morbidity. The burden is disproportionate on young, poor, rural women.

Abortions by pill, already on the increase, will increase more. The risk is no medical supervision or care if it is needed for fear of prosecution.

Women with wanted pregnancies who have life-threatening medical issues are put at risk with the denial of life saving health care. 

Women who miscarry are put in prison – just look at El Salvador. Where 30-year sentences for aggravated homicide after a miscarriage are common and for women who give birth to children that they do not want, a network of Homes for Abandoned Children.

I know this from my work around the world with International Planned Parenthood. We also know that women will take extraordinary steps not to have a child they do not want. 

But Women shouldn’t have to.

Worldwide, abortions occur with the same frequency in countries that have legalized it as in countries that have criminalized it. – about 35 per 1000 women of childbearing age. 

What next? An underground railroad to Canada. The Bar Harbor to Yarmouth ferry opened just in time. To quote Richard Dreyfus in Jaws, “we may need a bigger boat.”

Will we get to a situation where lobster boats anchor outside the 3-mile limit to offer abortion medication? Will there be no law east of the breakwater?

We are one election away from losing reproductive rights nationally and in Maine. Sexual rights, LGBTQ rights. Birth control. As well as what we read.

Look at attacks on public libraries. I’ll remind you that when the Nazis burned books, one of the first into the fire were my grandmother’s, who dared to say that no women could call herself free unless she had the right to decide whether or not to become a mother.

This will take all of us – men too, and not just by lining up for vasectomies. Especially young people, who if they don’t vote now then I don’t know when. It will take good Republican men and women, as in Kansas, who have daughters and who see them as more than incubators. In Latin America there is a Green Waves of women and men demanding decriminalization of abortion. We need a Green Wave here.

Stalwart elected officials are key. We have two stalwart women here so show that this overturn of Roe, this defeat of women, will turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory: Chellie Pingree and Janet Mills.


When I arranged my first illegal abortion for a friend in the mid-1960s, America looked even worse than it will look like after the current Supreme Court term ends. Abortion illegal in almost every state, with therapeutic abortion legal in some, including New York. Women resorted to illegal or self-induced abortions or, if they had the means, traveled abroad: Puerto Rico, Mexico, Europe, Japan. A two-tiered system developed, one for those with means and another for those without. Every public hospital had a septic abortion ward, or several, to try to save women who had been mutilated or infected. Illegal abortion was a dream for organized crime, who controlled much of the “business,” and a nightmare for doctors and women.

Starting in 1967, states began to eliminate or modify their abortion laws, including New York in 1970, which decriminalized abortion before 24 weeks. Four states repealed their abortion laws, and 13 states modified them. Thus 17 states saw some light. Roe came 3 years later. 

How many states post this Supreme Court term will see the light?

How many states will define a fertilized egg as a person?

How many will approve a Federal. constitutional amendment requiring this?

Will the Comstock Laws return?

Will Griswold be reversed?

Gay marriage outlawed?

The nightmare list goes on and on. 

Meanwhile, women will have the coasts (New York, California et al) and abortion pills. 

Political organization in Red and Blue States is vital.

Requiring corporations to pay for employee travel is a must.

Public service messaging on early pregnancy testing and the abortion pill is vital.

Strategic civil disobedience absolutely.

Remember the Comstocks of the world always come a cropper eventually. 

Banned in Boston

Margaret Sanger at Old South Meeting House

I was recently in Boston and found a life-size sculpture of my grandmother in the Old South Meeting House. The accompanying caption had her birthdate wrong (she always took years off her age – she was born in 1879) but it has a refreshingly positive summary of her life and work – to legalize birth control.

Mayor Curley indeed prohibited her speaking in Boston in 1923, 1924 and 1925. In 1925 the enlightened citizens of Boston held a meeting at Old South Meeting House to protest. He also banned the KKK since they were anti-Catholic, among other things. Curley was term limited, and his successor, Malcolm Nichols, continued the ban, and when in 1929 Ford Hall invited my grandmother and other illustrious radicals and rebels to speak at their annual banquet, only Margaret Sanger was prohibited from addressing the crowd. She strode onto the stage with a gag taped across her mouth and handed her speech to professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, who proceeded to read it.

From her speech April 16, 1929:

“To inflict silence upon a woman is supposed to be a terrible punishment. It is. But there are certain advantages and benefits to be derived from this awful punishment. . . . Silence inflicts thoughts upon us. It makes us ponder over what we have lost – and what we have gained. Words are, after all, only the small change of thought. If we have convictions, deep convictions, let us not waste them in words. Let us act them out. Let us live them!”

“I care nothing for Free Speech in and by itself. All of us place too much value on the power of the printed word and the power of the spoken word. We read too much. We listen too much. We live too little. We act too little. . . . I speak to you by my actions past and present. I have been gagged, I have been suppressed, I have been arrested, I have been hauled off to jail. Yet every time, more people have listened to me, more have protested, more have lifted their own voices, more have responded with courage and bravery. . . . As a propagandist, I see immense advantages in being gagged. It silences me, but it makes millions of others talk about me, and the cause in which I live.” 

In 1999, Barbara Walters called it “Perhaps this century’s first photo op.”

Roberta SchNeiderman

Roberta and Me

Roberta was the Board Chair of PPNYC for several years while I was President and CEO. She was one of a long line of dedicated, savvy and passionate board leaders that PPNYC was fortunate to have. She was unwavering in her support of abortion rights, marching on Washington, Albany and City Hall with the rest of us. She was a team player, consulting board and staff on all the issues we faced and how to surmount obstacles and move the agency forward collectively. She and I had weekly (or more often) in person meetings, keeping each other informed and working on strategies, both long term and short. Sometimes it wasn’t easy, but we were a team and had the utmost respect for each other. I cherished working with Roberta. And I cherished getting to know her husband Irv, to whom she was devoted. They were a great team.

After I left PPNYC for IPPFWHR, I would go to Roberta’s apartment for lunch. Public radio was always playing in the background. Roberta was always up on the news, politics and how we could hold politicians feet to the fire for abortion rights. She was a trouper until the end.

At With Hall with Mayor Dinkins

At PPNYC Benefit with Mayor Dinkins and Anna Quindlen

Sarah Weddington

Sarah Weddington and I crossed paths several times over the years. The first was at the Carter White House in 1979, at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of my grandmother’s birth. It was a too dicey for President Carter to attend, so he delegated the ceremony to Sarah Weddington, his assistant on women’s issues. Faye Wattleton represented the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and several members of Congress attended, including Louis Stokes and James Scheuer. Sarah made some introductory remarks – she opened stating breathlessly that the President had just declared Mississippi a disaster area (Hurricane Frederic had hit the day before), and I said to myself, well, I’ve been to Mississippi and I knew that already. She was followed by Faye and then my father spoke. He told the story of his mother attacking a judge who was sentencing her for breaking the Comstock Laws. Dad said, “You men made those laws, we women didn’t!” This got big cheer from the assembled guests, which included most members of my extended family.

Sarah was most skilled dealing with the potentially unruly Sanger great-grandchildren. She handed out Roslyn Carter’s recipes for peanut brittle and other peanut delicacies while diplomatically escorting us to the exits.

In the 1990s, I invited Sarah to speak at the annual benefit for Planned Parenthood of New York City. She told of Norma McCorvey and the fight to get her a legal abortion. This was before McCorvey, who I later debated on television, switched to being anti-abortion and then switched back again just before her death. She was eloquent, smart, sassy and with a self deprecating sense of humor. Were are all in her debt.

My uncle Stuart Sanger, my father Grant Sanger (second from left), Faye Wattleton, Sarah Weddington, James Scheuer and Louis Stokes

My father addressing Sarah Weddington

The assembled Sanger family. I’m the fifth from the left.

Poland’s pregnancy registry

The Polish Government is mandating a centralized registry that would require doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages to the government. Authorities deny it will enable prosecutions of women who have miscarriages or abortions. Right. All it will lead to is women not seeing physicians for prenatal care.

Simultaneously, the government is planning to restrict divorces in order to increase the birthrate. The TFR for Poland is about 1.4, slightly below the European average.

How keeping a miserable couple together increases the birthrate is beyond me. Surely giving the couple a legal chance to find new partners is a better strategy.