Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story (TV Movie 1995) Poster

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A heroine properly sung
Robert J. Maxwell13 June 2002
Margaret Higgins Sanger has earned her place in human history, and for more reasons than she, or most of us, could know. Her experiences in her own family taught her that population control could help relieve suffering and poverty, and she was willing to pay for the opporunity to make that argument in public, as were a number of her colleagues and kinsmen. But her achievements go far beyond that. From an evolutionary perspective, Homo sapiens is an extraordinarily adaptive animal, due in large part to the incredible complexity of the brains we carry around with us. That three pounds of convoluted tissue has enabled us to vastly improve (and hurry) our adaptation by substituting cultural change for biological change. We don't need to wait around for natural selection to give us wings of flesh and blood. We can invent the airplane. This same success is the greatest threat to our continued existence. Organisms who dominate their environments to the extent that we now do follow an almost identical trajectory in their population growth. Keeping this as brief as possible, the growth curve is S shaped. It starts low and then shoots up like a Scud missile. Unless culture put and end to that skyrocketing growth, then nature itself does, through what Malthus called "vice" and "misery." And Margaret Sanger was one of the individuals who, wittingly or not, promoted the cause of ending that skyrocketing growth by limiting the number of offspring we have. If she hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to invent her. Homo sapiens hasn't solved its population problem yet -- take a look at what's happening in the Amazon rainforest -- but without Sanger's contribution we would undoubtedly be even worse off than we are. Whether we can grasp the lesson she tried to teach in time or not is an empirical question that time will answer.

The movie is not extremely demanding, more like a Classic Comics version of Sanger's career. But it's not badly done either. Sanger is capable of being politely sarcastic towards her likeable and well-meaning Irish father. And her nemesis, Anthony Comstock, stops a mob of old-fashioned members of New York's finest from clobbering some poor guy who has been printing Sanger's birth-control pamphlets. Dana Delaney is an entrancing actress, combining as she does a sort of nurturant, almost motherly quality with a good deal of sex appeal, and doing this without being staggeringly beautiful, and despite the beastly wardrobe. Her delivery is understated, as it was in "China Beach." And it seems appropriate that she should be cast opposite Rod Steiger as Comstock who brings the kind of technique and personality to his role as moral gatekeeper that seems designed to pop the safety valve on every pressure cooker in turn-of-the-century New York. Poor Comstock was fighting a losing battle. There has rarely been the kind of florescence in pornography that there was in the Victorian world. Not since Rome. Perhaps it takes that degree of sexual repression to produce such sublimely erotic art. You can't have a community of Dr. Jeyklls without a few Mr. Hydes popping out now and then. Incidentally Comstock achieved his own peculiar brand of fame. When Freudianism was in flower he was frequently used as an example of an ego defense mechanism called "reaction formation." (The notion was actually put together by Freud's daughter, Anna, a psychoanalyst in her own right.) Someone using "reaction formation" as a defense mechanism is compelled to seek out by socially approved means the very thing he loathes and lusts after. For Sam Spade, it was danger. For Comstock it was sex. Imagine all the filthy photographs and books and paintings he needed to plow through in order to judge them unfit for public display. Nice work if you can get it.

This movie is fairly accurate historically, and period New York is nicely rendered out of its Canadian locations. You know what would be interesting? Showing this film in a high school or college class.
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The right to choose
bkoganbing5 August 2017
I'm certainly glad that I saw Elia Kazan's A Tree Grow In Brooklyn before I saw Choices Of The Heart. In that film with no medical coverage and no family planning information available to women, Joan Blondell has to choose to have her baby at home or afford the luxury of going to a hospital to have the child there. A mind blowing state of affairs hard to comprehend, yet even today there are mostly men in public office who'd like to return to that.

Margaret Sanger in the teen years of the last century blew more than a few minds questioning the reason for these attitudes. Before the Industrial Revolution and agriculture was what engaged most people, large families were necessary to run farms. That and a high proportion of stillborns and early infant and childhood deaths meant that woman became a baby making machine. Habits died hard even after the Industrial Revolution people still kept having large families. The biblical command of Be Fruitful and Multiply became also a testament to male virility.

So in the pre-World War I years of the USA, nurse Margaret Sanger preached birth control and contraception and that was considered at the time pornography. Dana Delany plays Sanger whom we see as both crusader and as wife and mother who was one of the first to demand that women have the right to control their own bodies. Joining here in her beliefs and even going to jail defending them is husband Henry Czerny.

In the last few years of his life as Sanger's adversary is Anthony Comstock, self appointed defender of the morals of the United States of America. Rod Steiger plays him broadly almost satirically, but never making him totally ridiculous. He was appointed back during Gilded Age a US postal inspector and used that position plus considerable rhetorical gifts to guard our morals the way Harold Hill got the women of River City to oppose that pool room. He was quite real and quite dangerous and a good portion of the Republican Party would love to see someone like him back as the official censor of the USA. Check his Wikipedia biography.

The spirit and look of the times is captured well in Choices Of The Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story. This is not her whole life story, this woman lived until the Sixties. But these were critical years for her and critical years for the female part of the United States population. A year after Anthony Comstock died, the first Birth Control Center for women was established disseminating information on contraception and family planning in 1916.

Sadly the fight goes on today. I fear it will never end. But people like Margaret Sanger are an inspiration.

I agree with the previous reviewer, this film should be seen in high school audiences especially in those high school audiences it is most likely to be banned.
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