By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College ([email protected])
Planned Parenthood and other reproductive care organizations in the U.S. provide information and birth control to about 5 million women a year at over 4,600 health centers. Their efforts prevent over one million unintended pregnancies and several hundred thousand abortions a year. Furthermore, estimates are that for every $1 spent by our taxes for contraceptive care, taxpayers save around $4 in Medicaid costs for mother and baby in just the first year. Only about 3% of Planned Parenthood funds go toward legal abortions, none of which comes from taxes.
Yet in the spring of 2011, the GOP budget bill in Congress cut all funds to Planned Parenthood and these other reproductive care facilities. In Congress, religious, patriarchal and Libertarian ideologies are trumping fiscal responsibility, plus ecological sanity, plus humanistic compassion for the less fortunate. Thus, I thought that a quick historical review of birth control would be relevant at this time.
Early birth control attempts
With the discovery of agriculture came the accumulation of possessions, including wives and children. Dominant jealous males could never be sure they were the biological fathers of the children they raised. So they created laws, customs and religions which stressed the control of female sexuality. Virginity became prized; adultery by the wife often meant death.
Still, unwanted pregnancies were a persistent problem. According to historians Will and Ariel Durant (The Lessons of History -1968) most men wanted many children while their wives didn’t. Women secretly rebelled and have used an endless variety of means to reduce the burdens of pregnancy—everything from magical incantations and prayers, to extremely dangerous abortions, to killing their newborns. Through trial and error the early Greeks and Romans had compiled a number of partially successful contraceptive techniques.
Yet, with the decline of the Roman world some 1600 years ago, much of this accumulated knowledge disappeared for more than a thousand years. The authorities during these long “Dark Ages” were often military men, or men of the cloth. The answers to all important questions were to be found in the Bible and other sacred communications with God. Piety was prized over advancing worldly knowledge; faith was considered more reliable than reason. Questioning the Church’s basic tenets was religious heresy. Contraception was forbidden because God created sex for procreation only and because contraception would allow women to cheat on their husbands without getting caught. Life was often miserable, brutish and short.
Finally by the early 1800s, a growing body of information began to once again exist on how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. By the mid-1800s Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanized rubber led to mass-produced condoms and diaphragms. As printing and photographic technologies improved and as literacy increased, pamphlets on birth control began to be published and widely circulated. But powerful opposition grew.
Moral zealotry and patriarchal politics
In Victorian America proper women were expected to relinquish all claims to any source of sexual enjoyment, since “only whores and harridans were interested in sex.” Women were continuously burdened with unwanted pregnancies. Powerful patriarchal and religious forces in league with zealous moral crusaders opposed birth control. One such moral crusader was Anthony Comstock. He was able to convince a like-minded U.S. Congress in 1873 to order the U.S. Post Office to confiscate all “obscene” literature in the mail. This included any information describing birth control. By 1905, this law had been extended by Congress to also punish the receivers of any birth control information. Comstock personally conducted a reign of moral terror in the United States for some 40 years. He was appointed as a special agent for the U.S. Post Office and given the right to open any mail for inspection and to personally decide what was obscene. Entrapment was one of his favorite methods. Comstock would regularly write physicians pretending to be a sick and frail mother of many children and begging the doctor for contraceptive information. Those doctors who responded were arrested and frequently fined or imprisoned.
Given all the powerful religious, patriarchal and political forces against birth control, how did it ever become legal? Partly because of the tireless efforts of people like Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). As a nurse, Sanger became horrified at the plight of poor women who experienced continuous risks of pregnancy and who often resorted to dangerous and frequently self-induced abortions. Sanger could see no reason why women should have to sacrifice sex in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies. To make matters worse, the law required that married women must give themselves sexually to their husbands or risk losing financial support. This made abstinence by women difficult, if not impossible.
In 1914, authorities confiscated a pamphlet called Family Limitation that Sanger had published discussing sex education, venereal diseases and contraception. Faced with nine counts of mailing obscene material and a possible 45 years in jail, Sanger fled to Europe. (This pamphlet was eventually translated into 13 languages and had a total circulation of over 10 million.)
While in Europe Sanger’s quest for a safe birth control technique led her to the Netherlands where the diaphragm had been developed and was dispensed by doctors and midwives. It was simple, inexpensive and fairly reliable. Sanger smuggled the diaphragm back to the United States when she returned in 1916. By then her birth control efforts had become well-known and widely supported, so the government decided not to prosecute.
In the same year, Sanger and her sister opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. It was in Brooklyn. On the first day, a line of women stretched around the block. Close to five hundred women were seen in the first 10 days. Sanger and her sister were then arrested for “maintaining a public nuisance,” the clinic was closed and they each spent 30 days in jail. The New York State Supreme Court upheld their convictions.
Sanger battled the wide-spread mentality which equated birth control with obscenity and sin. She battled patriarchal politicians, religious leaders and moral zealots. She battled the apathy of the medical profession. She fought numerous court battles and played a key role in the early Planned Parenthood movement. Through all of this, Sanger repeatedly argued that women must have the right to control their own bodies, their own reproductive history. Otherwise they are reduced to little more than government controlled asexual reproductive machines. Sanger was determined, as she put it, “to put the United States of America upon the map of the civilized world!”
The backlash against Margaret Sanger was vicious and is still found on anti-birth control web sites. She was called a racist and proponent of orgies. She was accused of advocating the abortions of Blacks. She was even accused of inspiring Adolf Hitler to murder socially undesirable people.
Contraception and the AMA
In the 1920s contraception came under the strict control of the medical profession, which initially made little attempt to change the restrictive laws and also avoided clinical studies of contraceptives. Condoms could only be sold for the prevention of disease. Thus, contraceptive quackery and bogus formulas became big business. By 1934, only one medical school in six was reported as giving any regular instruction on contraception. Finally in 1935 a federal court ruled that contraceptives could be legally advertised and shipped through the mail. Two years later the AMA finally recognized birth control as part of medical service. In 1938 an organization which came to be known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America was formed. Yet it still took another decade for contraceptives to become reasonably available and medically and ethically accepted.
In 1960 motherhood was still being preached in the pulpit as the noblest calling for women. Marriage was for the primary purpose of rearing a family. A childless couple or a one child family was still seen as a sorrow or a sign of selfishness. Then in 1960 the first birth control pill was introduced. With a failure rate under 5%, the pill seemed the perfect equalizer, freeing women for the first time in history to enjoy sex with minimal fear of pregnancy. Many social observers have argued that the “pill” was crucial to the rise of the modern feminist movement. In a society that made child care a female responsibility, a woman who could not predict when she would bear children was in no position to make serious plans about anything else. Even if she wanted children and cherished the role of mother, she lacked real control over the course of her life.
Major birth control laws
In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned anti-birth control laws still remaining in three states, which outlawed contraception for married couples. By so doing, the Court was in effect confirming that married couples had the constitutional right a) to not have children at all and b) to have sex for reasons other than procreation. Still, it took another six years (1972) before the Court extended its ruling to single adults.
Abortion laws began to change in several states. By 1972, an estimated 600,000 legal abortions had been performed in the U.S., mostly in New York City. Then in 1973 came the famous Roe v. Wade decision. The U.S. Supreme Court by a vote of 7 to 2 legalized abortion throughout our country. But primarily because of a never-ending powerful Catholic Church backlash, legal abortions today are only being performed in 13% of all the counties in the U.S.
In 1999 emergency contraception (the “morning-after pill”) was finally approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for women 18 and over with a doctor’s prescription. In 2006 it became available without a prescription and in 2009 the age was lowered to 17. Girls under 17 can obtain a prescription. In Darfur in 2007 Amnesty International, an international human rights organization, supported the right of women who had been gang raped to have access to emergency contraception. In response, the Vatican suspended all financial aid to Amnesty International and called upon Catholics worldwide to boycott the organization.
Some final thoughts
In poor countries infanticide and child abandonment are still common. Each year, unplanned pregnancies result in hundreds of thousands of deaths from botched abortions and from pregnancy-related complications, with millions more being rushed to hospitals. Tens of millions of unplanned children are born. Family units are weakened. Poverty increases. Untold millions of children are abandoned to the streets. Millions die each year from malnutrition, contaminated water and curable diseases. World population continues to grow. Ecological and social systems continue to disintegrate.
Thus, an investment in the education and the economic and reproductive health of women would provide one of the greatest benefits to humanity imaginable. What other measure could make such a contribution to the health and well being of so many families and to the social and ecological stability of global societies, yet only cost each of us in the affluent world a few dollars a year? The trivialization of women’s issues as something tangential to the “really important issues” is really the trivialization of humanity itself.
“Empowerment of women is vital to achieving peace and security, improved living standards and respect for human rights.”
— Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General, U.N. (2007)