C Rulon: Birth Control (History, Religion & Moral Zealotry)

By | April 24, 2011

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.

Margaret Sanger

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.

The Pill

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)

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