Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Origins of Birth Control

This post has to do with the origins of birth control in America.  And since birth control is ultimately a very personal thing, I want to begin with a personal 'confession' of sorts.  Mary Beth and I have been together as a  loving and committed couple for 40 years this April, and for virtually all of that time together (except, obviously, for the three times we wanted to have children!), we have used some form of artificial birth control, right up to the present moment.

Margaret Sanger, 1922.
Why have we done that?  The primary reason is that we wanted to be responsible: to ourselves, to our parents, to our children, to the society around us, and ultimately, to God.  And in trying to be responsible by using birth control, we believe that we have also been doing the right thing, that we have been behaving morally to the best of our ability.  It has not been a flippant or casual decision but rather seriously considered.  And looking back, there is nothing we would do differently.

So when the Catholic bishops refer to birth control as 'intrinsically evil', or when Presidential candidate Rick Santorum refers to birth control as 'harmful', then we just shake our heads, because it doesn't fit our personal experience.

There is this huge disconnect here that needs to be pondered.

Serious birth control is a 20th century invention, of course.  In my reading on the subject, it seems to have first become a movement under the leadership of Margaret Sanger, the feminist and founder of the American Birth Control League in 1921, which later was renamed Planned Parenthood.  When people speculate on the reasons for her (at the time) radical views, one thing that stands out is this: her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, was a devout Catholic who went through 18 pregnancies (with 11 live births) in 22 years[2] before dying at age 50 of tuberculosis and cervical cancer.

The following incident shows what she was trying to do: "On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic at 46 Amboy St. in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States.  Nine days after the clinic opened, Sanger was arrested for breaking a New York state law that prohibited distribution of contraceptives, and went to trial in January 1917.  Sanger was convicted; the trial judge held that women did not have 'the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.'  Sanger was offered a more lenient sentence if she promised to not break the law again, but she replied: 'I cannot respect the law as it exists today.' She was sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse."

Back in those days (sounds like the Middle Ages, doesn't it), there was a culture-wide consensus, it seemed, that birth control--and all that went with it--was bad.  However, only 25 years or so later, things had clearly changed, according to Charles Panati in his fascinating Sexy Origins and Intimate Things: "By the 1940s, over 80 percent of American couples regularly bought condoms."

 By the early 1960s, oral contraceptives had been developed, along with IUDs, and it became commonplace for sexually active women (which is most women)--whether married or single--to use some form of artificial birth control.  In addition to that, the Supreme Court overturned all state laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives in their Griswold v. Connecticut decision of 1965.  So it seemed that intentional birth control, using whatever devices or technology was readily available, was winning the day by the middle of the 20th century, this despite the increasingly hostile attitude toward birth control of the Catholic bishops, expressed in the Humanae Vitae encyclical of 1968.

Mary Beth and I came along in 1972, just as all this was gathering momentum.  To us, birth control seemed like the obvious and responsible thing to do.  It still does.

So why do the Catholic bishops (and other faiths too) continue to oppose the use of artificial birth control as an evil and immortal practice?  And why do we consider it to be the opposite?   I'll leave that issue to another post.

1 comment:

  1. I will anxiously await your explanation. I have my own theories why the Catholic Bishops insist that any birth control is evil.