Birth Control and the Law Basics

Birth control is the method or technique used to prevent pregnancy in women. The term, “birth control,” was coined by Mrs. Margaret Sanger and her friends at the time she was editing The Woman Rebel (1914), the first magazine in the United States published for the purpose of agitating for popular education in relation to the problem of contraception. The term is often used to apply to practices designed to prevent conception by the employment of mechanical, chemical, and other means, although the word contraception would be more accurate.

In the early 1800 birth control was prohibited in the United States. The American birth control movement dates from about 1830. In that year Robert Dale Owen published his Moral Physiology, the first publication in America on birth control, the chief method recommended being coitus interruptus. Legislation against the spreading of birth control information and the dissemination of contraceptive articles grew out of a drive against obscenity. Vermont passed an obscenity law as early as 1821, Massachusetts in 1835, and Connecticut in 1834. 57 By 1842 Congress had enacted legislation forbidding the importation of indecent pictures and articles into the United States; and in 1865, with an amendment in 1872, the transmission of such literature through the mails was forbidden. In 1868 the New York legislature included contraceptive information and materials in an obscenity act. In 1873, Anthony Comstock was instrumental in framing and securing the passage of Federal obscenity laws which were strong enough to keep from the mails all questionable matters including newspaper advertisements.

Shortly after the enactment of the Comstock law, thousands of citizens started a petition for its repeal. This petition was presented to Congress in 1878 by Robert J. Ingersoll, chairman of the Committee of Seven of the National Liberal League. A hearing on the petition was granted by the House Committee on the Revision of Laws, but no congressional action resulted. During the first quarter of twentieth century, the United States witnessed a stormy battle between the opponents and proponents of the concept that it is the legal right of married individuals to receive information and advice from professional sources concerning contraceptives.

Except for the attention attracted by Comstock to the obscenity provisions of the Federal laws, relatively little was heard of them until 1914 when Margaret. Sanger, a nurse who had seen the results of excessive childbearing, resolved that women should have knowledge of contraception. In 1913 she made a trip to Europe seeking contraceptive knowledge to bring back to the United States. On her return in 1914 she agitated for birth control and the extermination of the Comstock act through a magazine which she founded, The Woman Rebel. Shortly after the publication of the magazine, she was notified by postal officials that it contained material prohibited by the Federal laws and was therefore unmailable. She continued to print and distribute the magazine, and indictments on nine counts were made against her.

In 1914, Mrs. Sanger and a few friends started the first birth control organization in the United States, the National Birth Control League. The League began its work in the New York legislature in 1917. At this time it worked for a bill which would (1) remove the words “preventing conception” whenever they occurred in the obscenity statutes, and (2) add a new clause providing that contraceptive information as such was not to be considered obscene and that means used for the control of conception were not, per se, indecent. During the next two years the League continued its work in the New York legislature without success. At the end of this period, the League felt it could be more useful by working for a similar repeal bill in Congress. Consequently, in 1919, the National Birth Control League fused with the Voluntary Parenthood League which had been organized to work on the Federal level for the repeal of that part of the Comstock law defining contraceptive information as obscene and preventing the dissemination of such. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921 which subsequently became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and advocates safe and accessible legal birth control options. In 1928 Margaret Sanger resigned from the presidency of the American Birth Control League to organize the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, which introduced its first bill into Congress in 1930. In the years 1930 through 1936, five Senate and five House bills were unsuccessfully introduced by the Committee, all of which sought to exempt physicians.

The 1960’s saw the invention of the birth control pill which revolutionized birth control across the world. By the 1960’s birth control was legal in most states but information about contraceptives was limited. All this changed with the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut where the court held that mmarried couples have a constitutional right to use contraceptives.

In 1966 President Lyndon B Johnson approved public funding for providing contraception services for low income families. In 1970 President Richard Nixon signed an act to promote family planning. The key elements of the Comstock Act were repealed in 1971 but some states continued to retain birth control laws. In 1972, the Supreme Court held that a Massachusetts law that allowed only married couples to have access to birth control as unconstitutional as it violated the rights of single persons. In a 1977 case, the Court held that makers of contraceptives can distribute and sell to teens. Before this judgement, only licensed pharmacists and doctors could distribute contraceptives to minors.

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