The American Birth Control Movement

Humans have been practicing forms of contraception or birth control since ancient times. Some of the earliest records of this are in Ancient Egypt, 1850 BC, where they used a mixture of honey, acacia leaves and lint to block sperm in the vagina. Traditional forms of contraception have varied greatly throughout human history, but can be defined as ‘the deliberate use of artificial methods or other techniques to prevent pregnancy as a consequence of sexual intercourse.’ Modern day contraceptive methods include hormonal methods (the pill, patch, Nuvaring), barrier methods (condoms & diaphragms), IUD’s (copper & hormonal inserts), natural methods (abstinence & withdrawal), emergency contraception (plan B pill) and abortion..

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The American birth control movement specifically began in 1914, and intended to make contraception more accessible to the American people through education and legalization. The legalization of birth control and abortion in the US has been has been extremely controversial, bringing to light many heavily weighted moral questions. Some of these questions being, ‘what is the place of women in society? Does life begin at conception? Is access to birth control a human right?’ These questions are still up for debate today, with religion, culture and social status contributing to peoples differing opinions and arguments.

Medical advancements such as the hormonal birth control pill in the 50’s & 60’s began to change the role of women in American society, with many more women able to attend and graduate college. Linda Gordon described birth control as a major factor in the development of women’s sexuality in her book The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control and Politics in America. She also expressed, contraception promised the final elimination of women’s only significant biological disadvantage. (The capacity to reproduce is not a disadvantage, but lack of control over it is.) This, to me, is a profound idea. That women began to make the ascent from second class citizen to first class citizen, all because they gained the ability to control when or if they became pregnant.

As the early 1900’s feminists began to push for accessible contraceptives, many people pushed back. Sex was commonly viewed as something only for reproduction, and not for pleasure. Sexual matters were not discussed in public politics, only in private. Linda Gordan explains that this mentality came to be because of agricultural development. As human beings made the transformation from nomadic hunters & gatherers to farmers, children became an asset rather than a liability. The larger the family, the more people to work on the farm. However, infant mortality was high at this time, so women had to birth more babies than actually needed. This led to the overall idea that women have a divine obligation to motherhood and the family. After all, this need for constant reproduction did not last. Medical advancements have led to the decrease in infant mortality, and urbanization has made children more of an expense than a resource. This unfortunately began to cause an increase in self-induced and unsafe abortions in the early 1900’s, specifically among lower income women.

Emma Goldman, Mary Dennett, and Margaret Sanger led a group of political radicals in New York City, who aimed to legalize contraceptives in order to prevent these unsafe abortions. Margaret Sanger even opened the first clinic for female contraceptives in 1916, but the police immediately shut it down and she served 30 days in jail. The public began to develop an interest in the birth control conversation after World War 1, when many soldiers came home infected with STDs and STIs. Finally, sexual health became a matter that could be discussed in politics, not just in private. As the public’s attitude toward birth control changed, Sanger was able to successfully reopen her contraceptive clinic in 1923. In 1942 Planned Parenthood was formed, opening a network of birth control clinics all across the country.

The development of the hormonal birth control pill in the 50’s changed American life in many ways. It has brought about economic benefits, causing one-third of the female wage gains from the 60’s through the 90’s. The teenage pregnancy rate has also been effected, with a steady decline from the 50’s until now. Like I previously mentioned, women’s accessibility to education has skyrocketed, with only 8% of women being college graduates in the 70’s, to 35% of women being college graduates today. With the ability to have sex without producing children, people are now dating more in their early 20s and getting married later, and divorce rates have gone down.

Although the benefits of modern contraceptives are seemingly endless, the right to access birth control in the US is still being threatened. In May of this year, 2018, the Trump Administration proposed a reform to the Title X grant program, which provides funding for Planned Parenthood. It was proposed that any clinic that preforms or refers women for abortions would no longer be eligible for government funding. The major problem with this is that Planned Parenthood not only provides abortions, they also prescribe birth control, provide cancer screening and protection, offer pregnancy testing and prenatal services, and provide both men and women with STD testing and treatments, regardless of whether or not you have health insurance. Abortion services only made up 3% of the services Planned Parenthood preformed for the community in 2013 and 2014. It is vital that we defend Planned Parenthood and the right to access affordable contraceptives. History has shown us that access to birth control has only ever increased our quality of life, increased women’s access to education, and decreased the number of self-preformed and dangerous abortions. Overall, society is bettered by access to sexual education and contraceptives, and we must protect this right.

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