Americans today enjoy access to effective birth control. But it wasn’t always this way and religious conservatives are trying to turn back the clock.
On Nov. 1, 1961, Estelle Griswold and Dr. Charles Lee Buxton did something radical: They opened a clinic in New Haven, Conn., to dispense birth control information.
Nine days later, police raided the clinic and arrested Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Buxton, chairman of the obstetrics department at Yale Medical School.
Buxton and Griswold weren’t surprised. In fact, they had been expecting to be arrested all along. Their decision to open a birth control clinic in New Haven was a deliberately provocative act, designed to test a law originally passed in Connecticut in 1879 that banned artificial forms of contraceptives in the state for everyone – even married couples.
Connecticut’s anti-birth control statute was only being sporadically enforced at the time, and some types of birth control were available in drug stores. But Buxton and Griswold believed that as long as the law was in place, access to contraceptives wasn’t secure.
Sure enough, when they opened their facility, conservative religious leaders went on the warpath. The state’s politically powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy demanded action, leading to the raid on the clinic.
Buxton and Griswold went to court. They lost at every level in Connecticut state courts, including before the state supreme court. But in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the pair’s convictions and ruled 7-2 in Griswold v. Connecticut that the law was unconstitutional.
Citing “the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees,” Justice William O. Douglas observed, “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship. We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights….”
Five years earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted approval for sale to the public of the first oral contraceptive. Within two years, more than a million American women were on “the pill.” The number escalated as refinements continued in years to come.
Today, most Americans believe access to contraceptives is secure; younger Americans may not even know about the case involving Buxton and Griswold.
But as recent events have shown, birth control – although regarded as non-controversial and indeed necessary by most Americans – remains a political flashpoint. When President Barack Obama announced earlier this year that most employers, including religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals, universities and social service agencies, would have to contract with insurance companies that would make contraceptives available to employees who want them, conservative religious groups were quick to stir up opposition.
The Catholic hierarchy insisted that the mandate to include contraceptives would violate religious liberty – even though under the policy their institutions are not required to directly pay for it.
The bishops then upped their demands and began pressing for federal legislation that would give any employer (even in non-religious settings) the right to exclude birth control coverage in health care plans if it offended his or her religious beliefs – a move, critics said, that could potentially deny or greatly restrict access to millions of Americans.
In the wake of the national controversy, lawmakers in several states began pushing legislation that would have the effect of restricting access to birth control. One of the more extreme measures surfaced in Arizona, where a bill that would have allowed any employer with religious objections to deny contraceptive coverage passed the state House of Representatives.
The measure, which stalled in the state Senate only after a public outcry, would allow a woman access to the pill for medical reasons but only after she proved to her employer that she wasn’t using it for birth control, a provision opponents called patronizing and a violation of medical privacy.
The aggressive nature of the joint legislative and sectarian assault on contraceptives dismayed many birth control advocates.
“I am completely shocked that contraception is being made to seem as if it’s a controversial issue,” said the Rev. Debra W. Haffner, president of the Religious Institute, a Connecticut-based group that examines the intersection of theology and human sexuality. “The fact is, 99 percent of heterosexual, sexually active adults use contraception. More than nine in 10 American adults support the availability of contraception.”
Haffner noted that support for this issue used to be bipartisan. As a member of the House of Representatives during the 1970s, future president George H.W. Bush championed family planning initiatives, and President Ronald W. Reagan signed them into law during the 1980s.
Why the change now?
“I think what is going on now has virtually nothing to do with contraception,” Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister, told Church & State. “It has to do with both the Catholic bishops and the extreme evangelical right looking for new wedge issues to continue to try to impose their beliefs about sexuality on the general public. I believe that the Catholic bishops are trying to do through legislation what they’ve been unable to do from their pulpits, which is influence the way their congregants enjoy their sexuality.”
She added that many conservative religions maintain that sex exists only for procreation, a view they seek to have reflected in secular law.
“The pill enabled people through technology to enjoy sexual pleasure without the possibility of reproduction, separating sexual behavior from procreation,” Haffner said. “In today’s world, it’s not just a pill but patches and rings and implants and lots of modern methods of sterilization that are effective. There’s an affirmation of sexuality that now exists that to a very small group of people is very frightening.”
Although, as Haffner points out, birth control comes in many forms, most of the discussion centers around oral medication that has become so ubiquitous it is called simply “the pill.”
The pill remains the most popular form of contraceptive in America. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 82 percent of all women who had sex with men reported that they had been on the pill at some point in their lives. Nationwide, about 11 million women of child-bearing age were estimated to be on the pill at that time.
The pill, condoms, intrauterine devices, permanent sterilization and other forms of birth control have become so common and popular that it’s easy for people today to forget how hard they once were to get. Easy access to contraceptives is the exception in America. For most of our history, a potent combination of church and state blocked not only access to birth control but access to information about birth control. Amazingly, some forces today want to go back to those days.
For most of human history, birth control was unreliable, erratic and often dangerous to women. Some women used wool, cotton, linen and other materials to block the cervix. Various potions were also said to function as spermicide, although much of this was folklore. (One early preparation consisted of crocodile dung and honey.)
Early condoms, often made of linen or animal bladders, were used during the Roman Empire and into the Middle Ages. For the hundreds of years that followed, not many other options were available.
The discovery of the vulcanization of rubber by Charles Goodyear, a process that was patented in 1844, led to the introduction of rubber condoms in America. Early rubber condoms were thick, brittle and often unreliable, but by 1920 Latex condoms had been invented, and their use quickly caught on.
But there were also forces determined to prevent the widespread use of contraceptives of any kind in America. Self-appointed anti-vice crusaders joined forces with religious leaders to crack down on material deemed “obscene” – and that included even information of a clinical nature about birth control.
Most famously, Anthony Comstock, a devout Congregationalist in New York, secured passage of a federal law that allowed the Post Office to ban “lewd” and “lascivious” material. This included not only books and magazines dealing with sexual topics but contraceptives and information about them.
Material circulated secretly through an underground, and doctors often signaled their willingness to discuss the topic of birth control (and sexually transmitted diseases) in advertisements using code words such as “private complaints” or “delicate matters.”
Attempts to bring the discussion of birth control into the open were quickly squashed. This continued well into the 20th century. New England states with strong Catholic traditions were hotbeds of anti-birth control activism.
New England today is often viewed as a bastion of political liberalism, but for many years the region languished under heavy-handed forms of clerical censorship. Catholic clergy and their allies were also successful in curbing access to contraception.
Americans United, which was founded in 1947, quickly recognized that the battle over birth control had strong church-state implications. Many Americans, the organization noted, wanted to use contraceptives but were stymied because they lived in states where clerical interference made that impossible.
The pages of Church & State in the late 1940s, ’50s and ’60s are studded with stories about often-successful attempts to block access to birth control, mainly by Catholic leaders and their allies working in concert with government officials.
In 1949, four doctors were fired from Farren Memorial Hospital in Greenfield, Mass., because they refused to stop discussing birth control with patients who had requested the information. Hospital officials offered to reinstate the doctors if they would publicly admit they were wrong, vow to stop discussing the issue and promise not to contradict Catholic views again. The four refused.
Three years later, a flap erupted in Massachusetts over whether doctors should have the legal right to discuss birth control with patients. State law at the time prohibited doctors from providing information on the topic even if patients asked about it.
Planned Parenthood launched a drive to repeal the law and secured more than 80,000 signatures on petitions, but Catholic Church leaders raised so many objections that the legislature was cowed and refused to act.
Nearly 1,000 miles to the west, birth control advocates in Chicago announced plans in 1960 to add information about contraceptives at a clinic that served a largely low-income population. Pressure from the Catholic hierarchy soon scuttled the plan, a result officials at Planned Parenthood deemed “reprehensible.”
The controversy even reached overseas. In 1949, U.S. military forces in occupied Japan rescinded an invitation that had been extended to birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Sanger had been invited to the country, which was still under American control following World War II, by Japanese civic organizations, but Catholic groups raised so many objections that Sanger was denied the necessary military clearance.
As late as 1970, William R. Baird, a birth control advocate in New York, was being harassed by police for giving public lectures on contraceptives and abortion. In 1967, Baird was arrested in Boston after he distributed contraceptive foam to students during a lecture at Boston University. Baird was charged with violating a state “chastity” law prohibiting the distribution of birth control to unmarried persons, a felony punishable by 10 years in prison.
His conviction was voided by the Supreme Court in 1972 in Eisenstadt v. Baird, a ruling that extended the right to use birth control to unmarried couples.
Baird, now 80 years old, still lectures about reproductive justice. He told Church & State that he was at first reluctant to challenge the Massachusetts law.
“My initial reaction when I saw the penalty,” he recalls, “was, ‘I have four kids. I can’t afford to be in prison for 10 years.’”
Baird changed his mind after students pleaded with him to come.
“I thought of a young woman I once saw in a hospital who died from an illegal abortion,” Baird said. “I was so absolutely outraged that a fellow human being was dying in front of me because she could not legally have birth control.”
By this time, the issue was becoming a little less volatile in religious circles because many Protestant churches had accepted birth control and told their congregants that its use was not a sin. But the Catholic hierarchy remained entrenched.
In 1963, Pope John XXIII formed a commission to study the issue. The pope died before the commission could complete it work, and its members later recommended to Pope Paul VI that the church’s ban on artificial contraceptives be lifted. Church hardliners immediately fired back with their own report. In 1968, Pope Paul sided with the hardliners and issued Humanae Vitae, an encyclical that affirmed the church’s ban on all forms of artificial contraception.
As a practical matter, the ban has proved impossible for the church to enforce, and numerous studies have shown that sexually active Catholics rely on birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics. Many Catholic women, like their non-Catholic counterparts, also use the pill for medical reasons, such as to shrink ovarian cysts, to manage endometriosis or lessen menstrual cramps.
Why, after so many years of struggle, is birth control suddenly an issue again?
One reason is that some members of the Catholic hierarchy and the Religious Right have never accepted the premise of the 1965 Griswold ruling. The right to privacy outlined there appeared again in 1973’s Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States. Anti-abortion church leaders blasted Roe – and some didn’t hesitate to trace its origins back to Griswold.
TV preacher Pat Robertson has several times made the connection explicit. Addressing his political group, the Christian Coalition, in 1997, Robertson blasted Griswold as “made up out of whole cloth.”
Said Robertson of the ruling, “I want to see it abolished.”
According to ultra-conservative religious leaders, the right to privacy that undergirds Griswold has spawned a raft of problems. In 2003, for example, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law criminalizing consensual same-sex relationships. In its Lawrence v. Texas decision, the high court cited both Griswold and Eisenstadt.
But there is a deeper reason: Many religious fundamentalists have never made peace with the social and cultural changes that the pill – a safe, effective and affordable form of birth control – brought about.
The pill has been called the most important invention of the 20th century, and while some believe that designation is overblown – nuclear weapons, the computer and the World Wide Web are also contenders – there’s no denying its powerful cultural impact.
The Economist put it well in a special issue published on the brink of the 21st century: “[B]efore the 1950s the unpredictability of the arrival of children meant that the rights of many women were more theoretical than actual,” observed the publication. “The Pill really did give a woman the right to choose. And though the consequences of that choice are still working themselves out, as both men and women adjust to the new reality, one difference between the passing millennium and those to come is clear: women have taken a giant step towards their rightful position of equal partnership with men. Technology really is liberation.”
Fundamentalist Protestants and the male-only Catholic hierarchy, who have never been known for their support of women’s rights, have sought ways to reverse that giant step.
Laws banning contraceptives outright are unlikely to win legislative approval in the modern era. But sectarian opponents of birth control don’t have to go that far to curb access. If their “religious freedom” argument carries the day, millions of American men and women may wake up to find out their health care plans no longer pay for birth-control pills, IUDs, sterilization operations and other methods – and that, essentially, their ability to use birth control hinges on their employers’ religious beliefs.
Advocates for contraception say Americans should not be sanguine about this issue.
“The American public – both men and women, straight and LGBT, both young and post-reproductive age – need to be very frightened about the attacks on reproductive health,” Haffner said. “The current attack on whether contraception will be included in health care reform is actually only a small piece of what’s happening across the country to effectively turn back people’s sexual rights.
“Once the government is able to deny the right to privacy,” she continued, “they can legislate against anyone’s sex life. All of our ability to make our own informed decisions about our sex lives becomes in jeopardy.”
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn agrees.
Lynn’s activism in this area may run in his blood: He remembers a story his mother told him about how as a young woman she was kicked out of a coal mining town in eastern Pennsylvania for distributing birth control information.
“Access to affordable, effective and safe birth control was achieved only by standing up to entrenched sectarian interests who were determined to bend the law to their oppressive dogma,” Lynn said. “We broke their grip, and we simply can’t go back now.”