Birth Control Legislation

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Birth Control Legislation


By: Anonymous

Date: February 1945

Source: "Mrs. Thomas Hepburn Speaking to a House Committee." Corbis, February 1945.

About the Author: This photograph is part of the collection at Corbis Corporation headquartered in Seattle and provider of images for magazine, films, television, and advertisements.


Birth control legislation is not a new factor in United States legislative history. State and local governments have continually enacted legislation regulating sex acts since the country's inception, and just as modernity forced some of these laws to be enacted or removed, similar motions have been taken with birth control legislation. In regard to sex laws, some of the laws that have been restructured and altered to suit the changing needs and expectations of society are those prohibiting marriage under a certain age (this minimum age still varies from state to state, but most states now have a minimum age requirement), not allowing individuals to be married to more than one person at the same time, and child pornography laws. But, unlike sexual acts that have been outlawed or restricted to marriage or age brackets, birth control legislation has not made the same strides within the U.S. legislative system.

In 1873, the U.S. Congress passed the Comstock Laws, which classified contraceptive devices and literature as obscene, making them illegal to be mailed. Before the Comstock Laws came into existence, however, many state and local governments had passed laws making the literature of or discussion of birth control illegal. Additionally, local court records show that in the early colonies (circa late 1600s), the legacy of prohibiting forms of birth control was well established in the American legislative system. Until Roe v. Wade in 1973, most states forbade a woman from having an abortion. By 1973, science and medicine had developed a fairly safe procedure to terminate a woman's pregnancy, but before modernized clinical procedures women used a variety of home remedies (the earlier colonial methods usually relied upon herbal tonics). Even though abortion is not considered, or recommended as, a standard method of birth control, it does remain within the birth control debate. This is because the basic premise of controlling a woman's body, controlling the population, and controlling a lifestyle reflect upon abortion in similar manners that are seen with birth control forms like "The Pill," abstinence, and other methods.

Even though women had been performing birth control methods on themselves for years, using communal knowledge to discuss practices like "withdrawal" and "the rhythm method," and the condom had been in use (for the select few who could afford it), large elements of society hesitated discussing birth control. Many believed that it was a taboo subject that should not be brought up in public. Larger world events, like World War I, sent the United States into a state of panic and thousands of radicals, subversives, and socialists were jailed and silenced for their beliefs. While birth control advocates may have not been members of these targeted groups, they were still silenced in the wake of the Red Scares in the United States in the early twentieth century. Hence, the movement to get birth control legislation and birth control discussions to the national level took considerably more effort because popular celebrities, politicians, and church leaders argued against birth control.

Father Charles Coughlin, a popular Roman Catholic priest who hosted his own radio program during the Great Depression, publicly spoke out against birth control by stating that it jeopardized the Nordic stock of the country. Coughlin is most often cited as the first evangelist preacher to convey his message over an electronic medium—the radio. Just as his popularity captivated many Americans, others who spoke for the support of birth control were women like Mrs. Thomas Hepburn. She was the mother of six children, and her notoriety came from her daughter Katharine Hepburn—a popular actress. Hepburn spoke before the U.S. Congress in 1945, and other leading women's rights and birth control activists supported her plea for birth control.



See primary source image.


Mothers like Hepburn aligned in the fight for birth control, and their efforts helped elevate the already public struggle. Women like Margaret Sanger, who is often considered the leader of the birth control campaign, sent circulars about birth control, helped establish clinics, and in a "hands on approach" to the issue activists were able to bring affordable, safe, and reliable birth control to average women—not just the wealthy who had previously afforded it.

Hepburn's appeal before Congress in 1945 may not have brought forth national birth control legislation, but it did enable the next wave of public thinking to occur. In 1954, the first human trials of "The Pill" began, which Sanger helped initiate, and by 1956 Envoid (the medically sanctioned form of a birth control pill) had been submitted before the Food and Drug Administration, and the FDA approved it for "therapeutic" purposes in 1957. By 1959, over half a million women in the United States were on it, and by 1968 seven different brands of the pill were on the market with sales reaching one hundred fifty million dollars.

Years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortions, the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision paved the way for the 1973 abortion rights case. Justice William O. Douglas summed up the case by stating that neither Connecticut nor any other U.S. state could violate a person's "right to privacy." Hence, avenues were opened for the distribution of birth control, and to counter this legislative decision, some states rewrote their statues to prohibit unmarried women from obtaining birth control on the grounds of moral sanctity. Massachusetts was one of these states, but the majority of these state laws were later over turned in the courts, on the local level, or the laws went dormant from lack of enforcement. Since Griswold and Roe v. Wade, the fight for women's reproductive rights has not ended. Modern legislative debates have seen public concern—both for and against—the reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision, restrictions on who can obtain birth control (i.e. most often teenagers, young adults, and unmarried women would be prevented from obtaining the prescription), and age and notification restrictions for abortion. These developments have all continued to color and change the birth control question.



Critchlow, Donald T. Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal Government in Modern America. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. "Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village." In Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development edited by Stanley Katz, et al. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1983.

Gordon, Linda. Woman's Body, Woman's Right: Birth Control in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Web sites

Time. "Leaders and Revolutionaries: Margaret Sanger." 〈〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. "History of Birth Control." 〈〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).