From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society since 1830

From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society since 1830

From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society since 1830

From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society since 1830

Excerpt

I set out to write a history of the birth control movement in the United States but had to make hard choices about what should be included. From Private Vice to Public Virtue describes the efforts of a small group of Americans to spread the practice of contraception, first in the United States, then in the rest of the world. Given the complexity of the problem of changing human reproductive behavior, birth controllers inevitably disagreed over strategy. This study focuses on those individuals who at any given time represented innovation or change in the birth control movement. I have neglected the internal history of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and of state and local birth control leagues in order to concentrate on the role of key individuals and their relationship to American society. They worked through a variety of institutions, ranging from the anarchist journal Mother Earth to the relatively conservative Population Council. They ranged in political values from socialists to capitalists, but for all of them the separation of sex from procreation had revolutionary implications. Birth control was a metaphor for individual responsibility, an essential first step in the effort to achieve self-direction.

The desire to control fertility, as old as human society, has found expression in a startling variety of means. The Egyptian recipe for a contraceptive suppository of crocodile dung (1850 B.C.), described by Norman Himes in Medical History of Contraception (1936), was but one of many such devices which could be culled from the literature of ancient cultures. Anthropologists studying human reproduction in premodern cultures have found that the desire for children is not an innate human drive but an acquired motive which must be reinforced by social rewards and punishments sufficient to overcome the wish to avoid the pain of childbirth and the burdens of parenthood. There have never been any happy savages reproducing with ease. Rather, conflict between the social need to preserve . . .

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