Barrier Methods: The Church's Ceaseless Opposition to Birth Control

By Boston, Rob | The Humanist, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Barrier Methods: The Church's Ceaseless Opposition to Birth Control


Boston, Rob, The Humanist


I recently found myself on the air at FoxNews. com where I argued with a staff member from the Family Research Council about birth control and its availability.

I pointed out that the pill had emancipated women by making it possible for them to more effectively balance careers with families, and I suggested that religious groups should accept this because we aren't going back. My opponent responded by accusing me of employing "tired 1970s rhetoric."

I wish I had responded, "it's more modern than your 1370s rhetoric!" (I always think of the best replies after the show's over.)

I've been thinking about the past a lot lately while researching the history of birth control. What I've learned is enlightening--and a reminder of how far we've come in a short time.

Here's the short history: For quite some time reliable birth control was elusive. Men relied on methods like withdrawal, and women attempted to block access to the cervix with material like cotton or wool. Animal bladders were occasionally used to fashion a type of condom.

The vulcanization of rubber by Charles Goodyear in the mid-nineteenth century was an important step forward, producing a more reliable condom. But these early versions, being thick and brittle, were hardly ideal. It wasn't until the invention of the latex condom in 1920 that this form of birth control became widespread.

There were a few other options, but nothing short of a revolution occurred in 1960 with the invention of the oral contraceptive pill by Carl Djerassi. The pill has been called one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century, and that's not hyperbole. Convenient, affordable, and reliable, the pill gave women and their partners the power to regulate family size. The term "family planning" entered the national lexicon, and a social movement was born.

But social revolutions often spark backlashes, and this one certainly did. By decoupling sex from procreation, the pill was seen as a great threat by entrenched religious interests holding prudish views on human sexuality. They went on the warpath.

Nineteenth-century Comstock laws in many states had not only banned birth control--they'd banned any material discussing it. But the New England region, then under the thumb of politically powerful Catholic bishops, had some of the most repressive laws in the country. So these archaic laws were dusted off and pressed into service in the post-pill era.

In 1967 birth control advocate Bill Baird was arrested for distributing contraceptive foam to students during a public lecture at Boston College. Interestingly, Baird's arrest came a full two years after the Supreme Court had ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that a Connecticut law banning the sale of birth control to anyone--even married couples--was unconstitutional.

The Griswold precedent didn't raze Massachusetts authorities. Baird's crime, they said, was that he gave birth control to unmarried people--and that was still a violation of state law. Baird contested the arrest in court, and in 1972'S Eisenstadt v. Baird the Supreme Court voided his conviction and struck down the Massachusetts law.

I should note that the Massachusetts anti-birth control statute was no antiquated law with minor penalties. It was enforced, and violations were considered felonies. Baird had been facing ten years in prison for violating it.

I talked with Baird by telephone in March, just a few days after the fortieth anniversary of the high court ruling that bears his name. Now eighty, he is as feisty as ever and shared recollections with me about the 1967 fracas.

Baird recalled holding up the package of contraceptive foam for the audience to see. …

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