Credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch
While efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade or chip away at abortion access are frequently covered in the media, a longstanding, under-the-radar effort of a number of social and religious conservatives to limit access to contraception has escaped notice—until now. In fact, until recently, any mention of these efforts has been taken as a sign of paranoia or Catholic bashing. Contraception, used by 99 percent of women at some time in their reproductive lives and approved of by just about everyone except the Catholic bishops and the most extreme social conservatives, has for 40 years been considered a settled issue. The FDA approved the birth control pill in 1960 and in 1965 the Supreme Court affirmed the right to use contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut.
The healthcare reform process has inadvertently undermined that comfortable assumption. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Republican Party and Rush Limbaugh have all claimed that the inclusion of contraception among a long list of preventive services that employers must insure without cost or co-payments by employees violates religious freedom. For a few weeks it seemed America’s pundits and even some liberal Catholics, like E.J. Dionne, bought the argument. A deft accommodation by Obama that left religious employers with clean hands and turned the provision of the coverage over to the insurance companies did not, however, end the effort to get contraceptive coverage out of the Affordable Care Act. Nonetheless, state legislatures and the most extreme members of the Senate have introduced legislation that would effectively overturn the mandate and grant wide latitude to both religious and secular employers to refuse to provide coverage for contraception. Arizona is considering a bill that would not only require female employees to assure the employer they want birth control for other than contraceptive reasons but would also permit the employer to fire them.
The commonplace belief that the debate over contraception was settled is now unsettled. Perhaps that’s because the settlement is both socially and legally more recent and less assured than we think, especially for the rapidly growing number of singles.
Griswold only granted the right to to use contraception to married couples. Unmarried sexually active women (and men) gained the same right only on March 22, 1972, when the United States Supreme Court decided that unmarried couples had the same right as married couples to possess contraceptives.
The case was Eisenstadt v. Baird, which, as the historian David Garrow has pointed out, is “relatively unheralded” as a link between Griswold and Roe v Wade. Eisenstadt was a Massachusetts case (yes, the one state that gave its electoral votes to George McGovern later that year), triggered by activist Bill Baird’s act of civil disobedience, providing contraceptive foam to a woman at Boston University. It was only one of a number of arrests Baird had invited during his multi-year crusade on behalf of legalization of access to contraceptives. While working for a medical supply company, on a visit to a hospital where he was demonstrating equipment, he had seen a woman die with a piece of coat hanger stuck in her cervix.
Had Eisenstadt not been so quickly followed by Roe v Wade, surely those morally opposed to unmarried sex would have been more engaged in public efforts to overturn that decision, but their horror over the affirmation of a right to chose abortion took precedence.
And Eisenstadt was left alone. But it is Eisenstadt—which created the right of unmarried people to use contraception—that social conservatives are now attacking. It is sexual activity by certain groups that is unacceptable. In the early twentieth century, those with poor genetic prospects were the ones whose sexual activity and reproduction was unacceptable. The eugenics movement dominated. Before World War II, many opposed contraception both because it violated “natural law” but also, openly, because it would likely mean a decline of the relative numbers of white people. C.S. Lewis, an iconic figure among conservative Christian intellectuals, whose Chronicles of Narnia have charmed so many children, was at best poorly disposed to contraception because, he reasoned, it represented the tyranny of the living over those not yet alive, as well as the prospect of promiscuity. But another skeptic of “family planning” was that exemplary anti-fascist George Orwell, apparently out of fear about the decline of manliness following the catastrophic losses of the best male British stock in the Great War. Eugenic arguments are now focused on race rather than mental disabilities. Single black women are especially targeted.