Contraception in the United States
Although we may take for granted the variety of contraceptive, or birth control, methods available in the United States today, this situation is quite recent. Throughout American history both the methods available for contraception and the laws concerning their use have been restrictive. In the 1870s, Anthony Comstock, then secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, succeeded in enacting national laws that prohibited the dissemination of contraceptive information through the U. S. mail on the grounds that such information was obscene; these laws were known as the Comstock Laws. At that time, the only legitimate form of birth control was abstinence, and reproduction was viewed as the only acceptable reason for sexual intercourse.
Margaret Sanger was the person most instrumental in promoting changes in birth control legislation and availability in the United States. Sanger was horrified at the misery of women who had virtually no control over their fertility and bore child after child in desperate poverty. In 1915 she opened an illegal clinic where women could obtain and learn to use the diaphragms she had shipped from Europe. She also published birth control information in her newspaper, The Woman Rebel. As a result, Sanger was arraigned for violating the Comstock Laws. She fled to Europe to avoid prosecution but later returned to promote research on birth control hormones, a project financed by her wealthy friend Katherine Dexter McCormack.
Sanger and McCormack wanted to develop a reliable method by which women could control their own fertility (Tone, 2002). However, it was not until 1960 that the first birth control pills came on the U. S. market, after limited testing and research in Puerto Rico. Fertility control through contraception rather than abstinence was a profound shift that implied an acceptance of female sexual expression and broadened the roles that women might choose (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988; Rubin, 2010).
Prior to the 1965 U. S. Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, states could prohibit the use of contraceptives by married people (381 U. S. 479). The Court based
its decision to overrule states’ prohibitions on the right to privacy of married couples. In 1972 the Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v. Baird extended the right to privacy to unmarried individuals by decriminalizing the use of contraception by single people (405 U. S. 438). A 9% overall drop in the birth rate of 15- to 20-year-old women occurred after access to the birth control pill became legal (Thomas, 2009).
In the ensuing years other laws governing contraceptive availability have continued to change. In most states, laws now allow the dispensing of contraceptives to adolescents without parental consent and permit pharmacies to display condoms, spermicidal foam, and contraceptive sponges on shelves in the main store rather than behind the counter. However, anti-contraception forces continue to engage in political battles on various fronts to reduce access to contraception, as discussed in the Sex and Politics box, “The Power of Pro-Life Anti-Contraception Politics."