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Politics and birth control.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick


This has been a year of political surprises. One of the biggest, as far as I am concerned, is that contraception - birth control - is again a hot political issue.

I and many others had assumed that the contraception issue had been buried, once and for all, 40 years ago. Back in 1985, I wrote that "The birth control controversy is over and done with."

That was after Cardinal Richard Cushing said he had no objection to a bill repealing the ancient statute that prohibited birth control. Gov. John Volpe signed it into law in 1966.

People under 40 may find it hard to believe that, before 1966, contraception was illegal in Massachusetts and Connecticut. And not just for teen-agers, but everyone. Before 1965, doctors in this state were forbidden to give contraception information even to married couples, let alone single women. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Griswold v. Connecticut, that birth control was legal for married couples.

Of course, despite the law, contraception was as widespread in Massachusetts and Connecticut as anywhere else. Contraceptives were sold in practically every drug store, thanks to an ingenious bit of hypocrisy. A Massachusetts man who had purchased a condom was brought to trial but acquitted because his lawyer argued successfully that there was no evidence that he had actually used it. So everyone went along with the situation.

But the plight of poor women with large and growing families was becoming a charged social issue, thanks to Margaret Sanger and her followers.

Mrs. Sanger, a former nurse (and Roman Catholic) had endorsed birth control before World War I and continued her eventually successful crusade for 30 years. By the 1930s, only Massachusetts and Connecticut still had the old Comstock laws on the books. In 1932, the Birth Control League (later the Planned Parenthood League) of Massachusetts opened a clinic in Brookline to give advice on family planning to poverty-stricken married women.

By 1937, there were seven such clinics in the state, one of them in Worcester. In that year three of them were raided, staffs were arrested and confidential records seized. That set off a political and social controversy across the land. The birth control issue roiled state politics for the next 30-odd years.

To endorse birth control in those days was to confront the Roman Catholic Church. After Margaret Sanger's first triumphant talk at a community church in Boston, she was invited to speak in Holyoke, at the Congregational Church. But when a Monsignor Fagan informed the president of a local bank that her appearance might impel the Catholic Church to withdraw its funds and business from his bank, Miss Sanger was disinvited. That set off years of political acrimony.

I remember it well because my mother, with a brood of nine - all planned, she always said - was an enthusiastic supporter of Planned Parenthood. She followed the Sanger epic closely.

In 1942, after being turned down by the Massachusetts Legislature, the birth control advocates got a referendum put on the ballot. It would have allowed doctors to give birth control information to married women for health reasons. The Catholic Church was opposed and the referendum was defeated. The same happened six years later, but the vote was closer.

In the next 18 years, Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis endorsed the right of married people to have contraceptive information. The Catholic Church hierarchy was more and more isolated, even from its own members. When John F. Kennedy decided to run for president in 1960, the controversy took on new life.

At about the same time that Mr. Kennedy was telling the Texas Baptist convention that he believed in the strict separation of church and state, the Roman Catholic bishops of Puerto Rico issued a pastoral letter denying the sacraments to anyone who cast a vote for the Popular Democratic Party led by Luis Munoz Marin, a liberal.

The Kennedy campaign people were appalled. So was the Vatican. The Puerto Rican bishops were soon reassigned.

The church hierarchy in the United States eventually realized that it could not win on the birth control issue. When a bill to change the law was introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature, Cardinal Richard Cushing said publicly that he was not opposed. It passed and was signed by Gov. John Volpe in 1966.

It is ironic that, in 1950, while the controversy raged, Margaret Sanger approached Dr. Gregory Pincus of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology and offered funding for research on contraception. Dr. Pincus, Dr. John Rock and Dr. Min Chueh Chang developed the Pill, but prudently did their basic experiments in Puerto Rico, not Massachusetts.

The current controversy about contraception is somewhat different. It concerns health professionals who have moral scruples about contraception and don't want to be required to provide such information to their patients. President Obama has tweaked the law so that government funds will not directly finance programs that clash with a person's moral objections. But he should make further changes to ensure that no one is pressured to do anything that would violate his or her basic feelings of morality. Surely that can be worked out so that the moral scruples of some can be met without denying health services to others.

I still marvel that the birth control issue has the power to roil a presidential campaign.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Feb 23, 2012
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