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Christian Conservatives vs. Sex: The Long War Over Reproductive Freedom

Americans today enjoy access to effective birth control. But it wasn't always this way and religious conservatives are trying to turn back the clock.

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But there were also forces determined to prevent the widespread use of contraceptives of any kind in America. Self-appointed anti-vice crusaders joined forces with religious leaders to crack down on material deemed “obscene” – and that included even information of a clinical nature about birth control.

Most famously, Anthony Comstock, a devout Congregationalist in New York, secured passage of a federal law that allowed the Post Office to ban “lewd” and “lascivious” material. This included not only books and magazines dealing with sexual topics but contraceptives and information about them.

Material circulated secretly through an underground, and doctors often signaled their willingness to discuss the topic of birth control (and sexually transmitted diseases) in advertisements using code words such as “private complaints” or “delicate matters.”

Attempts to bring the discussion of birth control into the open were quickly squashed. This continued well into the 20th century. New England states with strong Catholic traditions were hotbeds of anti-birth control activism.

New England today is often viewed as a bastion of political liberalism, but for many years the region languished under heavy-handed forms of clerical censorship. Catholic clergy and their allies were also successful in curbing access to contraception.

Americans United, which was founded in 1947, quickly recognized that the battle over birth control had strong church-state implications. Many Americans, the organization noted, wanted to use contraceptives but were stymied because they lived in states where clerical interference made that impossible.

The pages of Church & State in the late 1940s, ’50s and ’60s are studded with stories about often-successful attempts to block access to birth control, mainly by Catholic leaders and their allies working in concert with government officials.

In 1949, four doctors were fired from Farren Memorial Hospital in Greenfield, Mass., because they refused to stop discussing birth control with patients who had requested the information. Hospital officials offered to reinstate the doctors if they would publicly admit they were wrong, vow to stop discussing the issue and promise not to contradict Catholic views again. The four refused.

Three years later, a flap erupted in Massachusetts over whether doctors should have the legal right to discuss birth control with patients. State law at the time prohibited doctors from providing information on the topic even if patients asked about it.

Planned Parenthood launched a drive to repeal the law and secured more than 80,000 signatures on petitions, but Catholic Church leaders raised so many objections that the legislature was cowed and refused to act.

Nearly 1,000 miles to the west, birth control advocates in Chicago announced plans in 1960 to add information about contraceptives at a clinic that served a largely low-income population. Pressure from the Catholic hierarchy soon scuttled the plan, a result officials at Planned Parenthood deemed “reprehensible.”

The controversy even reached overseas. In 1949, U.S. military forces in occupied Japan rescinded an invitation that had been extended to birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Sanger had been invited to the country, which was still under American control following World War II, by Japanese civic organizations, but Catholic groups raised so many objections that Sanger was denied the necessary military clearance.

As late as 1970, William R. Baird, a birth control advocate in New York, was being harassed by police for giving public lectures on contraceptives and abortion. In 1967, Baird was arrested in Boston after he distributed contraceptive foam to students during a lecture at Boston University. Baird was charged with violating a state “chastity” law prohibiting the distribution of birth control to unmarried persons, a felony punishable by 10 years in prison.

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