|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Edition description:||1 ED|
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|Age Range:||13 Years|
About the Author
David Allyn has a Ph.D. from Harvard and has taught history at Princeton. He is now a journalist and writer, and his articles have appeared in the Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Daily News, and the Journal of American Studies. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
THE PILL: A PRESCRIPTION FOR EQUALITY
In his State of the Union address of January 4, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson cautiously announced his plans to promote the use of birth control abroad. "I will seek new ways," he told Congress, "to use our knowledge to help deal with the explosion in world population and the growing scarcity in world resources." This statement of support for birth control was not a bold one, but it was the first ever by a sitting president. Johnson knew that by merely alluding to federal financing of contraception, he might anger Catholic voters across the country. And though the president was eager to promote the use of birth control abroad, several states at home had laws against birth control on their books. Johnson's January message suggested it would be a stormy year of controversy and conflict over contraception.
Human beings began using contraceptives thousands of years before the birth of Christ. Archaeologists have found ancient recipes for contraceptive potions using such ingredients as crocodile dung, honey, and sodium carbonate. In the pre-Christian world, evidence suggests that prostitutes used primitive pessaries (spongelike devices) to block sperm from entering the uterus, and men frequently practiced coitus interruptus. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers recommended a range of procedures to prevent conception or abort an unwanted pregnancy. During the Roman occupation of Palestine in the first and second centuries before Christ, Jewish priests recorded various methods known for sterilizing women.
Nowheredoes the Old Testament explicitly say that contraception is immoral. It is not mentioned in any of the long lists of crimes spelled out in the Five Books of Moses. The story of Onan, found in Genesis 38, is traditionally cited as a warning against contraception (it has also been used as an injunction against masturbation and homosexuality), but the story has more to do with a son's defiance of his father than with sexual behavior: Onan's father orders him to have sex with his brother's widow in order to impregnate her, but Onan disobeys by "spilling his seed" on the ground, and is then slain by God. Apart from this one story, the Old Testament is indifferent toward contraception. The sections of the Old Testament that catalogue in precise detail the laws of ritual cleanliness and sexual conduct do not say anything about preventing reproduction.
The New Testament is similarly silent on the subject. Various passages emphasize the importance of virginity, marriage, and love, but contraception is never mentioned. Early Christians acquired the notion that contraception was wrong not from the Bible, but from various sources outside Christianity. Not until St. Augustine in the fifth century was the Church's position on contraception fully formulated. According to Augustine, contraception was unconditionally immoral and illicit. Overcome with guilt about his own lustfulness, Augustine was determined to check the impulses of his fellow Christians by restricting sex to procreation.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian theologians refined and reaffirmed Augustine's ban on birth control. In practice, however, religious authorities did little to enforce this theoretical ban. European peasants were essentially free to experiment with whatever contraceptive techniques they might devise. Some theologians even gave their official blessing to coitus interruptus. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century, when the birthrate in some Christian countries began to decline, that religious leaders and political officials began to worry about the sexual behavior of married couples.
The Enlightenment led to the first treatises actually advocating birth control and family limitation. Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and Francis Place encouraged couples to limit the number of their offspring to ensure the maximum amount of resources for every child. Later in the nineteenth century, Robert Dale Owen and Charles Knowlton wrote detailed marriage manuals to teach couples about coitus interruptus and douching. In 1843, the invention of vulcanized rubber led to the creation of modern condoms. Ten years later, however, the Holy Office of the Inquisition ruled that condoms were unacceptable for Catholics.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, a virtual war raged in English-speaking countries between champions and critics of birth control. In America, Charles Knowlton's practical text The Fruits of Phi-losophy: or The Private Companion of Young Married People(...) was censored. Anthony Comstock, a Civil War veteran with a sharp sense of moral duty, launched a crusade to ban birth control devices and put abortionists out of business. At Comstock's urging, Congress passed a bill in 1873 making it illegal to mail material advertising "obscene rubber goods." The law also prohibited the importation of any birth control device. Congress authorized Comstock to guard American morals, and guard them he did. He hounded every manufacturer and salesman of contraceptive devices he could find. Meanwhile, many states, driven by the fear that if Protestants continued to use birth control they would soon be outnumbered by Catholics, passed laws making it illegal to use, sell, or display contraceptives. But birth control advocates were equally committed. In 1878, champions of population control in Great Britain formed the Malthusian League to educate physicians about the benefits of contraception. (The group was named after the English pessimist Thomas Malthus, who predicted that population growth would inevitably outstrip food supply, but the group did not endorse Malthus's anti-welfare views.) In America, starting in the 1910s, contraception crusader Margaret Sanger went door to door to teach poor women about condoms and diaphragms. Between 1900 and 1925 international birth control conferences were held in Paris, Liège, the Hague, Dresden, London, and New York.
Over the course of the twentieth century, modernization and secularization helped destigmatize birth control in America. Challenging the Comstock law in court, physicians gained the right to obtain contraceptives through the mail. The U.S. Army spent millions of dollars to supply soldiers with condoms during World War II. One by one, each of the mainline Protestant denominations declared contraception to be a private matter between husband and wife. Margaret Sanger's Birth Control Federation of America changed its name in 1942 to Planned Parenthood and grew until it had thousands of clinics across the country. But state laws against birth control remained on the books. And in a series of papal proclamations in the '40s and '50s, the Catholic Church reiterated its stance against birth control. No matter how hard groups like Planned Parenthood tried to push legislators toward a secular view of sex, politicians, mindful of Catholic votes, refused to repeal nineteenth-century laws against contraception. (It didn't matter to Catholic leaders that those same laws had originally been enacted in order to maintain a Protestant majority.) Such laws did not actually stop women from using contraceptives Connecticut, which had one of the most stringent laws in the country, also had one of the lowest birthrates but through the mid-twentieth century timid legislators refused to repeal them.
Laws or no laws, the invention of the oral contraceptive in the late 1950s revolutionized public discourse about birth control. Developed in 1957 and licensed by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960, the birth control pill which quickly became known simply as "the pill" gave women a greater sense of sexual freedom than any contraceptive device that had come before. Just as the availability of penicillin in the 1940s had seemed to separate sex from the danger of venereal disease once and for all, the invention of the birth control pill finally appeared to divorce sex from the danger of unwanted pregnancy. It was not that the condom, the pessary, the diaphragm, and the spermicide, all of which preceded the pill, were ineffective, but the pill, a synthetic estrogen taken once a day, at any time of the day, separated the act of intercourse from the use of birth control. With the pill, contraception became "clean."
To midsixties America, the pill was a revolutionary invention, a medical triumph over human biology. Indeed, the pill medicalized contraception at a time when Americans were increasingly turning to medicine to solve personal and social problems. A technological marvel, the pill appealed to America's sense of progress. "In its effects I believe that the pill ranks in importance with the discovery of fire," wrote philosopher Ashley Montagu; others compared it with the invention of the printing press. Montagu theorized that the pill would not only emancipate women and make premarital sex acceptable, it would eliminate the American male's "predatory exploitative attitude toward the female," and allow for the overall "rehumanization" of mankind.
Serious research into a contraceptive in pill form began in 1953 when Katharine Dexter McCormick, who was a former suffragist friend of Margaret Sanger's, and the widow of an heir to the McCormick reaper fortune, gave a major grant to Planned Parenthood to develop an oral contraceptive. The group funded the work of Gregory Pincus, a biologist at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, who was studying the physiology of conception. McCormick wanted Pincus to develop a contraceptive method that women could control. Pincus teamed up with John Rock, a Roman Catholic gynecologist at Harvard Medical School. Together they developed a synthetic steroid tablet which they tested on women in Puerto Rico. Soon thereafter, the Searle pharmaceutical company agreed to market the first oral contraceptive product in the United States under the brand name Enovid.
Although executives at Searle were well aware that the pill had many potentially dangerous side effects (studies suggested links to nausea, headaches, dizziness, heart problems, and cancer), they marketed the new drug aggressively. An in-house newsletter told Searle salesmen to "weed out all the negative points and convince doctors to get patients started on Enovid TODAY ...We are making each selected call with one objective: Enovid Prescriptions."
No matter what the motives of pharmaceutical executives may have been, the pill was a major breakthrough in women's emancipation. Women were finally free to control their own reproductive cycles. Not surprisingly, the pill was immediately popular. By 1962, an estimated 1,187,000 women were using it. It took journalists until 1965 to really discover the pill, but once they did, they endorsed it wholeheartedly. As Redbook magazine explained, "Since the pill can be taken any time of day, and since it does not involve contact with the genitals, and since it is taken on a regular schedule whether one plans immediately to make love or not, it can be used without full awareness that one is preparing oneself for intercourse." According to Time, the pill was "a miraculous tablet." Gloria Steinem, who switched from the diaphragm to the pill in the early sixties, wrote a glowing tribute to oral contraceptives in the pages of Esquire."For one thing, it is more aesthetic than mechanical devices and, because it works chemically to prevent ovulation, it can be taken at a time completely removed from intercourse." The pill's champions insisted that it was entirely safe and, if used properly, 100 percent effective.
American women had been using various forms of birth control for centuries, but once the pill was invented, a kind of cultural amnesia took hold. Other forms of birth control were suddenly considered primitive, even barbaric. One gynecologist claimed, "All women find the diaphragm awkward, or even unpleasant.... The pill is easier, less anxiety-producing...by a factor of thousands." There was something delightfully modern and pragmatic about the pill, which may have gotten its nickname from a sentence in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited(1958). A woman on the pill could theoretically have worry-free sex any time, any place. The pill promised to erase fear and anxiety, to make sex simple and contraception discreet. The only real reservation anyone expressed about the pill in the midsixties was that it might make women more independent and consequently make men feel more insecure.
When John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, was sworn into office in January 1961, the aging Margaret Sanger predicted a new era of sexual repression. A Catholic president, Sanger felt, was sure to oppose birth control. Sanger, of course, was wrong about Kennedy: Despite his religious upbringing, he believed strongly in the separation of church and state. In fact, as a result of the Cold War, most politicians in Washington, fearing a link between overpopulation and socialism, strongly supported anything that would check the population explosion in the Third World. By the early sixties, former president Dwight Eisenhower was honorary president of Planned Parenthood and a key advocate of federal support for foreign birth control programs. In 1963, Congress allocated $80,000 for population control research. Even if Cold War politicians were operating on questionable assumptions, the Kennedy era witnessed a newly pragmatic approach to family planning.
But it was still illegal for anyone other than doctors to import birth control into the United States. On October 15, 1962, Elly Foote arrived at New York's Idlewild (now JFK) International Airport from Sweden. When she passed through customs, agents searched through her purse and seized her diaphragm. They made her sign a statement granting them permission to destroy it.
Birth control itself was also still illegal in many states in the 1960s. This infuriated William R. Baird, a man who would devote his life to abolishing laws against birth control and abortion. Born in 1932, one of six children in a poor Brooklyn family, Baird was raised to believe it was crucial never to have sex before marriage. When he married in 1953, both he and his wife were sexually inexperienced. After the Korean War, Baird took a job with a pharmaceutical company, which happened to be in the business of manufacturing contraceptive foam. As clinical director, Baird visited a hospital in Harlem in 1963. There he heard the screams of a woman dying from a self-induced, coat-hanger abortion. "She was covered in blood, and she died in my arms." When Baird found out that contraception was illegal in New York, he went to Planned Parenthood to offer his services, but he was snubbed by organization officials. Accepting the role of lone crusader, Baird began going from town to town violating laws against the display of contraceptives. He used a van, which he decorated on the inside like a living room, to bring birth control to poor communities.
I bought an old UPS van, painted it white, put in a fake fireplace and painted fake wood walls and put up drapes. I wanted to create an atmosphere that for twenty minutes you were in Bill Baird's home and could talk about anything you wanted to. That was my shock. I learned about the incredible ignorance of Americans. A woman would come to me and tell me that she used Lysol for douching. To induce abortion, poor people would often use Kirkman soap, which they would chop into little pieces, add water, and introduce into the uterus. They didn't realize that the body could absorb fat from the soap and they could die of a fat embolism. Or they would use water and salt, which they would insert up into the uterus, but what they didn't know was that it could also cause an air embolism. Women would tell me about how they had thrown themselves down the stairs to cause an abortion. Men would show me how they punched their girlfriends and wives in the abdominal area to terminate the pregnancy.
Almost everywhere Baird went, he was arrested. He was imprisoned eight times in five states. A magazine for African-Americans ran a feature story on Baird and put his phone number on the cover so that women could contact him to find out where to obtain an abortion. Baird was fired from his job at the pharmaceutical company. "The man who had hired me said, ?If you keep on teaching birth control in that van you're going to get fired.' I said, ?Joe, you hired me for my skills and you don't own me. If I want to go bowling after work or go to a movie or teach birth control, it is none of your business.' " Baird took odd jobs and received financial assistance from his friends Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner, and he kept on providing birth control to the poor. In 1964, he founded a clinic on Main Street in Hempstead, Long Island, then a predominantly poor, black community.
In the spring of 1965, Baird was operating his van in Nassau County, Republican country. "The police literally pulled me out of the van and handcuffed me, charging me with indecent exposure of obscene objects.... Within a few months of my arrest, the state of New York changed the law. Nevertheless, the right-wing district attorney who was running for reelection, William Kahn, announced he would prosecute me anyway. The day after he was reelected Kahn dropped the charges. He was later indicted for double-billing Nassau County."
The following year, Marcus Dailey, the commissioner of welfare in Freehold, New Jersey, announced that he was going to reduce welfare costs by putting unwed mothers in jail. His plan was to charge the women under the state's fornication statute. In response, Baird brought his van to Freehold. He was quickly arrested and sentenced to prison for twenty days.
By 1965 conflict over sexual morality was leading the nation to the brink of a cultural crisis. How could the country that had produced Sex and the Single Girl, topless dancing, breast implants, Playboy, and the pill still have laws against contraception? The Constitution was vague on matters of sexual morality. The Bill of Rights clearly favored personal privacy and individual autonomy, but nowhere mentioned sexual behavior specifically. If laws against contraception were challenged, the nine justices of the Supreme Court would have to choose between a future ruled by Catholic pro-natalist forces or by Planned Parenthood and its liberal Protestant allies.
The leaders of Planned Parenthood were determined to win this war. They realized, however, that a man like William Baird was too much of a lighting rod for controversy to win support from the courts. They needed a female spokesperson, who would remind judges of their own wives and grandmothers, and preferably a Catholic. In Connecticut, the state with the strictest anti?birth control laws in the nation, Planned Parenthood activists found a friend in Estelle Griswold, a Roman Catholic born in 1900. Tall, graceful, and fluent in French, Griswold was the model of a New England matron. She had never even seen a diaphragm when she was asked to take over Connecticut's Planned Parenthood League. At first Griswold had no interest in the job ("It just left me cold," she later recalled), but she soon warmed to the challenge of overturning Connecticut's long-standing anti-contraception statute.
According to Connecticut law, anyone who used a drug or instrument to prevent conception could be fined or imprisoned a minimum of sixty days or both. This meant a married couple could go to jail for using a condom. Furthermore, anyone who so much as assisted another in the use of birth control could be punished as an accessory to a crime. Estelle Griswold thought the ban on contraception in Connecticut was not only a serious invasion of privacy but an example of ridiculously antiquated thinking. Connecticut had one of the lowest birthrates in the nation, evidence that Protestants and Catholics alike were flouting the law. As one observer wrote, "One would assume that the good citizens of the state, regardless of religious persuasion, are heeding the law about as casually as the American public did the Volstead Act [banning liquor] in the roaring 20's." Even Catholic priests were beginning to realize that their flock were straying from the official rules of the Church.
At first Griswold and Planned Parenthood's lawyers simply filed lawsuits on behalf of individual married women who would suffer major health problems if they ever gave birth again. But Griswold was hampered by a lack of money and a lack of organized support. Since it was strictly illegal for Planned Parenthood to open up a clinic in Connecticut itself, Griswold organized trips across the border to New York State. Yet even such trips were technically illegal because they involved aiding and abetting in a crime. In 1960, the Supreme Court upheld Connecticut's 1879 anti-contraception law. But Griswold would not give up. She grew steadily more defiant. On November 1, 1961, she opened an illegal birth control clinic in New Haven, staffed with volunteer doctors. A few patients visited the clinic, including an undercover vice officer. Four days later, police arrived to shut down the clinic and charge Griswold with a criminal offense. She was delighted. Now she had a strong case to test the law's legitimacy.
Despite Griswold's respectable image, judge after judge ruled against her. Her case wound its way through the courts, climbing the judicial hierarchy all the way to the top. In the meantime, Americans were becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of ignorance on society, a fact exemplified in 1958 by the opening of the play Blue Denim, by James Leo Herlihy and William Noble, which told the story of a young man who, afraid to talk to his parents about birth control, gets his girlfriend pregnant. Sexual shame and secrecy, the play insisted, could lead to devastating social consequences. The play, warmly praised by Eleanor Roosevelt in her national newspaper column, reflected the growing public demand for open discussion about sexual issues.
In 1965, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Griswold's plea. At first, the nine justices were divided. Even in the age of Carol Doda and the Rolling Stones ("Satisfaction," a song with sexual overtones, was number one on the charts in 1965), several of the high court judges believed the state of Connecticut had the right to send Griswold to jail for distributing contraception. But on June 7, the court issued a 7-2 decision striking down once and for all Connecticut's ban on contraception. In the majority opinion, William O. Douglas declared that the First Amendment created "a penumbra where privacy is protected from governmental intrusion." Douglas deplored the thought of police officers searching "the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms" and noted that certain rights of privacy were older than the Bill of Rights itself. Both of the judges who wrote dissents in the case agreed that the Connecticut law was illogical and backward, but neither felt the Supreme Court had any right to interfere with the legislation of sexual morality. It was a solid victory for Estelle Griswold and Planned Parenthood and the forces of sexual freedom, though the court's decision in Griswold v. Connecticut did nothing to overturn laws in Massachusetts, New York, and other states prohibiting the sale and display of contraceptives. Griswold only voided laws against their use.
In the fall of '65, just a few months after the Griswold decision, another birth control controversy made headlines. This time, many thought the matter was more serious. National newspapers and magazines picked up a story in the Brown University student newspaper revealing that the campus physician had prescribed birth control pills to two female students, both of whom were unmarried. It was hardly news that college students were having sex, but many were shocked that university administrators were now condoning the practice. In fact, physicians at the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota had been prescribing the pill to students for some time. But officials at Harvard and other schools publicly deplored the practice and warned that it would have negative consequences. Most physicians in 1965 tended to frown on premarital sex, and school doctors were especially conservative on the subject. "A visit to the infirmary is indeed the best form of birth control," wrote a student at American University to the school newspaper. "The staff has the ability to turn any liberal-minded co-ed into a Victorian prude." The head of AU's health service, James W. Egan, shot back an angry reply, stating that the health service "could not of course prescribe contraceptives for minors without parental permission without serious legal risk." But his concerns were not just legal. "Aside from these considerations, a physician must practice in accord with the dictates of his own conscience and I don't think that putting the stamp of approval on promiscuity by issuing oral contraceptives would be in accord with the standards of the physicians practicing at American University." Egan warned "those adventuresome students who have suffered a complete necrosis of their moral standards" that venereal disease was on the rise.
The pill was particularly in demand on college campuses. College physicians were loath to fit female students with the diaphragm mainly because the procedure forced the physician to feel personally complicit in the promotion of premarital sex. But the pill let college physicians (almost all of whom were male) avoid penetrating the vagina of a young virgin with his fingers. As historian Beth Bailey writes, "The pill was a wonder drug not simply because of its effectiveness for women, but because of its convenience for those who prescribed it."
Though traditionalists were determined to put up a good fight, the pill gave modernists a decided advantage in the shaping of American society. In some sense, however, the battle lines were blurred. Who was really a liberal and who was a conservative? Support for birth control was strongest in the South, traditionally the most conservative region of the country. Was it because Southern whites were genuinely concerned about the welfare of the poor? Or were they motivated by racism and eager to halt the growth of the black population? Some blacks suspected the latter. They saw dangerous parallels between birth control and involuntary sterilization, a technique favored by German Nazis and American eugenicists. The more social workers tried to bring birth control to poor black neighborhoods, the more left-wing activists fought their efforts. Although Martin Luther King, Jr., was a strong advocate for family planning, even the liberal National Association for the Advancement of Colored People distrusted birth control. In fact, in September 1965 the NAACP opposed a $91,000 federal grant for the dissemination of birth control information in North Philadelphia. The NAACP charged Planned Parenthood, which had applied for the grant, with attempting to "help Negroes commit racial suicide." Although many blacks believed the pill was a benevolent technological advance, black nationalists tended to regard it as a symbol of genocide. A Planned Parenthood official explained to Ebony magazine: "Many Negro women have told our workers, ?There are two kinds of pills one for white women and one for us...and the one for us causes sterilization.'" This kind of paranoia frustrated and angered birth control activists.
The debates over birth control in 1965 reflected deep-seated divisions over the proper relationship between society and the individual. Some believed society had a moral obligation to prohibit the use of birth control; others believed society had no right to regulate such a private matter, and even urged society to take an active role in preventing unwanted pregnancies and overpopulation; still others suspected birth control proponents of evil motives. Whatever one felt about birth control, however, the advent of the pill and the decision in Griswold v. Connecticut were both major victories for secular humanism. After 1965, of all the major religious denominations only the Catholic Church would continue to oppose birth control. For many women, tradition and fear began to give way to hope and optimism. The terms of the debate had shifted: Opposition to birth control after 1965 would have to be articulated on sociological rather than moral grounds. As sexual pleasure became distinct from reproduction in the public mind, whole new possibilities emerged for both the individual and society.
It is almost impossible to overstate the impact of the pill on American culture. It gave women the freedom to have sex when and where they wished and made contraception palatable to the prudest of the prude. It put birth control on the covers of family magazines and symbolically represented scientific support for the sexual revolution. The pill promised a return to the rationalism and optimism of the Age of Enlightenment.
Paradoxically, however, the pill reinforced American romanticism about sex. It turned contraception into a mysterious, seemingly magical process that partners could avoid discussing with one another. It made it possible to prevent pregnancy without ever touching one's vagina or penis. It was ultimately a technological accommodation to the deepest dualism of Western culture: the belief that the mind is pure and noble while the body is dirty and base. Ironically, the single most revolutionary invention of the 1960s was a tiny, timid little pill, whose appeal derived mainly from the fact that it could be secreted away in a purse or a pocketbook without anyone ever knowing about it. No wonder the pill did little to erase Americans' ambivalence about sex.