Bad Girl by Viña Delmar was a bestseller in 1928. My copy is from its fifteenth printing that year. (Sales were probably not hurt when the novel was banned in Boston.) In the novel, Dot is a working-class, New York City woman who does the unthinkable and has premarital sex. She gets pregnant and marries her lover. She fears childbirth, about which she knows little, and the book has a frank discussion of her attempts to terminate the pregnancy.
Even though it is against the law, she gets a concoction from a pharmacist. Although she takes it “religiously,” it fails to work. Dot then turns to a more upper-class friend, Maude, who urges Dot not to have the baby and tells her that only an operation, not any medicine, will work. Dot asks whether the operation hurts, and Maude says it does “the first time, because most girls are crazy enough to try it without ether.” With the anesthetic, however, “you don’t feel a damn thing.” The friend gives Dot an address and tells her not to pay more than fifty dollars, an enormous sum to Dot. Maude states that the hospitals are open to the woman giving birth, but not to the one who doesn’t want a baby. “High prices, fresh doctors. It’s a man’s world, Dot. To the woman who knows her place they will give their charity, but the woman who wants to keep her body from pain and her mind from worry is an object of contempt.” Dot, not having fifty dollars, goes for a preliminary visit to the doctor, who determines she is pregnant, molests her, charges her five dollars, settles for the only two dollars she has, and tells her to make an appointment soon because she is in the second month.
Dot and her husband Eddie cannot talk freely with each other about what they are feeling. Eddie thinks that a pregnancy termination would be murder, but he also thinks a man “would have a hell of a nerve” to tell a woman to have a baby. “What right had a man to say what she should do?”
Dot talks with other friends. Edna says a woman has the baby whether she wants it or not. “Abortion” is never uttered. Instead, in a different way from the way we use the term now, it is referred to as “birth control.” Thus, Dot “was not anxious to debate the pro and con of birth control” with Edna, and Edna to herself was trying to figure out, “Who was the birth-control advocate, Eddie or Dot?”
Edna urges Eddie to oppose the abortion, but he replies, “It’s her business.” Edna then indicates that “nine-tenths” of young married women are ignorant about childbirth and also abortion. She states that there are only a half-dozen New York City doctors who do abortions without serious complications such as blood poisoning. For a birth, Edna maintains, a woman can find a good doctor, but “the other way you’ve got a guy who couldn’t make a living the way other doctors do. . . , and in case you have religion, you’ve sinned against it.”
Finally, Dot decides. “After all, it was her body that was to be the battle-field. She had been wrong. It was her place to do what she pleased, not to stand by and wait for Eddie to pass judgment.” The thought of the horrid abortionist was repulsive, and she feels happy and peaceful as she announces that she will have the baby.
Kate Simon’s memoir Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood, like Bad Girl, also describes working-class, 1920s New York, although Simon is narrating from the viewpoint of a young girl. She and her family were then living in a Bronx neighborhood largely inhabited by immigrant Jews and Italians, and she was struggling to understand the world she was encountering, including the visits of Dr. James. He was seldom seen by the kids because he came when school was in session. No explanation was given for the appearance of this tall, fair “American” in a neighborhood of short, dark “foreigners.” However, Simon noticed, the mothers he visited, who were fine in the morning, were in bed when school let out.
Years later Simon’s medical relatives told her that Dr. James had had a prestigious and lucrative medical practice and came from the prosperous New England family that produced the writers and intellectuals William and Henry. After his children were raised, Dr. James dedicated himself to poor immigrant women who had “no sex information, no birth-control clinics, nothing but knitting needles, hat pins, lengths of wire, the drinking of noxious mixtures while they sat in scalding baths to prevent the birth of yet another child. Some of these women died of infections, and often when these procedures did not work, the women went to term and then let the infant die of exposure or suffocation.“
To prevent such suicides and murders, Dr. James went from one immigrant neighborhood to another, performing abortions. Often charging nothing but never more than a dollar or two, James performed thousands of the procedures. All the adults knew what he did, and according to Simon, so did the police and the Board of Health who generally let him be. Periodically, however, when there was some change in officialdom, he was arrested. He wouldn’t post bail but contacted colleagues. Doctors then thronged the courthouse where “they pleaded, they argued, they shouted, they accused the police and the court of ignorance and inhumanity,” and each time Dr. James was released.
James was a skillful and careful practitioner and would not perform an abortion if it would be too dangerous. Simon had a much younger sister, and when Kate was an adult, her mother told Simon that the sister was unwanted. James, however, would not perform an abortion because Simon’s mother already had had too many and another would be hazardous. Shortly before she died, Simon’s mother told Kate that she had had thirteen abortions (as well as three children) and that other women in the neighborhood had had even more. Why do you think, the mother continued, that the Italian women urged to have large families by the Catholic Church had only two or three kids? “Certainly it wasn’t the abstinence of Italian husbands, no more controlled than Jewish husbands. It was the work of the blessed hands of that wonderful old goy.”
Bad Girl and Bronx Primitive indicate that abortion was prevalent in this country a hundred years ago, as were willful infant deaths. (We tend not to think about infanticide, but the concern in our colonial days over it were so great the special evidentiary and other rules were applied when a mother reported a stillbirth or that a baby died shortly after birth.) One of the reasons for the number of abortions was ignorance about sex. In Bad Girls, Dot’s husband has no idea why she is making monthly marks on their calendar. In our colonial history, and beyond, men, at least, believed that a woman could only get pregnant if she had an orgasm and that a woman could only have an orgasm if the intercourse were consensual. Thus, a raped woman could not get pregnant. Surely this ignorance led to abortions. But abortions and infanticides also occurred because of lack or knowledge of birth control in our modern sense of that term so that the only meaningful “birth control” available then was abortion.
Perhaps illegal abortions decreased after the 1920s, but that is unknowable. I knew a couple women who had abortions before they were legal in this country. These were what most would see as ordinary women. Only because I was close to them did I find out about the illegal terminations of their pregnancies. I can assume that of the many older women I have known less well, some, maybe many, also had illegal abortions.
If the abortion rate dropped from Kate Simon’s youth, it is not because laws against abortion had more effect, or that sex drives changed, or that women came to follow church proscriptions more faithfully, but primarily because of the increase in the availability and knowledge of birth control that occurred in the twentieth century. Margaret Sanger’s movement was in its infancy when Simon’s mother had abortions and when Delmar wrote, and the spread of birth control was hard work that took years to have any widespread effect. Four decades after Simon and Delmar, in many circles there was still limited discussion of birth control. In a senior class when I was in high school, ten percent of the girls got pregnant, or at least ten percent were known to have gotten pregnant. Of course, the odds are high that others got pregnant without its becoming public knowledge and had abortions.
Sanger had to overcome not only the reticence to talk about sex that prevented education about birth control, practices kept contraception as much out of sight as possible. Condoms were hidden away in the drug store, and the pharmacist had to be asked for them, an embarrassing and deterring encounter for many. But Sanger and her followers also had to fight laws that actually prohibited birth control.
Many states at one time proscribed birth control, but by 1960, only a couple still had such laws, including Connecticut which made illegal “any drug, medicinal article, or instrument for the purpose of preventing contraception.” The law applied to the married and the unmarried, and we should remember such laws when we hear complaints about how our present government has gotten too big. What could be more big brotherish than to regulate what married couples can do in their bedroom (or on their kitchen table or their washing machine)? I wonder how many people who complain about the intrusiveness of government even know that government once prohibited the use of birth control.
The United States Supreme Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), found the Connecticut law to be unconstitutional as a violation of “marital privacy.” The decision was controversial because nothing in the Constitution explicitly protects privacy, and the seven justices who voted to invalidate the law relied on different constitutional provisions to find this privacy right. Even so, the right to access birth control was extended to non-married couples by the Supreme Court in 1972 in Eisenstadt v. Baird.
It was settled, then. All had access to birth control, and many, most, nearly all of us thought that was good. Pleasure and passion and love can increase because of birth control. Stable, non-abusive families are more likely with birth control. Abortion decreases with birth control. But we now live in a new age that once again may make birth-control availability more difficult.
The present administration plans to change the health-care rules to make getting contraception more difficult. Under Obama, the Affordable Care Act made birth control a regular benefit of health insurance without any co-pay. In 2014, however, the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case ruled that a “closely held corporation” could be exempt from the Health care contraception mandate on religious grounds. The proposal now is to extend that exemption to both for-profit and non-profit entities and to all companies including publicly held ones, not just closely held ones. In addition, the exemption would extend beyond religious beliefs to sincerely held “moral convictions.”
That corporations could have religious beliefs came as a surprise to me. I did not know that if you make it to heaven, you might see Shell Oil, Amazon, and Morgan Stanley ringing the Father. I certainly was not aware of Jesus preaching in any boardrooms. I wondered how the religious beliefs of a corporation are determined. Will the shareholders be polled? Would we count the votes by individuals or by the number of shares held? If by shares, as must be done for other corporate purposes, the rich person’s religious views will count for more than the less affluent shareholder’s. What if I have religious views or moral convictions for or against contraception but I am in the minority; aren’t my religious beliefs or moral convictions then violated?
And what are the non-religious moral convictions about birth control? I have enough difficulty understanding the religious beliefs about contraception. I don’t pretend that I can recall every word of the Bible, but I don’t remember any mention of IUDs, the pill, condoms, or even latex. Did anything even like our notions of contraception exist back in biblical times?
On top of this, a person who has spoken out against not only abortion but also against contraception has been appointed to the position in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Title X program which oversees family planning funding for poor Americans. Add to this the attacks on Planned Parenthood. Remember that federal money cannot be used for abortions so that a federal defunding of Planned Parenthood will have little effect on those procedures, but it will affect the availability of contraception. (And, of course, the latest healthcare bill was put forward without a single woman on the drafting group.)
We are on a dangerous path. Many states and the federal government have put such onerous restrictions on abortion that, although a constitutional right, it is not in fact available for many women. That is a step back to Delmar and Simon’s time of knitting needles and goop to be prayerfully drunk. And now we will make obtaining birth control more difficult with the result being that many women, generally poor women, will not have contraception. I suppose the good news is that we will be giving a new generation of novelists and memoirists like Delmar and Simon something to write about.
I know many families with only one, two, or three kids. Perhaps it is because in this age many couples have finally learned what previous generations did not, to use the rhythm method successfully. Or perhaps it is because passion or tenderness or intimacy dies out with modern couples as it did not a hundred years ago. But I am guessing that the prime reason is that these couples use birth control. They have found that birth control makes their lives, their relationships, their families better. Birth control should be available to all in our society.