Simon’s Bronx Primitive and Delmar’s Bad Girl illustrated the prevalence of abortions in the first decades of the twentieth century. 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, there was still often limited discussion of birth control. In a senior class when I was in high school, for example, 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 will make birth-control availability more difficult.
The present administration has announced changes to 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 extends 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.