If the abortion rate dropped from Kate Simon’s youth and the time when Delmar’s book was written, 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 other forms 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. The spread of birth control was hard work that took years to have any significant effect. Four decades after Simon, Delmar, and Sanger 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 it’s becoming public knowledge and had abortions.
Sanger had to overcome not only the reticence to talk about sex that prevented education about birth control, but common social norms kept contraception under wraps. 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 prohibited not only abortion but all forms of birth control. By 1960, only a few still had such laws, including Connecticut ,which made illegal “any drug, medicinal article, or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception.” The law applied to the married and the unmarried. We should remember such laws when we hear complaints about how our present government has gotten too intrusive. 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 governments 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 invoke 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 legal 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. Abortions decrease with birth control. But we now live in a new age that once again may make not just abortion but also birth-control availability 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 Trump administration expanded this exemption to both for-profit and non-profit entities and to all companies including publicly held ones, not just closely held ones. The exemptions currently 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 surrounding 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 shareholders because the rich person will own more shares. 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 in the Holy Book. Did anything 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 and through which about four million women get family planning services. Add to this the attacks on Planned Parenthood. It has long been the case that federal money cannot be used for abortions so a federal defunding of Planned Parenthood would little affect those procedures, but it would have a profound effect on the availability of contraception.
It is no surprise, then, that the Trump administration has recently issued rules that, under Title X, organizations that make abortion referrals will be barred from receiving federal family planning funds. The new rules are, in essence, a gag order on medical providers. So, for example, if Planned Parenthood wants to continue to receive federal family planning funds, its doctors will not be able to refer patients for abortions and, perhaps, not even counsel them about abortions. And if Planned Parenthood and other organizations continue to discuss abortion, federal family planning money will be lost and fewer poor women will have counseling and access to contraception. Instead, more money is expected to go to “faith-based” health organizations, many of whom not only oppose abortion but also contraception, at least for the unmarried.
We are on a dangerous path. Many states and the federal government have put such onerous restrictions on abortion that, although it is currently a constitutional right, it is not in fact available to many women. That is a step back to Delmar and Simon’s time of knitting needles and goop to be prayerfully drunk. And now this government is making it harder to obtain birth control 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.