Politics of contraception divorced from the present

July 31, 1994|By Judith Bolton-Fasman

Carole R. McCann demonstrates in this book that early birth control politics attracted strange bedfellows. Dr. McCann, who teaches American studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, attempts to establish that feminist participation in the birth control movement was eclipsed by politics, cultural anxiety and ultimately sexism.

Feminists of the era, those whom she labels "welfare feminists," were more concerned with "Americanizing" immigrants, remaining mute about women's birth control needs in order to avoid confronting the inherent sexuality of the topic.

At the epicenter of the movement is Margaret Sanger, the pioneering feminist with whom the issue of birth control is synonymous.

One can appreciate Dr. McCann's efforts to resist canonizing Sanger. However, Dr. McCann erroneously diminishes Sanger's influence by arguing that the "political terrain and discursive horizon of her time influenced her."

In reality, Sanger constantly reinvented herself to accommodate the era. She opened her first clinic in 1916 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn at a time when condoms were illegal and women were aborting pregnancies with douches of Lysol and chlorine bleach.

The medical establishment was in league with religious fundamentalists such as Anthony Comstock, who shepherded a series of laws named for him through Congress that equated abortion, birth control and pornography as equally degenerate. Sanger's clinic did not dispense birth control per se, but attempted to take advantage of the First Amendment by JTC providing birth control information and sex education.

In 1917, Sanger and her colleagues at the clinic were convicted of dispensing contraception and served short jail terms. Unfortunately, Dr. McCann does not specifically refer to the historical opening of the Brownsville Clinic and the events that ensued from it. She only briefly comments that by the 1920s "Sanger's shift in emphasis from free speech to clinics repositioned the movement for legalized contraception."

This shift also forced Sanger to confront the paternalism of the medical establishment. Dr. McCann notes that Sanger was continuously at odds with medical stalwarts over their "ideological framing of contraceptive practices." Throughout the 1920s the medical profession resisted social reform, leading to the 1929 defeat of federal funding for maternal and infant health services.

Sanger also objected to the "medical hegemony" physicians practiced on women. Dr. McCann points out that it was the physician rather than the woman who took charge of all decisions related to fertility.

The AMA also linked birth control practices to illegal abortion, reasoning that women whose birth control failed were more likely to seek an abortion. That notion directly contradicted Sanger's claim that contraception would lead to a decrease in the high number of illegal abortions that took place during the Depression.

Disillusioned with the medical establishment and the corps of "welfare feminists" who refused to support legalizing contraception, Sanger turned to the pseudo-science of the eugenicists for vindication. Dr. McCann writes that "in the course of its struggles with medicine and feminism, the birth control movement depended on the language of eugenics to legitimate contraception.

By articulating the goal of contraceptive legalization in a eugenic framework, the movement defined birth control as a necessary component of national efforts to promote racial betterment." Some of the passages in Sanger's 1922 book "Pivot of Civilization" suggest that her relationship with the eugenicists was not just one of political expediency.

Although Dr. McCann insists that Sanger did not tolerate bigotry in any of her activities, she does not sufficiently discuss Sanger's motives in associating with the eugenicists. Was this a woman who actually believed that the "segregat[ing] of morons who are increasingly multiplying" should be a legitimate goal of the birth control movement?

By 1945 there were more than 800 birth control clinics operating throughout the country. Nevertheless, by limiting her discussion of birth control politics to the years between 1916 and 1945, Dr. McCann misses the opportunity to initiate an original and vigorous discussion of the current political climate. She also omits reflecting on the two Supreme Court landmark decisions for which Margaret Sanger lay the groundwork.

Sanger lived to see the Court affirm that a woman's right to use contraception was a constitutional right to privacy in the 1965 case of Griswold vs. Connecticut. That decision ultimately led the Court to affirm a woman's constitutional right to choose an abortion in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. Just before her death in 1966, Sanger further saw her crusade redeemed when Lyndon Johnson included family planning in the health and social programs of the Great Society initiative.

The contentiousness of birth control politics is reflected in a society where over the past decade women's health clinics have been transformed into battlefields and the inclusion of reproductive services in President Clinton's health care proposal a political minefield. "Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916-1945" could have been a three-dimensional work. As it stands, it is merely a summary of a subject that has been disconnected from a very active present.

E9 Ms. Bolton-Fasman is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

Title: "Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916-1945"

Author: Carole R. McCann

Publisher: Cornell University

Length, price: 242 pages, $29.95

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