Birth control is the generic term to describe methods used to limit the number of children. These methods fall into two main categories: those that try to prevent conception, and those that terminate an embryo or fetus.
Humans seem to have utilized various forms of birth control since ancient times in almost all cultures. Common forms of birth control were non-vaginal intercourse, coitus interruptus (withdrawal of the penis from the vagina before the point of ejaculation), vaginal barriers or pessaries to prevent sperm from reaching the ova, and abortifacients (potions taken to induce a miscarriage in a pregnant woman).
The Catholic Church has been particularly vocal in its opposition to birth control, and cites the story of Onan and the command to be fruitful as basis for this opposition. Sexual intercourse is for procreation, and attempts to interfere in this process are viewed as contrary to God’s will. Despite such opposition, evidence shows that the various forms of birth control have been widely practiced throughout the Western world.
Traditional local practice of birth control continued in the early United States, and abortion was widely practiced and accepted. Even Catholics accepted abortion before ‘‘the quickening,’’ the point at which life was thought to begin (approximately forty days after conception). In the 1830s, an increased religiosity began to stigmatize abortion at any stage. This coincided with attempts by doctors to professionalize medicine by preventing unlicensed persons from performing medical procedures, most often abortions. This combination led the states to prohibit all abortion unless medically necessary to save the life of the mother. In 1873, Anthony Comstock persuaded Congress to pass laws defining all information about contraception as obscene and punishing anyone who disseminated such information.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, concerns for the health risks associated with pregnancy led women’s rights groups to become more vocal in their demands for access to birth control. This led to a backlash with some, including President Theodore Roosevelt, calling the practice of birth control ‘‘race suicide.’’ The fear was that white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans would be outnumbered by immigrants because of their lower birth rates through practicing birth control. This tension found some resolution as many advocates of birth control also supported forcible eugenic sterilization of those deemed unfit to pass on their genes to the next generation.
One of the twentieth century’s most active campaigners for birth control was Margaret Sanger, the founder of the group Planned Parenthood. She led calls for new legislation at the state and local level and also pushed for change through the courts. In U.S. v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (1936), it was ruled that information about contraception was not obscene per se and that doctors could discuss contraception with their patients without fear of prosecution. In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the U.S. Supreme Court found that the penumbras of the Fourteenth Amendment contained a right to privacy that protected married couples’ use of contraceptive devices and struck down Connecticut’s law prohibiting their usage. Sanger was involved in both cases. The Court later extended Griswold to cover unmarried couples in the case of Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972).
The 1960s also saw the development of the first contraceptive pill and later long-term implanted contraceptives. The contraceptive pill is credited as a leading factor in the sexual liberation experienced in the 1960s and was criticized for encouraging greater promiscuity and sexual immorality.
The awareness of the threat posed by human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunity deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) refocused the debates over birth control onto the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed bitter divisions over what should be included in sex education in schools. Conservatives advocated the teaching of ‘‘abstinence only’’ as the only guaranteed protection against both pregnancy and infection. They resisted calls to include other methods of birth control in the curriculum for fears that greater awareness and understanding would lead to higher rates of teen sexual behavior. Others argued pragmatically that teens were likely to engage in this behavior anyway, and that other methods should be included to ensure that any sex was as safe as possible in terms of both avoiding pregnancy and preventing sexually transmitted diseases.
These debates took on an international dimension in 2001 when President George W. Bush began refusing funds for any United Nations sex education program that did not focus solely on abstinence, leading some to complain that the United States was putting its moral convictions ahead of concerns to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa and Asia.
GAVIN J. REDDICK
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Abortion Laws and the Establishment Clause; Abortion Protest Cases; Anti-Abortion Protest and Freedom of Speech; Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622 (1979); Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927); Search (General Definition); Family Values Movement; Obscenity; Reproductive Freedom; Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)