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  • Elizabeth Murray

A Brief History of Birth Control

Thanks to modern scientific advancements, birth control comes in many shapes and sizes, with different products to accommodate different needs. The history of birth control is extensive, but learning about it may shed light on current women's issues. Here's a brief history of contraceptives, especially in the United States:

The first known use of contraceptives, which were made from animal intestines, dates back to 3000 B.C.E. in ancient Egypt and Crete. During the era of slavery in the United States, enslaved women used African folk remedies to resist conceiving a child from white rapists. Throughout history, almost all forms of contraceptives were made from natural remedies — typically animal parts — until 1855 when the first rubber condom was invented. Since the 19th century, there has been an ongoing societal debate about the accessibility of birth control, what kind should be available, and who should be allowed to buy it.

The first major piece of legislation surrounding contraceptives was passed in 1873. The Comstock Act made the mailing of contraceptives and information about them a crime. In 1907, several government policies were created that legalized forced sterilization, and by 1929, thirty states had such laws on the books.

In 1916, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, opened her first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York and in 1917 began publishing the educational magazine, The Birth Control Review. Throughout the early 20th century activists like Margaret Sanger and organizations like the Woman’s Political Association of Harlem worked tirelessly to educate other women an increase access to birth control. Black women played an exceptional role, with the National Council of Negro Women being the first organization to support the use of birth control. Thanks to their efforts, by the late 1930’s the Comstock Acts were overturned, the diaphragm became widely available, and birth control clinics became more commonplace.

The latter half of the 20th century witnessed great progress in the birth control movement. In the 60’s, the Pill and IUD were both approved by the FDA. In 1973, birth control was legalized for unmarried women thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird. The 1978 case of Carey v. Population Services ruled that states could not restrict access to contraceptives or the sale of them. In 1993, the female condom was approved by the FDA, and subsequently in 1998 and 1999, two versions of the morning after pill were also approved. By 2013, "Plan B" was first sold as an over-the-counter medication.

However, recent years have seen a regression in access to birth control. In 2014, the Court ruled in favor of religious exemption under the Affordable Care Act in Burewell v. HobbyLobby. The Trump administration approved the expansion of religious exemptions under the Affordable Care Act, giving employers the right to deny birth control in their health insurance plans. In 2019, the administration further restricted Title X healthcare, which gives low-income women access to birth control, cutting availability in half.

It should be noted that the history of the birth control movement is marred by controversy due to its close ties to the eugenics movement. Eugenics is a set of beliefs focused on passing down perceived heritable traits to improve the human population, often involving the sterilization of women with traits deemed inferior. It is based on pseudoscience, racism, ableism, classism xenophobia, and is considered a form of white supremacy. Margaret Sanger supported eugenics, expressing anti-immigrant and ableist views, and despite her socially progressive views for the time, she was supported by notorious Klansman Lothorp Stoddard.

Many black and indigenous women were coerced into sterilization, especially during the 1970’s when the average white woman was having 2.4 children but the average indigenous woman was having 1.8. The second wave feminist movement typically didn’t address the issue for fear of detracting from the pro-choice movement. It wasn’t until 1979 that the CDC changed its guidelines, requiring informed consent and a 30 day wait period before a sterilization procedure. Many victims have not received justice, and as of 2020, North Carolina and Virginia are the only two states that have set up compensation programs for the victims of forced sterilization.

There is an undeniable benefit to increased access to birth control. When given access to contraceptives, women and girls have more access to education and job opportunities. Their children also statistically fair better because they are more likely to live in higher income households. Communities benefit as well: maternal mortality rates fall when birth control is more common, leading to changes in societal norms.

Body autonomy is an important discourse in our national conversation and will always be indelibly tied to the feminist movement. The politics of it are complicated and nuanced, and tied to issues of separation of church and state and personal rights. The modern birth control accessibility movement will always be about a woman’s right to choose if, when, and how she becomes pregnant. This has been the goal since the early days and championed by many activists and everyday people whose names we will never know.

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