How Birth Control And Abortion Became Politicized
The first birth control clinic in the United States opened in 1916. It was operated by Margaret Sanger, who started the clinic after becoming outraged that she couldn't give her patients — poor women in the tenements on New York City's Lower East Side — information about contraceptive options.
"Sanger [went] to these squalid, crowded homes of these young women bearing many children who are begging her — while giving birth — for information about contraception," says historian Jill Lepore. "And it [was] illegal for her to give them any information."
Lepore's latest New Yorker piece chronicles the history and politicization of birth control in America. "From the start," she writes, "the birth-control movement has been as much about fighting legal and political battles as it has been about staffing clinics, because in a country without national health care, making contraception available to women has required legal reform."
Sanger was well aware of the legal battles. Before she opened her birth control clinic, she wrote a letter to New York's district attorney, informing him that she planned to provide printed pamphlets about contraceptive options. Passing out such information was illegal under the 1873 Comstock Law, which prohibited the distribution of any printed information deemed obscene.
"[The Comstock Act] classified all sorts of printed material as obscenity and specified contraception as obscene so that it [was] illegal to send through the U.S. mail ... information, even in a philosophical sense, about reducing a woman's fertility," says Lepore.
Nine days after Sanger opened her clinic in Brooklyn, an undercover police officer came in, posing as a mother who couldn't afford to raise more children. Sanger sold the officer a copy of "What Every Girl Should Know," a pamphlet about contraception and STDs. Shortly after, Sanger was arrested and sentenced to 30 days in prison.
"The courts ... ruled against her and said 'A woman's right to life gives her the right to not have intercourse with a man,' " says Lepore. "Sanger's argument is that a woman has a right to have sex without fear of death [during childbirth]. And the court rules against her."
Gathering Support From Clergy And Physicians
On appeal, the court ruled that it could be permissible for a doctor to talk to women about contraception. That ruling, says Lepore, was the great legal change that made it possible for Sanger to open up clinics across the country where doctors could talk to women about birth control. Sanger also reached out to the medical community as allies. In the late 1930s, the American Medical Association ruled that doctors who were willing could and should give information about birth control to their patients.
"It takes years for that to succeed, but that was a huge success for Sanger and probably her most important success," says Lepore. "There are people who think that was a tactical error — that there would have been ways to better reform the system so that the power of contraceptives didn't go exclusively into the hands of the medical community — but that was the tactic that Sanger thought would be most successful."
By the 1930s, a Gallup poll showed that 75 percent of Americans favored contraception. Sanger's organization, then called the American Birth Control League, reached out to the medical community and clergymen for support. In 1931, a committee of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ endorsed contraception in order to promote "marital love."
That struck Lepore, she says, because of how people think of birth control and religion today.
"A big reason why I wrote this piece was to try to ask us to remember that things have not always been thus," says Lepore. "This set of issues around birth control and abortion seems so overdetermined, as if they are naturally partisan ... or had been consistent over time."
But that was not the case in the 1930s and 1940s, when birth control gained religious support from Protestant and Jewish leaders. In 1936, a federal appellate court removed contraception from the obscenity category.
The Movement Changes
"That's a huge legal triumph for the birth-control movement," notes Lepore. Six years later, Sanger's American Birth Control League was renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
"By [then], the organization is so mainstream and so respectable and such a mainstay of American life," says Lepore, "that its leaders consider the phrase 'birth control' to be too radical, too controversial and too much of a demand."
By the 1960s, the landscape had changed. In 1965, the Supreme Court struck down a rarely enforced Connecticut state law that prohibited the use of contraception. The Griswold v. Connecticut ruling established that the Constitution protected a right to privacy, which meant that contraceptives were legal.
"Planned Parenthood [is now] an organization that is very far from what Margaret Sanger intended it to be," says Lepore. "By the 1960s, there's this widespread panic in the United States about a population explosion, and so the watchword now is 'population control' and not 'birth control.' "
By the late 1960s, Richard Nixon was pushing Congress to increase federal funding for family planning. In 1970, he signed Title X into law. The bill provided federal government funds for family planning services. A year later, Nixon reversed his position on Title X, after his advisers suggested he could divide the Democratic Party by taking a strong stand against abortion services. (Though abortion was illegal at the time, some restrictions had been lifted and it could be performed, in some cases, on military bases.)
"He begins talking about the sanctity of human life, and he then opposes Title X funding as part of his campaign to court Catholic voters when he runs for re-election," says Lepore.
Nixon was re-elected in 1972. A year later, the Supreme Court issued its key ruling on abortion, Roe v. Wade. Lepore says she decided to focus on the years before Roe v. Wade in her piece because she was able to track how issues like birth control and abortion became partisan over the years.
"I think a lot of that comes from moral posturing around this issue. I think we would do better if we could have these conversations outside of a partisan arena where there is far too much to gain by making these issues partisan," she says. "You can track over American history how much people have gained by staking out these partisan positions, and I think it's a real tragedy."
On the politicization of birth control and abortion
"I really do think that it is the great tragedy of American politics that this issue divides us so profoundly. It's a very painful issue to talk to just about anybody with, and I think there's a surprising lack of basic human charity when people talk about this issue, no matter what their position. I feel that so much of the kind of murderous rhetoric of American politics and what we decry as the 'decline of civility' or 'hyperpartisanship' are really troubling as a citizen to watch. And I do think that even when we're not talking about abortion, we are talking about abortion."
On Margaret Sanger and eugenics
"She founds a journal called the Birth Control Review, and she asks [Paul] Poponoe, [the co-author of Applied Eugenics] to contribute to it. She goes to D.C. to debate Poponoe. These eugenicists that Sanger is courting are actually generally opposed to birth control because they considered it, and Poponoe writes at the time, that 'birth control is the reverse of eugenics.' So what someone like Poponoe believes is that the population can be improved by encouraging the fit to biologically reproduce and by discouraging the unfit to reproduce. Poponoe's objection to birth control is that it is widely used and has already been widely used by the people he considers to be the fit. So Poponoe refers to Sanger and the likes of Sanger as 'sob sisters' who are interested in giving women the right to control their reproductive processes, which has nothing to do with eugenics. Eugenicists want basically to coerce the poor to not have more children and in some cases, and Poponoe is among those people who want to, force the poor to not have more children."
On Sanger's personality
"Sanger is a really complicated character. She's not a likable character. As someone who reads people's letters and diaries all the time, I'm always falling in love with people in the archives. They're very companionable — certain people whose papers I read. Sanger is not that type of person. She is a tough, tough character. I think she's quite reckless and quite heedless."
On Sanger and abortion
"Sanger was opposed to abortion, and the birth control movement was always, in those decades, was about making contraception more readily available to women to reduce the abortion rate."
On the current state of politics
"We're so fixed and stuck and at this political impasse and have been at it and stuck in it for so long. I think it's easy to lose perspective on, actually, the arguments made by one side or another have switched sides over time more than once."
On criticism of Planned Parenthood during the 1950s and 1960s
"The criticism of Planned Parenthood in those decades is coming from the left. It's coming from black nationalists. That's where, in the 1960s, these charges that Planned Parenthood is establishing more clinics in poor, black neighborhoods than poor, white women — and that Planned Parenthood is coercing young women into birth control choices that they object to."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In a much-watched election yesterday, Mississippi voters rejected an initiative that would have granted rights of personhood to a fertilized egg. Opponents of the initiative said granting a fertilized egg personhood would have not only made abortion a crime, it would have outlawed certain forms of birth control, like the morning-after pill and the IUD.
Earlier this year, the Republican-led House voted to defund Planned Parenthood. The history of the birth control movement has taken many surprising turns over the past century. My guest Jill Lepore writes about some of them in the current edition of the New Yorker. Her article is called "Birthright." It begins with the current controversy over federal funding for Planned Parenthood, then examines the birth control movement's history, going back to the early 1900s and Margaret Sanger, who founded the first birth control clinic.
Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker. Her latest book, "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History," has been published in paperback.
Jill Lepore, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you say that contraception and abortion aren't by nature partisan issues. But have they always been partisan issues in the United States?
JILL LEPORE: They've always been troubling issues that were hotly contested and debated, but in very different ways over time. I think it's really easy, we're so sort of fixed and stuck and at this political impasse and have been at it and stuck in it for so long, it's I think quite easy to lose perspective on actually that the arguments by one side or the other have kind of switched sides over time, more than once.
GROSS: Let's look at the history of the birth control debate in the United States. The first birth control clinic opened in 1916. It was opened by Margaret Sanger. What was her background? What did she see that led her to become a birth control activist?
LEPORE: Sanger came from an Irish-Catholic family. She was one of 11 children. Her father, I think he was a stonecutter. Her mother died of tuberculosis at a relatively young age. I think she was 35 - 45, I'm sorry. And Sanger, as a child, you know, grew up helping raise these children. She also helped deliver one of her mother's babies, this 14-pound baby, when she was eight years old.
She grew up and became a nurse and starting taking care of women in the tenements on the Lower East Side, and this is, you know, the 19-teens, and Sanger married fairly young. She was pregnant within six months of getting married. She had three children fairly quickly herself.
She was, herself, also ill. She had tuberculosis as a young woman. She always - her father lived to be more than - older than 80, and she always attributed her father's long life and good health to the fact that he wasn't the one bearing the children. And she was very - from a young age, fairly quickly politicized. She became a socialist.
And this is at a time in American history when the birthrate has fallen fairly precipitously over the course of the 19th century. Just to kind of think about the history of fertility rates in the United States, the great demographic transition that economists and demographers talk about starts, you know, as early as 1800 when the birthrate among white women in the United States falls from over seven in 1800 to over three in 1900.
But that decline is largely a decline among white middle-class women. For working-class and especially immigrant women, the birth rate is still very, very high. And it turns out that women who are able to control their fertility are actually using contraception. There are studies that are done at the end of the 19th century, and it turns out that a lot of women, middle-class white women, have found a way to use contraception, to get contraception even though contraception is illegal.
And so for Sanger, she goes to these squalid, crowded homes of these young women bearing many children who are begging her, you know, while giving birth or in the hours after giving birth, begging her for contraception, information about contraception. And it is illegal for her to give them any information about contraception, and she becomes outraged by this.
And so she - although, kind of, questions about contraception have been part of a debate among a lot of different people for a long time, Sanger is the first person to really sort of decide this is going to be her single issue focus. This is what she is going to dedicate her life to, is the campaign to make contraception legal.
GROSS: What kind of contraception was available then, that she could teach women about and make available to them?
LEPORE: Yeah, it's actually really - the history of contraception is kind of fascinating because it's really hard to find out in the historical record, right. People are just generally very private about these things, and there are not a lot of opportunities for people's testimony about what methods they're using to be made available.
So there are, for instance, condoms starting in the 1850s with the vulcanization of rubber. They're pretty expensive, and they're very, very hard to get, and a condom requires a fair amount of cooperation on the part of your partner. So it's not considered necessarily the most reliable method.
So that's a method that Sanger would be informing people about. Most people are using withdrawal, frankly, but a lot of women are using pessaries, you know, sort of the grandmother of the sponge or the cervical cap, a kind of a barrier method that's illegal but is possible to acquire.
GROSS: Was that dangerous? Did they lead to infections for a lot of women?
LEPORE: I don't think pessaries are that dangerous. What's actually really dangerous is childbirth, right. People are dying in childbirth all the time. So it's not just these women want to have fewer children. They don't want to orphan the children that they do have.
I think it's really important to think hard about what that maternal death rate means to how people think about contraception and someone like a nurse, someone like Margaret Sanger, thinks about the kinds of things that she is able to provide these women and going back to these houses and taking care of other children after their mother has died in childbirth.
So it's mainly pessaries that Sanger is interested in distributing, and when she opens up this birth control clinic in 1916, she is mainly giving information out about birth control. But even just the giving of information is breaking the law, and so Sanger is arrested.
GROSS: So Sanger finds out that a lot of the immigrant women that she's working with know nothing about birth control. But many of them have had abortions. There was a study at the time, in the teens, in the 19-teens, that you quote that found that 41 percent of women who received medical care through clinics operated by New York City's health department had never used contraception, and of those women, more than half had had at least one abortion. They averaged two apiece.
That's a pretty large figure, considering how, you know: A, that abortions were illegal; and B, they were probably really dangerous.
LEPORE: They were really dangerous. There is a question, though, whether they were more dangerous than childbirth, frankly, at that point. The numbers, the abortion numbers from the early part of the century are pretty staggering. There are estimates that as many as one in three pregnancies in those decades ended in abortion.
All that abortion was illegal. Abortion was criminalized over the course of the 19th century. It had been legal until 1821, but it was criminalized over the course of the 19th century. It's a relatively new thing that abortion is so widely criminalized.
But Sanger - and this is something that people forget about the history of the contraception movement, or the birth control movement. It's Sanger who coins the term birth control, by the way; we get that from Sanger - is that Sanger was opposed to abortion. And the birth control movement was always, in those decades, about using the avail-- making contraception more readily available to poor women in order to reduce the abortion rate.
GROSS: So birth control was illegal. Discussion of it was illegal at the time that Margaret Sanger opened her clinic. And this was because of the Comstock Law. Would you describe that law?
LEPORE: Anthony Comstock was a moral reformer, a social purity reformer, who was the architect of the Comstock Law, which passed in I think 1873, which classifies all sorts of printed material as obscenity and specifies information about contraception as obscene - so that it's illegal to send through the U.S. mails, and this is how Sanger gets in trouble early on in her career.
It is illegal to send through the U.S. mails information, even in a philosophical sense, discussing reducing a woman's fertility.
GROSS: So it's illegal to publish about it. It's illegal to distribute it.
GROSS: So how does she get around that? She opens a clinic, and it's illegal.
LEPORE: She opens a clinic and illegal, you know, it's a direct action, right. She's hoping to get arrested. She writes to the Brooklyn district attorney before she opens the clinic saying hey, I'm about to open a clinic, and what I'm going to do there is tell women about birth control.
Before that, she has written a series of essays for The Call, which is the socialist daily, called "What Every Girl Should Know." I think it's a seven-part series. The last essay in the series, which discusses a number of venereal matters, mainly venereal disease, is suppressed by the U.S. Post Office. The Call publishes a protest announcement saying what every girl should know: nothing.
Sanger briefly flees the country after she's arrested, after she's charged for obscenity for writing about contraception in "What Every Girl Should Know." She starts her own magazine called The Woman Rebel. Sanger is very much a socialist and very much a feminist, and she sees this as an issue.
And she talks before the courts as contraception as an issue involving a woman's right to life. And the courts continue to rule against her in saying, you know, a woman's right to life gives her the option to not have intercourse with a man. Sanger's argument is that a woman has a right to have sex without fear of death. And the court rules against her. It's only on appeal of her conviction after the opening of the clinic that a court rules that it could be permissible for a doctor to talk to a woman about contraception.
And that is the great legal change that makes it possible for Sanger to open up clinics subsequently. So she opens up that first clinic in 1916 and is arrested. In 1921, she founds the American Birth Control League, which begins opening up clinics across the country, where it's possible for doctors to talk to women about contraception.
GROSS: You know, and that judge who made it legal for her to open her clinic, who said that doctors could prescribe contraception for women, also said that no woman, quote, had the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception. How was that interpreted?
LEPORE: Well, one - people ask all the time. Actually, when I've been chatting with people about, oh, I'm working on this history of contraception - people are always quite surprised at the virulence of the social disapproval of contraception itself.
And a lot of it really is about adultery. So Father Coughlin, who's a great opponent of Margaret Sanger, talks a lot in the 1930s about legislation that Sanger is trying to get through - this is later, but, you know, trying to get through Congress in the 1930s - will really, will make it possible for women to have affairs outside of marriage without fear of consequence.
Right, men can have an affair without fear, but if a woman has contraception, she could engage in an adulterous affair, and no one would be the wiser. There's a kind of weird subtext to that. And that - so when I read that judge's ruling, that's one of the things that I hear in that, and that you see a lot in the coverage of this issue at the time.
GROSS: The fear that contraception would enable and empower women to be adulterous.
LEPORE: Right. Because remember, and this is also easily lost in our vantage of what we think that Sanger was up to, all this is information she is only eager to give to married women. It's really not until the 1960s that Planned Parenthood even admits that they - unmarried women are being treated in any clinics. This is really all about allowing married women to control the size of their families.
GROSS: So just to clarify, Margaret Sanger was facing two laws that made her work impossible: The Comstock Law made it impossible for her to write about or speak about contraception or publish anything about contraception, because that violated the Comstock Law, the Comstock Act. The New York Penal Code prevented her from actually distributing any kind of contraception. Do I have that right?
LEPORE: Yes, and there are codes like that all over the country. It's not just New York.
GROSS: OK, so this judge's ruling strikes down the New York Penal Code part that prevents the distribution of contraception?
LEPORE: It allows doctors to distribute information about contraception.
GROSS: So this means that Margaret Sanger has to start teaming up with doctors in her clinic?
LEPORE: Right, and also has to try to start lobbying the American Medical Association to take a position on this issue, which is what she mainly - so at this point, Sanger begins courting support in all kinds of places. She's - does not have a lot of natural political allies, right.
So she begins lobbying doctors. It's not until 1937 that the American Medical Association finally takes a stance on this issue, but then it takes the stand that it is the obligation of doctors, or doctors who are willing, to give information to their patients who are interested in information about contraception, that they should and can.
It takes years for that to succeed, but that is a huge success for Sanger and probably her most important success. There are people who think that was a tactical error, right, that there would have been better ways to find - to keep - to reform the system such that the power over contraception didn't go into - exclusively into the hands of the medical community. But that was the tactic that Sanger thought was likely to be most successful.
GROSS: It's also what the law said, too, wasn't it? I mean...
LEPORE: It's where the legal opening was, exactly.
GROSS: My guest is historian Jill Lepore. Her article "Birthright" is in the current edition of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: We're talking about the history of the birth control movement with Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard. Her article in the current edition of the New Yorker is called "Birthright: What's Next for Planned Parenthood?" When we left off, we were talking about birth control activist Margaret Sanger, who founded the first birth control clinic in 1916.
Now, Sanger has been accused of being a eugenicist, and you say that, you know, she was courting a lot of allies, and in fact she courted eugenicists, too. What was meant by eugenicist?
LEPORE: This is an important charge against Sanger and against birth control, and later, population control overall, and it's one to be taken very, very seriously. 1916 happens to be also the year that Madison Grant published "The Passing of the Great Race," which is this sort of racial history of America.
Grant is sort of the - probably the most important American eugenicist. He argues that the United States are being taken over by dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed people and that the true virtue of the United States is to be found in the Nordic peoples, the blue-eyed, blond-haired Nordic peoples.
Grant's racial history and his eugenicist arguments are taken up by lots of other people. They predate Grant, as well. Another really important American eugenicist is Paul Poponoe. Poponoe is a biologist from Stanford who co-authors a book called "Applied Eugenics," which becomes the most widely assigned eugenics textbook in American colleges and universities.
And he's the kind of guy that Sanger courts, even as early as 1916, 1917, when she gets out of jail after having been arrested for opening that clinic. She founds a journal called the Birth Control Review, and she asks Poponoe to contribute to it. She goes to D.C. to debate Poponoe.
These eugenicists that Sanger is courting are actually generally opposed to birth control because they considered it - and Poponoe writes at the time, that birth control as it is currently practiced, is the reverse of eugenics. So what someone like Poponoe believes, or Madison Grant, is that the population can be improved by encouraging the fit - the biologically fit - to reproduce and discouraging the unfit to reproduce.
And Poponoe's objection to birth control is that it is widely used, and has already been widely used, by the people he considers to be the fit. So Poponoe, you know, refers to Sanger and the likes of Sanger as sob sisters who are interested in giving women the right to control their reproductive processes, which has nothing to do with eugenics.
Eugenicists want basically to coerce the poor to not have more children, and in some cases, and Poponoe is among those people who wants to force the poor to not have more children. So Poponoe is the author or the co-author of a book called "Sterilization for Human Betterment."
And so by 1909, California has passed a sterilization law, a forced sterilization law. Two-thirds of American states eventually do the same.
GROSS: Outlawing it? Outlawing forced sterilization?
LEPORE: No, making provisions for forced sterilization.
GROSS: For whom?
LEPORE: For the people that Poponoe and Grant would call the unfit. And this has to do largely with going into institutions for the insane, the people who were called, at the time, the feebleminded. The origins of the IQ test date to this period, and one of the things the IQ test is designed to do is to determine who is feebleminded and who should be sterilized.
GROSS: So why did Margaret Sanger seek out the eugenicists as allies, when she was opposed to what they believed?
LEPORE: Yeah, yeah, Sanger is a really complicated character. She's not a likable character. You know, as someone who reads people's letters and diaries in the archives all the time, I'm always falling in love with people in the archives. They're very companionable, certain people whose papers I read. Sanger is not that kind of person for me. She is a tough, tough character. I think she's quite reckless and quite heedless.
And I think, first of all, a number of progressive-era reformers, both left and right, fall for eugenics early on, especially before World War I. All kinds of people, Woodrow Wilson is in favor of eugenics at some point. And what people distinguish is those who are in favor of positive eugenics versus negative eugenics, whether that is they want to encourage certain people to have more children - because the birth rate, again, has been falling so fast among wealthier and more educated women, and this is of some concern.
Teddy Roosevelt is a eugenicist in this sense. He's concerned with "race suicide," right. This is one of Roosevelt's big social concerns. People are concerned that the better-off people are basically failing to reproduce, and this is what all the anti-immigration laws in the 1920s are about, is about attempting to address a kind of racial crisis in the American population.
So there's a lot of this stuff out there. It's not like Margaret Sanger is an outlier in 1916, when she is courting eugenicists. There are - all kinds of people are approving of eugenics. And then there are some very brave people who were speaking out against it.
That increases over the '20s, and certainly by the '30s, when, you know, someone like Poponoe's and Grant's writing - their writings are translated into German. they're widely read in Germany, and at that point people are disavowing eugenics, left and right. Nevertheless, those laws remain on the books in many states, those eugenics laws remain on the books in many states into the 1970s.
There are forced sterilizations that happened in the United States for most of the 20th century.
GROSS: Now, Herman Cain described Planned Parenthood as a sham whose purpose is to kill black babies. Do you think a charge like that relates to the eugenics era and the era when Sanger tried to ally with them?
LEPORE: Actually, I think what Cain is drawing on more is protest in the 1960s, which is a little bit different, when there's a kind of Black Panther, black nationalist critique of family planning, per se. But that itself is looking back to the 1930s. So the first state-supported birth control program in the United States started in 1937 in North Carolina. It was run by the North Carolina Eugenics Board.
And at some points in its history, it did things like make the insertion of an IUD a condition of the receipt of welfare. There - you know, it's not - this is not an imagined problem, right. There is a long, complicated history of family planning and its involvement with forced sterilization or, at the very minimum, with coerced sterilization - that is to say people who are given very little choice.
Some people who are sterilized against - without even realizing that that's what's being done to them. It is a very dark and troubling history, but when Cain talks about that - so that's got nothing to do with Sanger opening her clinic in 1916, but it has to do with the longer history of the continued reliance on eugenics arguments in some quarters of the family planning moment.
GROSS: Jill Lepore will be back in the second half of the show. Her article "Birthright: What's next for Planned Parenthood?" is in the current edition of the New Yorker. Her latest book is "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History." Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the history of the birth control movement with Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and staff writer at The New Yorker. Her article in the current edition is called "Birthright: What's next for Planned Parenthood?" She's also the author of "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History."
In talking about how birth control became politicized, you point to a very interesting fact, which is that in 1927, a survey of the members of the American Birth Control League, which was the predecessor of Planned Parenthood, found its membership to be disproportionately Republican from small towns and suburbs. Any idea why that was?
LEPORE: Well, the organization has done a really good job in trying to find alliances with more mainstream organizations and to sort of package itself as a respectable social reform, which indeed it is. There's actually not a lot of evidence that there's more popular objection to the legalization of contraception, right? Most people who have access to contraception are using it. It's really just a question of whether it can be made legal for everybody else. There is a lot of support for it and it's been the case that the American Birth Control League is really effective at gaining support among people who are joiners, who join things like the Rotary Club or the Red Cross or the Anti-Saloon League - a lot of people who are involved in all kinds of different reforms. The reform moves from the cities to the suburbs and it draws a great deal of support. And by, you know, as early as 1928, Sanger is sort of forced out of the organization that she helped found, because birth control has become something very different than the feminist movement that she started it as.
GROSS: In what ways did it become different?
LEPORE: Well, I think partly it has to do with its courting of eugenicists. It's after Sanger leaves that in 1933 the American Birth Control League proposes a merger with the American Eugenics Society. The eugenicists aren't actually interested. But over the long haul, eugenics is a conservative argument, right? It starts out where it appeals to kind of progressive, liberal reformers as well as to conservatives. But over the long haul, it tends to have, it tends to draw conservative support. Here is a way to address the problem of poverty: We will provide birth control to people who are poor and there will be fewer of them. That's not a progressive reform, right? That's not a rights argument about women. That is a very tricky kind of conservative position about - and I don't mean conservative in the sense of our modern parlance, but I mean just in the sense of how people understood it at the time.
GROSS: So you're saying that at some point in the late '20s the birth control movement becomes more about controlling the population of immigrants.
LEPORE: Yeah. The historian David Kennedy, he wrote a really interesting biography of Sanger, writes that birth control is this very odd social movement that starts out as a liberal reform but it is generally turned to conservative ends.
GROSS: When does that start to change?
LEPORE: Well, what of the things that changes over the course of the 1930s is that Sanger moves her efforts to a kind of court reform. And the great legal victory, US vs. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, which is a case that is engineered by Sanger, makes it that doctors can provide birth control to patients and that birth control can be made available, can be sold. The case involves a box of pessaries that are imported from Japan. So that's a huge legal triumph for the birth control movement. And there is also - over the course of the Depression, right, a lot of people are really interested in having fewer children. They have less money. They want to think about the size of their families in economic terms in different ways. People are facing different kinds of hardships. So popular support for contraception and the availability of contraception increases, and they're comes to be - and this is something the American Birth Control League is very successful at in the 1930s - seeking further alliances with clergy. There's a huge amount of clergy support among Protestant clergy in particular, for the birth control movement. So there's just a general progress towards this becoming kind of a mainstream issue. So by the 1940s when Sanger is still on the outs, in 1942 the American Birth Control League is renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, because by now the organization is so mainstream and in some ways sort of so respectable and sort of a mainstay of American life, that its leaders considered the phrase birth control to be sort of too radical, too controversial and too much of a demand.
GROSS: So, you know, you mention clergy became involved. You write that in 1931 the Federal Council of Churches of Christ, chaired by Reinhold Niebuhr, issued a report endorsing contraception because the report said by separating sex from reproduction it promoted marital love.
LEPORE: Yeah. I put that in there because partly it's just so striking. I guess a big reason why I wrote this piece was to try to ask us to remember that things have not always been thus. The way this set of issues around birth control and abortion seem so overdetermined, as if they are actually partisan, as if the way religious denominations fall down, or the question of what is a Christian position on this issue, as if these things were natural or predetermined or had been consistent over time.
It's actually a very eloquent statement, the statement that Niebuhr's committee writes about the importance of contraception and the way that it allows, the way that the separation of sex from reproduction contributes to the stability of marriage. And that actually is a big part of the move from birth control to Planned Parenthood as a matter of nomenclature, or to the phrase family planning, which also comes from the 1940s shortly afterward. At this point in the history of the birth control movement, the unit is not the woman and her body, which was what it started out being for Sanger. It really is the family. And when we think about the kind of consolidation of cultural energy in the wake of World War II and the baby boomers are celebrating the American family as the bulwark against all manner of foreign threats, there's a real celebration of the family. And the Planned Parenthood is a way to build stronger families.
GROSS: So the law that banned the distribution of birth control through the mail was overturned by a Supreme Court decision known as Griswold vs. Connecticut. Griswold was the person who challenged the law. This was in 1965. Who was she, and on what grounds did she challenge the law?
LEPORE: She was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic of Connecticut and Estelle Griswold participates in that challenge in order to overturn really, to bring to the Supreme Court a test case to establish that as a matter of federal law it is not a violation to distribute contraception. So that really is the last obstacle to the distribution of contraception. And in that case the Supreme Court rules that it is a matter of privacy. That's the case that establishes the distribution of contraception, or a woman's right to use contraception, as a matter of a constitutional right to privacy. So by the 1960s though, the entire landscape has changed with regard to the birth control movement and Planned Parenthood's own activities. It remains an organization that is very far from anything that Margaret Sanger had intended it to be. Sanger continues to be a controversial figure.
But by the 1960s, there's this widespread panic in the United States and elsewhere about a population explosion and so the watchword now is population control, not birth control. "The Population Bomb" is published in 1968 and the federal government for the first time comes to be involved in thinking about family planning. And in the United States it's Griswold v. Connecticut and also the continued lobbying and activism of the most, probably the most important president of Planned Parenthood over its history is Alan Guttmacher, who is an obstetrician.
GROSS: My guest is historian Jill Lepore. Her article "Birthright" is in the current edition of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jill Lepore. She's a historian at Harvard University and she's the author of an article in the current edition of The New Yorker Called "Birthright. What's next for Planned Parenthood?" And she's also the author of the book "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History." That's just been published in paperback.
So in keeping with how birth control became political, you mentioned - and this really surprised me - that Barry Goldwater was on the board of Planned Parenthood in the 1950s.
LEPORE: Goldwater and his wife are both very active in the Planned Parenthood organization in Phoenix. Goldwater's wife I think is president of the board. I don't know that Goldwater himself, I don't think Goldwater himself ever serves on the board, but they're very active supporters. And really the support for Planned Parenthood in the 1950s and 1960s really is fairly mainline Republican kind of support. There are a lot of women who volunteer their time, and who volunteer with other kinds of organizations like the League of Women Voters. But in - Planned Parenthood is in some places controversial. But actually the criticism of Planned Parenthood in those decades is coming from the left, it's coming from black nationalists. That's where it's in the 1960s that these charges that Planned Parenthood is establishing more clinics in poor black neighborhoods than in poor white neighborhoods and that Planned Parenthood is coercing young women into birth control choices that they object to.
GROSS: President Nixon is a very interesting figure in the history of birth control. In 1970 he signs Title X, and let's stop here and talk about what Title X did.
LEPORE: OK. So up until the 1960s family planning had really basically been privately funded. You know, there were donations or some small local grants and people paid for services or there might be state programs. But in the 1960s there's a series of discussions in the federal government, in Congress about what the role of the federal government should be in dealing with the population problem - the overpopulation problem or the looming population bomb. So as early as 1965, there are hearings on this subject and some of the first early federal funding of family planning becomes part of Johnson's War On Poverty. In 1970, though, Nixon signs Title X, which provides systematically a much more massive federal government intervention that provides funding for family planning services.
GROSS: So when Nixon signs Title X into law, you know, giving federal funding to birth control centers for people who can't afford or don't have health insurance, that doesn't cover abortion because abortion isn't legal yet. But Nixon becomes politicized about abortion in the early '70s, and you say that's at the urging of his strategists. Why did they see abortion as a winning - or antiabortion, I should say, as a winning issue for Nixon?
LEPORE: Well, there had been over the course of the '60s a number of state laws reforming or liberalizing abortion, so that there are some states now where it's possible to have a legal abortion for certain specific reasons. There's a growing number of states. This has led to some considerable opposition, largely from the Catholic Church, and in 1968 the Pope issues a statement decrying both birth control and abortion. And Nixon, like the first Bush, Ronald Reagan signs a liberalized abortion law in California. This really has been a fairly consistently bipartisan issue in the 1960s. There's been a lot of support for family planning. Nixon's advisers, who are looking towards his reelection campaign, suggest in 1970 and 1971 to Nixon that he could divide the Democrats by taking a position on abortion that would activate the Catholic Democrats to move to the Republican Party.
There's a series of memos that are exchanged between Nixon and his advisers quite specifically laying this out as a very deliberate policy that will be very effective in dividing the Democratic Party. And Nixon decides to do that. So he reverses his position on a number of issues in 1970 and 1971, and he deploys the language of the Catholic Church. He begins talking about the sanctity of human life and he then opposes the renewal of Title X funding as part of his campaign to court Catholic voters when he runs for reelection.
GROSS: So I think after that period there's a lot more that's known about how abortion became politicized. But, you know, most of your piece covers the early history of birth control. And I'm wondering why you thought it was important now to look back on that early history.
LEPORE: I really do think that it is the great tragedy of American politics that this issue divides us so profoundly. And it's a very painful issue to talk to just about anyone with. And I think there's a kind of a surprising lack of basic human charity when people talk about this issue, no matter what their position. And I feel that so much of the kind of murderous rhetoric of American politics and what we decry as the decline of civility or hyper-partisanship, these things are really troubling as a citizen to watch, right? And I do think that even when we're not talking about abortion we are often talking about abortion. I mean I think that so much of American politics has a kind of good and evil cast, a do or die, life or death intensity, and I think a lot of that comes from the moral posturing around this issue. I think we would do better if we could have these conversations outside of a partisan arena, where there is far too much to gain by making these issues partisan. And you can track over the course of American history how much people have gained by staking out these partisan positions and I think it's a real tragedy.
GROSS: Jill Lepore, thank you so much for joining us.
LEPORE: Thank you.
GROSS: Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard. Her article "Birthright" is in the current edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.