The Decades-Old Contraception Debate

Dueling essays from The Atlantic's October 1939 issue show that in 73 years, some of the discourse around contraception hasn't changed.


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Some conversations never change. A pair of dueling essays in the October 1939 edition of The Atlantic outline the diverging arguments of why states need to support birth control and why it would be a sin to allow it. In reading these essays, it becomes apparent that in 73 years, some aspects of the discourse on birth control have not progressed much at all.

Don Wharton, the author of the pro-contraception essay, "Birth Control: The Case for the State," details the experience of North Carolina, one of the first states to support birth control clinics and education. Funded by Dr. Clarence J. Gamble, an heir to the Procter and Gamble fortune, the program established 62 clinics in service of the state's 100 counties, distributing birth control devices and information only three years after contraception had been declared legal in any regard.

In 1873, contraception had been outlawed nationwide by the Comstock laws, which banned "lewd" materials and information from being transmitted through the mail. According to Wharton, under the Comstock laws, doctors were fearful of even mentioning contraception in their practices. 

In 1936, rallied on by reproductive rights advocate Margaret Sanger, federal courts ruled the outright medical ban on contraception unconstitutional, allowing physicians to legally distribute birth control "for the purpose of saving life or promoting the well-being of their patients." 

But the 1936 decision was only the first step toward contraception rights; many states still held bans against contraception. It wasn't until 1965 in the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut that contraception was made legal for all married couples. Then, in 1972, the Supreme Court declared it legal for unmarried couples as well.

In 1939, North Carolina, unlike many other states, didn't have any explicit laws against contraception, and this allowed it to initiate its pioneering clinic program. Wharton's main line of argument mirror's Sanger's: Contraception benefits the poor and empowers women to make economic decisions about their health and bodies. 

Much of North Carolina at the time was poverty-stricken and detached from proper health care system. Wharton writes that "of each thousand mothers, twice as many die in North Carolina as in Connecticut." From today's standpoint, his argument is tinged with racism; in a state with both black and white poverty, he often cites poor black communities as the ones whose populations needed to be kept in check. (Sanger herself maintained relations with eugenics groups.) Wharton writes, "When [one country official] discovered that the Negroes were accounting for 85 per cent of the births he quickly changed his mind [about contraception]." But racial issues aside, Wharton's main argument is that with the right information and materials, poor families can stop adding to their burdens while their economic situations improve. Here's one of his examples.

A cotton farm tenant's wife of twenty five, married at sixteen, had six children in seven years, four boys and two girls, all delivered by midwives in a small, unscreened shack. Water supply, questionable; sanitary facilities, none. After her fifth pregnancy this woman asked, 'Isn't there something you can do?' and the county nurse this was before state contraception had to admit there wasn't. A few months later the nurse found the woman in tears -- she was pregnant again... That was in the fall of 1937, and there have been no more children; this slender little Negro woman is now bright and cheerful; when she gets to town she usually drops by to tell the nurse how well her children are doing.

Father Francis J. Connell, who wrote "Birth Control: The Case for the Catholic," doesn't necessarily discount the public health argument. Rather, he basically ignores it, appealing only to religious reasoning. He begins his argument with a disclosure: "The discussion of this subject as I intend to present it will be fully appreciated only by those who admit that there is a Supreme Being, whom men are obliged to serve and to obey."

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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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