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    Birth Control as an Idea (Part II)

    February 2, 2006 by Brandy Vencel

    Margaret Sanger was a strong advocate of all forms of birth control. In Part I, I focused primarily on The Pill because it is the easiest form of contraception to research (this is also known as being lazy). Now that Rebecca has reformed me, here is some information on the history of nonchemical forms of birth control.

    Wikipedia is always a good starting place. You can find more details than time or discretion allow for by clicking on this link to the articles concerning birth control. I will try to provide some basic details for those of you who have better things to do with your time than clicking on the links.

    I know I am trying to concentrate on birth control as an idea within our own (American) culture, but I do think there are a couple historical examples of contraception worth noting.

    The first is one of the earliest descriptions of contraception, the story of Onan, found in Genesis 38:7-10. As far as I am aware, this is the sole mention of any such behavior found in Scripture. “Some theologians observe (here is my source) that the biblical penalty for not giving your brother’s widow children was public humiliation, not death (Deuteronomy 25:7–10). They believe that the implication is that Onan’s sin was more than merely not fulfilling the duty of a brother-in-law” (i.e., that “spilling seed” may be sin in and of itself).

    The behavior of Onan is one method that has never (to my knowledge) been discussed in a court of law in the US.

    If one is interested in information on Natural Family Planning (NFP), here is a Wikipedia article on that subject. This is the only method of birth control approved by the Roman Catholic Church, which tends to consider abstinence an integral part of holiness (the chastity vows of priests are a good example of this).

    I still cannot find information on how the Roman Catholic Church reconciles approving NFP with I Corinthians 7:3-5. (I’m trying to be as discreet as possible considering the subject, so click on the link if you’re interested in the discrepancy.) Incidentally, people like Si and I, who have attempted to practice a form of NFP in the past, are now called “parents.”

    Other early forms of birth control (some dating all the way back to the Egyptians) include drinking poisons with the intent to cause miscarriage. This was often either ineffective, or quite damaging to the mother.

    Now, concerning our own society, the following is what I have learned thus far (again, the Wikipedia links at the top are my primary sources unless otherwise cited). Our earliest laws governing contraception are actually tied to the obscene nature of discussing or printing materials concerning birth control.

    In 1873, Congress passed what was commonly called the Comstock Law, which made it illegal to publish or circulate information pertaining to contraception, or manufacture or sell any device or medication intended to prevent conception or cause an illegal abortion. This was part of a broader legislation that also governed pornography. These laws were not officially revoked until 1965 in the Griswold decision that I wrote about yesterday.

    The Comstock Law was upheld in the 2nd US Circuit Court of appeals in 1936 in the case of the US v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries. Earlier in the 1930s, Margaret Sanger (I know, I know…her again…) had ordered a package of diaphragms from a Japanese doctor that were seized upon their arrival in the US in accordance with the Tariff Act of 1930, and she took the issue to court.

    Now, I think one of the most important things to take note of, in light of the purpose of discussing birth control as an idea and examining its possible effects on society, is that the concept of abortion was mentioned in the court case. Somehow, whenever contraception is at issue in our courts, abortion is brought to the forefront as a connnected discussion. I have my theories on why, but I will abstain from sharing very much at this point.

    Additionally, in 1916, Margaret Sanger opened an illegal birth control clinic, which was found to be in violation of the obscenity laws by the US Post Office when she mailed out information on contraception. Not much deterred, she fled to Europe for a time. I’m sketchy on the details, but somehow she ended up back in the country, founding the American Birth Control League (renamed Planned Parenthood) only five years later.

    Ideas have consequences. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was generally accepted that contraception was inextricably tied to obscenity. One could say that it necessarily involves a third party within the sexual relationship (a doctor or pharmacist, for example). It also tends to involve conversation about a delicate and private matter, which used to be considered a form of pornography.

    Ideas have consequences. Yesterday, I mentioned that the introduction of contraception into mainstream society was the beginning of the view that children were a choice. Now we see that progression again, this time in the US v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries decision, where part of the argument of the Court contains the discussion of abortion. The acceptance of abortion stands or falls on a society’s view of children. Children must be considered a choice before abortion can be viewed as permissible.

    Ideas have consequences. And laws and court cases have consequences as well. When a behavior is illegal, a citizen is more likely to consider that behavior morally wrong. Likewise, when a behavior is legalized, the next generation of citizens will tend to consider the behavior normative.

    As Hadley Arkes points out in First Things, prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, popular opinion in southern states overwhelmingly opposed desegregation and other anti-discrimination efforts. Within five years of passage, however, public opinion had shifted dramatically, with better than sixty percent favoring the new laws. Clearly, the law served as a moral teacher that helped mold public opinion. (Life Training Institute, emphasis mine)

    Ideas have consequences. I have been astounded by the fact that Margaret Sanger is the pivotal personality on which the history of birth control in the US turns. I am sure there were many who held similar views, but Sanger made it all happen. Whatever one’s view on birth control, the power of the life of one woman who lived for and fought for what she believed in cannot be denied. We sometimes look at our world and think that one person cannot make a difference, but I look at the life of Margaret Sanger and say that, for good or ill, one person can change the course of history for an entire nation, and, as we will see tomorrow, eventually the world.

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