90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The History Of Birth Control In The U.S.

(Flickr/starbooze)

Reproductive rights advocates are urging the FDA to make birth control pills available without a prescription. Almost 70 percent of women say access to birth control is a matter of health care, according to a Bloomberg poll.

On the other end of the political spectrum, there was the Blunt Amendment which would have allowed any employer – not just religion-based organizations – to opt out of the health reform requirement that their plan provide free contraceptives for employees.

Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a slut after she spoke in favor of birth control coverage for medical purposes. And candidate Rick Santorum has said in the past that if he makes it to the White House he’ll be addressing “the dangers of contraceptives.”

Today’s hand-wringing about birth control is nothing new.

Did you know, for instance, that the birth control pill was not allowed in Massachusetts as recently as 1970? At one point, the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP charged that Planned Parenthood clinics were in effect using the pill as an instrument of racial genocide.

Andrea Tone, professor of history & Canada Research Chair in the social history of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, says that when the pill was first put on the market, there was a unique debate.

“People weren’t sure if women would buy it, if doctors would prescribe it and then what was absolutely fascinating is it practically flew off the shelves,” she told Here & Now‘s Robin Young.

Guest:

  • Andrea Tone, professor of history & Canada Research Chair in the social history of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and author of “Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America.”

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Sandy

    The same people who are bringing up the long-ago settled contraceptive availability issue, are the avid opponents of Roe v. Wade.  These are also the anti-abortion people who proclaim that the procedure is  murder, but then advocate all capital punishment laws.  I guess in another age, they might be called Luddites….but today are just plain obsequious hypocrites.  

  • CarolB

    I began my college days in Boston in 1968.  I came from a small town and had no access to birth control, although I was sexually active.  So as soon as I got to Boston I asked some seniors in my dorm how I could obtain The Pill.  They gave me the name of an obstetrician, but warned me that he would only give me birth control pills if I were getting married.  I actually borrowed a senior’s engagement ring, told the doctor that I was planning to marry soon, to get my first prescription.  

    According to your report today, you said that birth control pills were illegal in Massachusetts until 1970.  I hadn’t recalled that.  However, I remember that it wasn’t easy finding the name of an obstetrician who would prescribe them.  

    Thanks for the informative story.

  • Anonymous

    Women do not need to take regular hormonal treatments in order to be liberated and have control over their lives.  Women around the world are avoiding and achieving pregnancy using natural family planning methods that are as effective as the pill, and yet we are never told about these options at the doctor’s office.  In a time when we are so skeptical of drug companies and  so careful about the hormones in our food, I am surprised that we swallow this, no questions asked. The idea that hormonal contraceptives are a human right seems to be fueled by drug company interests and the idea that menstruation should be avoided if possible and women should be constantly available for sex without consequences.  Natural options are easy, effective, healthy, cost effective, and empowering and I am tired of them being ignored or equated with the rhythm method. 

    • Ewickham

       You make a number of interesting claims. I would be interested in knowing more detail about the other natural family planning methods other than the rhythm method.

    • AmyB

      Also, in 2005 the World Health Organization also listed hormonal contraceptives as a group 1 carcinogen  right up there with asbestos and arsenic.  I must agree that people aren’t getting much information from their doctors.  I can also vouch for the effectiveness of natural family planning methods.  I have been using the sympto-thermal  method for about 4 years to avoid pregnancy/

      • rebekah

        YES, thank you! I am in my mid-twenties and ALL my friends have gone off hormonal birth control because of the horrible side effects.  Doctors don’t tell you (don’t know?) what awful long-term problems the pill causes, not to mention the emotional issues most women deal with daily from the pill– emotional issues they just assume are normal.  Go off the pill and see how you feel; you will be amazed!  Pumping our bodies full of hormones so that we don’t get pregnant is NOT the answer. We women need to stand up for ourselves on this issue!

  • JimSB

    Whenever a comment says “these are the same people who…” watch out for poor logic. I know many pro-life people (including myself) who would never advocate for the death penalty.  I and my friends object strongly to being called names, especially “obsequious hypocrites”.

    That said, I want to express my disappointment that Here and Now has chosen to put the story about contraceptives right after the one about  Monsignor William Lynn being put on trial for his actions concerning priests who abused minors. In the story about abuse it was even mentioned that this might undermine the moral authority of bishops on the contraceptive issue. What better place to then follow with a story about — hmmm — the contraceptive issue!

    There are so many problems here, not least the assumption that because some priests (and maybe their superiors) have done unspeakably horrible things that the church now has no moral authority to stand by  it’s views on things like contraception and, particularly, abortion. Another problem, a particularly vexing one, is the apparent redirection of the whole conversation about the government’s imposition of a mandate on it’s people which many, including the Catholic Bishops, find morally unacceptable.  We are now having this big conversation about contraception instead of focusing on the real issue: government interference in our moral consciences.

    Please notice: I haven’t called anyone names or lumped together everyone who uses birth control, has an abortion, happens to be a woman or even has been abused by a priest. I don’t call people names and lump them together in groups. I’d appreciate the same courtesy.

    • Robin

      JimSB,

      I take your points, but no conspiracy here! Much of what we do is live or taped
      day of.  I hope you heard the surprise in my voice when our first segment guest
      (a Catholic reporter) brought up the birth control. He had no idea we were following with the history of the pill, and I had no idea he was going to say that!

      Best
      Robin

  • a different idea

    When the birth control pill is used to treat medical conditions such as unusual  bleeding, PMS, irregular cycles, hormonal problems etc. it does so by relieving symptoms but it doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem.  It is a band-aid approach at best.  At worst women who take the pill are at a higher risk for breast cancer among many other medical problems.  There is a new science called NaProTechnology that works cooperatively with a women’s reproductive system to get to the root causes of disease.  It has been effective in helping women with many reproductive conditions and especially helpful for women with infertility problems.  Regarding the regulation of children and the planning of the family there are also natural means to do so.  The Creighton model is the most refined and on any given day, at any given moment a women knows whether or not she is infertile or approaching ovulation.  It can be used to both achieve or avoid pregnancy and when used to avoid pregnancy it is 99% effective.  The Creighton model works hand in hand with NaProTechnology.  It is more empowering than the pill because a woman is not in the dark about  her fertility and conceiving or not conceiving a child is a conscious decision.

    • tully mars

       yeah…had an aunt who practiced natural birth control..she had 11 kids, 10 survived

      • Anne

         I understand your reaction. I am personally a result of the natural family planning instruction available in the early 60s and my mother did not recommend NFP.  However, there are currently effective methods and very good instruction available, both on the internet and local classes. I recommend googling, “natural family planning,” to find a wealth of information. I highly recommend the symptothermal method. I appreciate that my husband understands where I am in my hormonal cycle and that we have worked together to achieve our goals for our marriage and family. It is also very helpful for couples struggling with infertility. I am grateful that we do not need devices or drugs to satisfy our desires. Caveat: it does not protect against STDs, but neither does the pill.

  • Cecil


    At worst women who take the pill are at a higher risk for breast cancer among many other medical problems.”

    Technically, it’s not that they take birth control but because they aren’t breast feeding.

  • Bethany

    We can’t forget Loretta Lynn’s homage to birth control, her song “The Pill.”

  • Wyn Achenbaum

    I recall reading of some town in Texas, perhaps Austin, someone’s calculation of the number of kindergarten classrooms filled by children who were the result of unintended pregnancies. It was a significant number, and sounded as if it was high enough that local taxpayers ought to think about what public policies might help reduce that figure.

    • Ed

      Which of those children should we kill?

  • E. Windsong

    This issue connects with the Diane Rheme show earlier. Our world population is out of control and as long as religious beliefs are legislated into the law of the land such remedies to overpopulation will continue. 
    We need common sense in legislation. Words written two thousand years ago are not relevant in today’s world.
    “Be fruitful and multiply” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
    Birth control as well as tampons and napkins should be free to each and every woman who wants them. No questions asked.
    Any health insurance that covers ‘erectile dysfunction’ medications, treatments and devices should equally cover birth control and abortion with the same type of regulations – ie no additional requirements such as ultrasound with or without a ‘wand’.

  • JasmineGld

    I keep hearing discussion of the wrong question, and the media is missing a huge
    opportunity. The real question that isn’t getting asked is, “Why are we relying on religious
    employers to provide health care they consider objectionable?”
     

    If we as a nation consider contraceptives to be vital to the health and
    welfare of our population and our nation, then we as a nation need to provide
    contraceptives to all women thru a government program, paid for by taxes. Stop
    asking employers to do it. Eliminate the religious controversy.

  • JimSB

    I agree that health care shouldn’t be provided by employers. The major reason it is, is because of it’s tax benefits when supplied that way. Making contraception or abortion funded by a govm’t program, however, just means that something morally objectionable is now being provided by my taxes. Of course, the same argument could apply to wars, etc…..

    • Anonymous

      Due to the intransigence of the Radical Right we in the USA have lost our political will to provide for the Common GOOD of our democracy.  
      So where is the Christian(?) principle of:  “it is better to give than to receive,” or even to do unto my BROTHER… ?   
      and the Radical Libertarian’s RED Herring common cause is now thus:  it is only a Moral Thing if i do this thing out of my own FREE WILL, and immoral if do this same thing out of obligation to another Citizen.  “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?”  IF you have to ask– you are just another Lost SOUL along the by-way of the FREE-Freeway.  Pretty soon the Koch/Pope/Armey brothers will send out a bus you up and haul you to some Romney-Ryan Plutocrats: “Keep Your Guv’Mint Hands Off My Medicare.”  Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to loose, Bobby McGee! sang Kris.  It is indeed a complex culture best left to the deep thinkers such as… those with MONEY — not LOOTERS?

  • Harleymonteleone

    Bible thumpers are the problem, all across the US.

  • Ed

    I find it interesting that in “canonizing” Margaret Sanger it was never mentioned that she was motivated by her desire to eliminate those children who did not meet her social idea. Just read any of the plethora of racial comments that Ms. Sanger made to justify her social agenda. Also, when did a child become a disease that people need to be “protected” from?

    • MsLiz

      A lot of people were interested in eugenics, and they all did not go as far as Dr. Mengele.  It is misleading to claim this was Margaret Sanger’s motivation.  Her mother was impregnated into bad health, and Sanger spent her adolescence nursing her.  She wanted to help women protect their health. 

      • Ed

        She may have claimed it was not her primary purpose but her speeches and papers certainly place it high on her agenda. Your argument appears to be that sine her
        Mother has health problems and this required Margaret’s help as a child/young adult than it is ok for her to promote the killing of children so that no one else has challenges in life.

        • Lavada

          And speaking of another Margaret on this topic.

          Instead of needing lots of children, we need high-quality children. Margaret Mead(1901-78)

          “Once you leave the womb, conservatives don’t care about you until you reach military age. Then you’re just what they’re looking for. Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers.”    — George Carlin
          “We can bring about population stabilization gracefully, or nature will do it brutally.” — Henry W. Kendall(1926-99), American particle physicist

    • Rebekah

      Thank you for noting this! I was appalled listening to Here and Now on Tuesday. I couldn’t believe that Margaret Sanger was being lauded as a champion for women without even mention of her incredibly racist ideas (and her direct link to Hitler)– she believed wholeheartedly in eugenics and targeted minorities (specifically blacks) with her birth control. Please, please do some reading of original documents before lauding someone like Sanger.

  • Clara

    Here are a few of the many quotations by those in high office and some well known in society.

    “If I were reincarnated I would wish to be returned to earth as a killer virus to lower human population levels.” – Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, patron of the World Wildlife Fund
    “In order to stabilize world population, we must eliminate 350,000 people per day. It is a horrible thing to say, but it is just as bad not to say it.”J. Cousteau, 1991 explorer and UNESCO courier
    “A total population of 250-300 million people, a 95% decline from present levels, would be ideal.” – Ted Turner, CNN founder and UN supporter
    “Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature”Anonymously commissioned Georgia Guidestones

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

July 30 Comment

As War And Conflicts Proliferate, Children Become Unwary Victims And Targets

Kids have always suffered during war and crisis, but there's a sense the burden of instability is being increasingly borne by children.

July 30 3 Comments

California Drought: A Central Valley Farmer’s Experience

Last month was the hottest June on Earth since records began in 1880, making the West Coast drought even harder for farmers.

July 29 13 Comments

U.S. ‘Border Crisis’ In A Global Context

Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch says what the U.S. is seeing is dwarfed by the massive flow of refugees into other countries, such as Italy.

July 29 4 Comments

Iraq War Vet Returns To A Broken Country

Roy Scranton says what he found in Baghdad "shows the evidence of the truth of what we'd actually done."