Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.
August 2, 1947: An initiative petition for “An Act to Allow Physicians to Provide Medical Contraceptive Care to Married Women for the Protection of Life and Health” in Massachusetts was filed today by Dr. Karl T. Compton, President of M.I.T., Dr. John Rock of the Harvard Medical School, and eight others.
Though most signers were doctors, among the non-physicians signing the petition are Mary Pratt Potter, past president of the Massachusetts Federation of Women’s Clubs, and Helen G. Rotch, past president of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters.
Dissemination of information about contraception, as well as birth control devices themselves, have been banned in the Bay State since 1879, when in the wake of Congress passing the Comstock Act in 1873, which classified birth control devices and information about them as “obscenity,” and banned them from the mails, Massachusetts passed – with little debate – a law outlawing birth control and contraceptive information entirely.
Enforcement of the ban became lax in the 1920s, however, so between 1932 and 1937 seven clinics began permitting doctors to quietly provide contraceptives to married women whose health would be at risk from a pregnancy. But after Catholic priests began publicly condemning these clinics, police had to investigate. Raids then began, with convictions following. The clinics, which provided services to 3,000 women, were closed. In 1942 a birth control referendum was put on the ballot, but lost by a 58%-42% margin after an all-out campaign by opponents.
Proponents are hopeful that the result this time will be different, though the campaign will be a long and difficult one at best. The form and substance of the petition must first be approved by the State Attorney General, then 20,000 voter signatures must be gathered by fall. If that is accomplished, the State Legislature must vote on the proposal by June, 1948, and if they do not enact it into law it can then become a referendum on the November, 1948 ballot if 5,000 more signatures are gathered.
Dr. Compton submitted a statement along with the petition in which he said:
“I believe that the public interest can best be served by placing in medical hands the control of medical matters. The giving of contraceptive care is a generally accepted medical technique which should not be denied by law to anyone whose medical need is great. Those needing and desiring contraceptive help should not be left in complete ignorance or left at the mercy of irresponsible sources of information. Naturally, such information should not be forced on anyone whose religious beliefs are opposed to these measures, but by the same token the religious beliefs of some should not be forced upon all. This is an elementary matter of civil liberties in a democracy.”
Another petitioner, Dr. George Shipton, Chief of Obstetrics at Pittsfield’s House of Mercy Hospital, added:
“Since 1796, when Jenner performed the first public vaccination against smallpox, the attention of researchers in medicine has been focused on prevention of illness. Jenner was ridiculed and bitterly opposed by both the laity and some medical men. So, also was Pasteur, when he advocated the exclusion of bacteria from wounds and childbirth. The idea of conserving lives and health of married women by properly spacing, and in some desperate conditions, actually preventing pregnancies, is just as humane, and likewise just as important to the welfare of the world. The present law in Massachusetts, which prevents a doctor from safeguarding the health of his married patients, should be abolished immediately. A living and well mother of four children is a greater asset and can do a better job of bringing up her family than a dead mother of ten.”
The fact that only two States (Massachusetts and Connecticut) still retain strict bans on birth control and contraceptive information show that great progress has been made in the other 46 States since the battle to re-legalize birth control was launched a third of a century ago. But even in those other States, contraceptive information and birth control devices are not yet easily accessible to all those who want and need them. The battle will continue at the ballot box as well as in the legislatures and the courts until this basic reproductive right is secured. Once won, it will then need to be vigorously defended when necessary.