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Thursday September 23rd

Editorial: An illustrated history of birth control in the U.S.

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Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration and the second Women’s March internationally. Marchers advocated for many causes, among them reproductive rights, which they felt were threatened by the Trump administration following an October ruling on the Affordable Care Act. The ruling allowed employers to choose whether or not to refuse birth control if they had religious or moral objections, but was suspended by a federal judge. 

Here is our condensed history of birth control in the U.S. so we can better understand the position now.

Since antiquity, legends tell of people using all kinds of bizarre contraceptives from fish bladders as condoms to sneezing after sex, all varying in degrees of effectiveness. 



The Comstock Laws (1873) refer to a series of federal acts and state laws related to birth control. The parent Act passed in 1873 for the "Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use" prohibited the distribution of “obscenities,” contraception and abortion-inducing material by use of the U.S. Postal Service. 

Margaret Sanger founded the first birth-control clinic in the United States in 1916, providing contraceptives such as diaphragms and supplementary educational information. She also established the American Birth Control League in 1921, which would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. Sanger is a controversial historical character due to her support of eugenics and promotion of birth control for African Americans and people with disabilities, but her legacy on what we know as modern feminism is undeniable.



The Pill (FDA approved in 1960) was the first oral contraceptive to use synthetic hormones. Because of the pill’s unprecedented effectiveness, the pill is accredited with being a key player in the 1960s’ Sexual Revolution and second-wave feminism movement. By the end of the 1960s, the Federal Government began subsidizing birth control for low-income families. 

Roe v. Wade (1973) was the infamous and polarizing Supreme Court Case that legalized abortion nationwide. The Court still consisted of an all-male membership in 1973 and ruled in a 7-2 decision. The Court made its decision in terms of a trimester framework to define fetal viability. It allowed state regulation after the third trimester, at which point some states may argue “potential life.” Norma McCorvey, alias Jane Roe, unsuccessfully attempted to obtain an illegal abortion at the age of 21, and was instead recruited by attorneys attempting to change abortion legislation. McCorvey has since turned from her life as a pro-choice poster child and employee at an abortion clinic to a confirmed member of the Catholic church and pro-life activist. 



The 1978 Federal Sterilization Regulations prohibited the compulsory sterilization practices often used against poor and minority women, a product of eugenics. The eugenics movement appeared at the end of the 19th century and became popular in the U.S. and European countries. Sterilization became a solution to improve the genetic makeup of a population, and targeted non-white racial groups and people with physical and mental disabilities. Bonnie Mass published a 1977 article, “Puerto Rico: A Case Study of Population Control,” detailing the extent of forced sterilization in Puerto Rico throughout the 20th century, noting that almost a quarter of women interviewed had been sterilized by 1949. In 2013, North Carolina promised to compensate victims of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina which conducted thousands of compulsory, state-run sterilizations between 1929-1976. Many victims have not qualified for compensation. 



The popularization of the condom (1980s to 1990s) was largely due to the AIDS epidemic that peaked during the mid-80s in the U.S. Condoms were promoted for both contraceptive use and STD-protection. 

Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), upturned the trimester aspect of Roe, instead ruling that abortion is legal until the point of fetal viability (which was ambiguously described as 23-24 weeks or earlier with medical advances). The Court ruled in a plurality opinion including the first female Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. 

Affordable Care Act(passed 2010) requires that all health insurance providers cover contraceptives. As of September 2017, 62.4 million women have insurance that covers contraception without having to pay out of pocket.

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