The More Things Change : Contraception Controversy Edition
Over at the Atlantic, Brian Resnick has dug up two essays from his magazine’s October 1939 edition. One argues for legal contraception, the other against. Birth Control: The Case for the State by Don Wharton – arguing for legal birth control – can be found here; Father Francis J. Connell’s Birth Control: The Case for the Catholic, arguing (natch) against, can be found here.
They are both completely and utterly fascinating.
As Resnick himself notes, the thing that makes them most fascinating is how close each writer’s arguments echo the soundings of liberals and conservatives in current HRC birth control disagreements.
(First off, a confession: I must admit I was not aware – and in fact was shocked – just how recent a thing universal legal birth control is. In 1939 it was still considered to be outlawed as part of the Comstock laws, passed in 1873. It would not be until 1965 that the Supreme Court would rule that married couple’s need not face state penalties for willfully not driving up birth rates; it would not be until 1972 that this same courtesy was extended to unmarried couples as well. I’m already wondering if at least one of these cases will be part of Burt’s SCOTUS Greatest Hits compilation.)
Both of the old Atlantic articles are opinion pieces, and so they do not (and cannot) prove or disprove arguments by today’s liberals that contraception is inherently first and foremost a women’s healthcare issue. However, they do show that arguments by some conservatives today that the two being intertwined is a recent devise of political expediency are off by at least 70 years. Wharton’s pro-contraception article is based almost entirely on issues of women’s health – and not in a “My Body, My Choice” kind of way, but in the “mortality rates of mothers during childbirth” kind of way.
Also interestingly, according to Wharton some low-wage manufacturing employers in North Carolina not only stood on the pro-contraception side of the fence, they actually provided on-site clinics for their employees. This makes a certain amount of sense, when you think about it. Having employees – both mothers and fathers – that need to deal with repetitive pregnancies over decades surely creates a bevy of extra costs and inefficiencies that eat away at profits. In our own time, the metrics are different but produce similar results. Insurance plans that offer contraception are, over time, significantly less expensive to employers than those without. If conservatives hold on to the contraception issue for too long, they may see that their desire to highlight a legitimate religious freedom issue begins to tarnish their well-earned reputation as the group that defends small and medium-sized business interests. It seems to have gone a similar route 70 years ago.
If there is a way that the article points out how things have changed, it’s not it the way we argue the issues related to contraception so much as it is how drastically contraception has changed our landscape:
“He had seen a Negro couple married seventeen years who had produced twenty children — twelve of them to die in infancy. Good, hard-working people, desperately poor — bewildered. ‘I’m for any way that will keep me from having another child,’ the mother pleaded. ‘Any way so long as I can keep from losing that man I got.’”
(For me personally, reading this is actually one of those time where I look back at the past and am glad to be rid of it.)
As for Connell’s essay, it more or less concedes the healthcare issue, and instead makes the honest argument that as he sees it contraception is a purely religious and therefore moral issue. This of course leads to the thornier question that we are still wrestling with today: If we are to agree that religious freedom is good then where do we draw the line? In Connell’s time the question was should the State allow a practice whose very existence infringes upon sacred doctrines, or should the State agree to discourage those doctrines being crossed and at the expense of protecting others from said doctrines? I bring this question up not to debate it here. (And I honestly hope we don’t – or perhaps more accurately, I hope that if we do we do it in a way that assumes good intentions on both sides.) Rather, I bring it up because it is the exact argument we wrestle with today. In fact, Connell’s refusing to acknowledge healthcare issues in the one essay and Wharton’s refusal to acknowledge religious issues in the other mirror our current GOP and DNC brethren in a way that is almost eerie.
Another note of interest was this argument by Connell:
“Birth control as it is now practised in the United States is bound to bring about a notable decline in our white population in the near future.”
I think in may ways this comment deserves more consideration, and maybe at some point a different post. And not because I think this argument shows that those that are either anti-birth control or pro-religious freedom today are racists – in fact quite the opposite. No, what I find fascinating about this argument is that of all Connell’s warnings about what would happen should contraception be made available, this is the one that has actually occurred. There are a myriad of factors other than contraception at work, of course, and the reality isn’t so much that the white population has decreased numerically so much as decreased as a proportion to the whole. But the concerns and fear that lie in Connell’s warning have most certainly come to pass. However, despite the concerns of 1939 America this hasn’t led to the destruction of our society. It’s strengthened it. And while I know you can find people on the fringe that would disagree, by and large we all recognize that the changes in this area that have occurred since 1939 have been a positive progress indeed, morally as well as logistically.
When we see things being debated in the public sphere today (as always), the side arguing against change invariably argues that change will ruin everything, and that change can be resisted. Those arguing for change always argue that only the thing being addressed will change, and all else will remain as is and be good. It’s a good thing to remember that both sides are always wrong. Change will happen, always, and our beliefs about what that change will ultimately mean is very likely to be way, way off.
In any case, I highly recommend taking sometime on this dreary, rainy weekend (don’t tell me if it’s sunny where you are) and read both pieces, and Resnick’s piece as well.