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Declining Birthrates, Birth Control

Comstock Law, vulcanization of rubber, cervical caps, Protestant women, Margaret Sanger

Women attempted to control child bearing in various ways, including prolonged breastfeeding, abstaining from sex, taking herbal remedies, jumping rope, horseback riding, and having abortions. By the early 19th century, condoms, originally intended to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, were being used to prevent pregnancy. The vulcanization of rubber after 1839 and the invention of latex in World War I (1914-1918) made condoms, cervical caps, and diaphragms, more widely available. From 19th-century newspaper advertisements, it seems that abortion was a common method of controlling family size. These were usually performed by untrained men and women, some of whom were skilled but many of whom were not. Doctors, who were organizing the first state and national professional organizations during the mid-19th century, saw these abortionists as unprofessional competitors and a public danger. Concern about the safety of abortion led to the first state laws, enacted just before the Civil War, restricting the practice.

By the 1870s religious reformers who were worried about prostitution and the perceived spread of vice and sin began to connect contraception and abortion with immorality. The Comstock Law of 1873 declared birth control and abortion information obscene and banned it from the U.S. mail. Many states passed laws against contraception. One reason people supported bans on birth control was the fear that immigrant groups, who tended to have larger numbers of children than native-born white Americans, would come to dominate society if white, Protestant women did not have more babies. Despite the Comstock Law, birthrates continued to fall.

A small number of reformers spoke out publicly in favor of birth control. The most famous of these advocates was Margaret Sanger, who in 1921 founded the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. Sanger worked to help poorer women obtain what was still illegal information on birth control. Planned Parenthood led the fight to have the Comstock Law overturned.

The Comstock Law was declared unconstitutional in 1938, although state laws against birth control remained. In 1965 the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the last of state laws against contraception, asserting that married men and women have a right to privacy. That right was extended to unmarried persons in 1971. In 1973 abortion was legalized in the United States. Since then various restrictions have been placed on abortion, and the issue is one of the most divisive in contemporary America.

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