Commentary: What I Learned From the Birth Control Debate

At 54, I returned to school to get a Master of Social Work after a career in environmental policy. I had already reinvented my professional self many times by then, but when I turned 50, I created a folder of inspiration and courage labeled “Doing New Fab Stuff After 50.”   

When I was 51, Philando Castille was shot for carrying while Black, in front of a five-year-old. Trump was elected president — someone who mocked everyone, and who promoted lying, cruelty, and violence as American values. I felt ineffective in my work at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. How could I ask people to care about recycling when they worked two jobs, had no money, no sense of safety, no sense of belonging? 

I learned that among the six core values of social work are: “dignity and worth of the person,” “social justice,” and “importance of human relationships.” I decided this was the route for me. My wise mother said, “You are finally old enough to be a social worker.”

Reproductive rights has long been one of my issues. I came of age in Missouri during feminism’s second wave, was five years old when Roe v. Wade happened, and have marched a few times in Washington D.C. for women’s rights. I took some of the earliest women’s studies courses offered at Vassar in the early 1980’s, when bell hooks was a new voice. I escorted Planned Parenthood clients through harassing protesters and sat in a van one early morning with a video camera to capture the Moral Majority trespassing. 

I knew that Margaret Sanger, the “mother of birth control,” had once spoken at the First Unitarian Society (FUS) in Minneapolis, my humanist congregation. Unitarian ladies back in the 1910’s had been movers and shakers in promoting birth control in Minnesota. For my social work degree, I began digging into the story of the birth control movement in the Twin Cities in the FUS, Gale Library at the Minnesota Historical Society, and the University of Minnesota’s Elmer Anderson Library. 

For my research project, I needed to use primary sources, such as meeting minutes from 1909, written in cursive, with a fountain pen. It was glorious. And it reminded me that big things happen because of normal people doing what they can, imperfectly and persistently. 

I settled in to learn about women who I imagined felt about birth control like I did — that reproductive rights are fundamental to women’s self-determination and their right to choose when and if they want to be mothers. Knowing something about the failings of first and second wave feminism, I did not expect to find BIPOC women of color would be well documented in the archives 100 years ago, even though there were (of course) Black women organizing for birth control. But I did expect to find an underlying value that people working for birth control believed women had inherent worth and dignity. 

Spoiler, it wasn’t so cut and dried. 

There were so many different angles to look at: What events led to the founding of Planned Parenthood in Minnesota? What groups were leading? Were men involved? Churches? Doctors? What was status of maternal and children’s health during this period? How was the issue framed? What did that framing say about social values about women, families, and the purpose of social welfare policies like birth control laws? 

The Scene  

In 1928, the Comstock Act of 1873 was the law of the land. It defined contraceptives as “obscene and illicit.” It prohibited advertisements, information, and distribution of birth control and made it a federal crime to send birth control or information about birth control across state lines through the mail. Margaret Sanger was the primary activist on birth control nationally. She opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. Nationally, poverty was high, families were big, and maternal, infant and child death rates were high. Women spent most of their married lives pregnant.

The Players 

One player in this story is John Dietrich — the liberal humanist minister at FUS from 1916 to 1938.  His sermons were so popular that they were given in a theater and broadcast on the radio. The Unitarian Society had a Women’s Alliance and some of the women founded the Motherhood Protection League with meetings hosted in their homes. According to the minutes of the first meeting, the Motherhood Protection League was started in 1928 “to head up an attempt to amend the State constitution and make it possible for physicians and nurses to give advice on birth control.” 

The group’s official constitution said its objectives were: 1) to teach the need for birth control, 2) to make it legal for physicians to instruct married persons in safe methods of contraception, and 3) to favor clinics where the best contraceptive information shall be obtained. It was clear that unmarried people were not worthy of birth control. 

They tried to get the state’s welfare agency to open a birth control clinic to help poor women get the birth control information that wealthy women already had. The welfare agency refused. 

In addition to seeking to open a birth control clinic, The Motherhood Protection League worked to repeal the Comstock Act. They sought support from men in powerful positions – including doctors at the University of Minnesota and elected officials. In its first 18 months, the League was addressed at least three times by men advocating for eugenic use of birth control and forced sterilization. Two of those talks were by the head of the State Board of Control, which oversaw institutionalization and sterilization of the “feeble minded,” who told the group that “30 percent of the unmarried mothers are subnormal.” 

Another talk was by Dr. Charles Dight, who was president of the Minnesota Eugenics Society. His 1929 talk is summarized in the minutes: “He spoke of the result of the mating of feeble minded people and the fact that the children are always feeble minded. Education cannot cure this condition. Eugenics is the only thing that can remedy this condition. Eugenics is the science of improving man by good breeding … there are 100,000 men and women of inferior mentality in Minnesota capable of reproducing. The first step is to prevent reproduction.”

The minutes pointed out his details that sterilization passed as law in Minnesota in 1927, but only 163 persons were sterilized, compared to more than 7,000 in California.

As I was discovering, it seems these women were walking a fine line. They tried to keep the best for kids and women in mind, but simultaneously courted eugenicists and worked within the values of the time that only married women were worthy of birth control. It also was distressing to read that the Unitarian minister who supported the rights of families to use birth control also supported the then-prevailing theory of eugenics as “race betterment.” 

Sanger Visits Minnesota

Minutes from the Unitarian Society’s Women’s Alliance of January 1930 reported that Sanger would deliver two talks in March. The first talk was for men and women, titled “The need of birth control in America.” The second was “for women only,” titled “Happiness in marriage – facts every woman should know.” 

Dietrich gave two sermons surrounding Sanger’s visit: “The conspiracy of silence about sex,” which was about teaching the realities of sex for young people and married couples, and another on the ethics of birth control. His sermons made it clear that this was radical material at the time.

A passage from the first sermon:  “We find few individuals and no organizations who are willing openly to help us in promoting Margaret Sanger’s lectures. I learned a few days ago from the sex education department of the difficulties of this work at the University [of Minnesota], because with very few exceptions the members of the faculty are afraid of the subject, at least afraid to have it frankly presented to the students. I never speak on the subject without receiving a volume of protests, and no other ministers have the courage to discuss it openly. … Just this last week the Minneapolis Journal refused our usual church advertisement because of the subject of this address.”  

Promoting birth control was risky business, but these women were brave and busy. In the year following Sanger’s visit, the women of the Motherhood Protection League renamed themselves the Minnesota Birth Control League, rented a space, and opened the first birth control clinic in Minnesota, since the social welfare agencies would not. Dr. Eleanor Hill provided medical care. Strategically, they decided “the list of people on the advisory board was not to be published and no announcement of the opening of the clinic.” 

The clinic report of 1933 describes that they were booked well ahead by December of their first year and had to extend the hours. Out of the 636 women they saw in that first year, only 16 became pregnant.  

They were also working hard to reverse the Comstock Act at the federal level. In the archives are many letters between legislators and Mrs. Shaefer, the president of the Birth Control league. The law was finally overturned in 1936.

In 1940 and 1941, Sanger’s organization became the Planned Parenthood Federation, and the Minnesota Birth Control League transitioned as well. Themes in the birth control issue from the 1920’s to the 1940’s varied from freedom, autonomy, and welfare, to upholding morality and outright social control — literally designing the human race through birth control and sterilization. The early organizers often seemed to try to hold all of these at the same time. By my reading, it was because they needed support where they could get it. To build the coalition, there seemed to be an agreement on “race betterment,” increasing the “quality of children,” and not giving unmarried women access to birth control.

There was an outcry when, in 1933, this eugenics movement showed up as a pillar of Nazi Germany. The U.S. eugenics movement lost favor. 

Planned Parenthood also was not promoting birth control for women’s self-determination, but for being able to practice “child spacing” to ensure they could have strong and healthy children. The underlying assumption was that if unmarried women had access to birth control, they would run to have sex out of wedlock. The Supreme Court did not legalize birth control for unmarried people until 1972. 

Tension Between Two Purposes

Social welfare policy in the U.S. has always had a tension between two competing purposes. One is social treatment — the goal of improving people’s lives through delivery of housing, food, and healthcare. The other is social control — ensuring that people conform to social norms, standards and ideologies by providing services that control those who are deemed unworthy or deviant. This tension was painfully evident in the history of the birth control movement in Minnesota. 

Although I should not be, I was surprised that what I learned in researching the birth control movement in Minnesota ends up being another story about the continuing questioning in the U.S. of ‘who is worthy?’ 

It is a question we need to stop asking.