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Birth Control: Background and History

Family planning involves decisions made by people concerning their reproductive lives. Perhaps, most importantly, this decision involves if and when people will have children. People must decide whether to engage in sexual activity that could lead to pregnancy. They also might need to consider whether to use contraception or terminate a pregnancy.

Birth control and abortion aren't new, but early family planning methods weren't always safe or effective. For example, Chinese women drank lead and mercury centuries ago to reduce fertility. Sometimes doing so led to sterility or even death.

Individuals faced with family planning questions often rely on moral or religious beliefs to reach a decision, which can vary widely in America. As a result, family planning laws are frequently controversial.

Reproductive health, contraception, and associated rights occupy a significant space in the consciousness of the American public. It's important to know about these issues. Continue reading to learn more about birth control throughout the history of America.

Brief Review of Major Historical Trends

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court established constitutional protections for access to abortion nationwide. Since then, the high court has reviewed other cases related to this issue. In those cases, the court upheld access to birth control and abortion. Some of those cases established constitutional rights for access to family planning resources. These resources have included various methods of birth control, such as:

  • Oral contraception ("the pill")
  • Diaphragms
  • Emergency contraception
  • Intrauterine devices (IUDs)

In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. This did not result in a universal ban on abortion, although it made having access to the reproductive health right more difficult to nearly impossible in some states.

At the same time, it is also important to note that this Supreme Court decision did not apply to most birth control methods. It did not address the use of contraceptives such as the birth control pill.

From time to time, the Supreme Court has weighed in on sex education. At times, access to birth control has been framed as an issue of women's rights. As the LGBTQ+ movement has progressed, it is often understood as a human right. Continue reading to learn about some of the major legal developments in U.S. history pertaining to birth control.

Birth Control in the 19th Century

During the 19th century in the United States, birth rates began to decline. The average white woman in 1800 gave birth seven times. By 1900, that number dropped to an average of 3.5 births in a lifetime. The decline was partly due to increased scientific study of conception, contraception, and birth control.

At the beginning of the 1800s, early-stage abortions generally were legal. It wasn't until the mid-to-late 1800s that states passed laws banning abortion. The use of birth control and abortion, however, declined as growing public opinion considered information about birth control methods to be obscene and abortion to be unsafe. Religious and moral beliefs then, as now, affected reproductive laws.

20th Century Changes to Birth Control

In 1912, Margaret Sanger started the modern birth control movement by writing a newspaper column about the subject. As a public health nurse, Sanger was concerned about American women affected by frequent childbirth, miscarriages, and unsafe abortions. In 1916, she opened the nation's first birth control clinic in New York City.

In the early 20th century, much of the conversation on reproduction focused on the need for married couples to space children and limit family size. Developments in medical science also assisted in decreasing the number of children per family. Some scientific and legal developments included:

  • In 1928, ovulation timing was established but mistakenly included half of menstruation.
  • From 1940 to 1957, family size increased again to 3.7 children.
  • In 1960, birth control pills and IUDs became available.
  • In 1965, the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut struck down state laws prohibiting birth control use by married couples.
  • In 1970, Congress established federal funding for family planning services.
  • In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Eisenstadt v. Baird. This decision established constitutional protections for unmarried couples in their use of contraceptives. By 1980, these services were a part of Medicaid.

Modern Birth Control Cases

Family planning law continues to change. People on both sides of the debate feel strongly, often for reasons related to religion or women's health rights. The Affordable Care Act mandated in 2010 that insurance must pay for birth control.

However, in June 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that closely held corporations can object to providing birth control to employees through the health insurance they provide if doing so violates the corporation's religious beliefs.

The controversy over birth control and abortion laws will certainly continue. For more history, read the FindLaw article on major reproductive rights Supreme Court cases in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Other Resources

  • The Birth Control Pill: A History: Planned Parenthood provides a historical overview of  the birth control pill simply known as "The Pill."
  • American Birth Control League: Planned Parenthood reviews the history of its foundation, which traces to Margaret Sanger's establishment of the American Birth Control League in the 1920s.
  • Planned Parenthood Federation of America: This nonprofit organization provides various reproductive health care services, such as access to contraception like The Pill. It also offers sliding pay scales for qualifying low-income patients.
  • Code of Federal Regulations Title 21: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website details the federal code related to approval of new contraceptive methods.
  • Comstock Act: Learn more about this 1873 law, which interfered with people's access to birth control by placing restrictions on the use of the U.S. Postal Service to send birth control methods by mail.
  • Birth Control and Eugenics, a History: Through this PBS resource, you can learn more about the uses of birth control as a method for population control within the scope of eugenics and how it related to Margaret Sanger.
  • The Catholic Church and its Views on Birth Control Throughout History: PBS also provides information on the Catholic Church's views on birth control throughout history.
  • Title X of the Public Health Service Act: Learn more about the federal program created under Title X, which funds nonprofits that conduct family planning research and provide family planning services to low-income people.

Questions About Birth Control Law? An Attorney Can Help

Access to birth control has taken multiple twists and turns throughout the history of America, remaining controversial and ever-changing. If you're facing challenges in accessing birth control, it's important to understand the law. A local family law attorney can help point you in the right direction.

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