The debate over controlling birth is not a new one. It has been going on for hundreds if not thousands of years. In the late 19th and early 20th century America, this debate could be summed up by the views of two of the most adamant debaters; Anthony Comstock and Margaret Sanger. Their extreme views were usually based on moral purity and a woman’s control over her own body and life.
The Purity Movement of the late 19th century was opposed to any form of artificial birth control, believing that it deprived the sacrament of marriage; Anthony Comstock was a significant influence in this movement. Comstock and the purity movement feared education in sex and that contraception would awaken sensuous thoughts in the minds of young people leading them to becoming a prostitute, visiting a prostitute, or other morally impure actions. Prostitution was a big concern of the people during this time, according to Margaret Sanger in her article, No Gods, No Masters, there were approximately 35,000 women prostitutes in New York City alone in 1914.
The Comstock Law of 1873 prohibited any written or spoken words that could be adapted or intended for preventing conception or procuring abortion, or for any indecent or immoral use. According to Comstock, anyone under the age of twenty-one was still a child and needed the protection that the Comstock Law provided. In I Am Almost a Prisoner, Sanger published letters written by women pleading for contraception education. Most of these women were married and had given birth before the age of twenty-one. Thus, it would have been illegal to provide these women with contraceptive education before their marriage.
Margaret Sanger wanted women to be educated in matters of sex and birth control so they could control their bodies and lives. These women questioned whether they should leave their husbands to manage the birth of yet another child. Many stated that their husbands would get mean, say awful things to them or the children, would leave them with no way to survive, or force them into sex when they would try to withhold sex to control having more children. The stress of multiple children impacted both the men as well as the women. Some tried drugs to get rid of the pregnancy; others used dangerous and illegal abortions to control their number of births.
These women did not hate their children. Instead, they were concerned about not being able to care for them properly. They worried about a life of going hungry, not having proper clothing, access to health care, and poor education. These women expressed the desire to raise the children up correctly to be good citizens, but could not, because of the large number they were having. Sanger compared marriage laws and customs of that time with sexual slavery, compulsory motherhood, and slavery through motherhood.
The opponents of birth control felt it was their moral obligation to uphold the Church’s teachings. They felt that learning of sex and ways to control the number of children one had, would lead to promiscuity and even prostitution. They felt that women and the family unit would be devastated and condemned if women were allowed to control their number of births. The advocates for sex and birth control education felt that women and the family unit were already devastated and condemned to a life of poverty, despair, and ill-health, brought on by having more children than they could adequately bring up. And, the debate goes on.
Michelle Farist is a Mother, Wife, and Human Services professional currently based in Georgia. Her passions include education concerning sexual assaults and the full meaning of consent.