When the subject of birth control arises today, it is commonplace for women to ask “what birth control do you use?” Birth control and sexual education are ordinary in American lives and serve many functions that address reproductive issues like endometriosis and permit families to choose when to become a parent, and how often. Despite birth control being an unremarkable event, recent events such as Texas Senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster (Weiner, 2013) and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on contraceptive insurance coverage (Sementelli & Edelman, 2014) have again brought reproductive rights into a national conversation that is sparking debate, confusion and inspiration.
As 21st century women grapple with moral, legal and medical reproductive concerns, they are beset with propaganda that over-simplifies and, at times, disregards the complex and class-based issues surrounding reproduction. Social issues long forgotten yet still occurring lay unembellished in the words of Margaret Sanger, a nurse and early 20th century pioneer for sex education. Sanger wrote, “No woman can all herself free who does not own and control her body.” (Sanger, The Right To One’s Body, 1973) She bore witness to the social and individual effects on women and families from too many pregnancies, stillbirths, back-alley abortions and infanticide. Histories published in the “WCTU messenger tell of women whose pregnancies created a crisis, [and] in the absence of marriage, pregnant women confronted a grim list of alternatives ranging from abortion, infanticide or suicide to facing head on the derision of their working-class communities.“ (Pascoe, 1990)
The illegality of sex education in the early 20th century made Sanger a frequent witness to the human toll of such laws and led her to crusade for sexual education, birth control and reproductive rights. Sanger wrote, “I could now see clearly the various social strata of our life; all its mass problems seemed to be centered around uncontrolled breeding.” (Sanger, My Fight For Birth Control by Margaret Sanger, 1973)
Reproductive rights in America are vastly improved since the early 1900’s, but today’s American woman still contends with control of her reproductive self. Almost100 years later, Sanger’s arguments for sexual education are haunting when she writes, “something had gone from them which silenced them, made them impotent to defend their rights.” (Sanger, My Fight For Birth Control by Margaret Sanger, 1973) These words are a disturbing reminder of the importance of and need for safe, legal and effective birth control and sex education. How different humanity will be when we can freely discuss the realities of reproduction without reprisal or false discernments of only one ideal woman and one ideal circumstance.
Pascoe, P. (1990). Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939. New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved September 19, 2014
Sanger, M. (1973). My Fight For Birth Control. In A. Rossi, & A. Rossi (Ed.), The Feminist Papers: From Addams to de Beauvoir (pp. 522-532). Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press. Retrieved August 2014
Sanger, M. (1973). The Right To One’s Body. In A. Rossi, The Feminist Papers: From Addams to de Beauvoir (pp. 517-521). Boston, MA: Northeastern Univeristy Press.
Sementelli, S., & Edelman, G. (2014, June 30). Texas Conservatives Laud Court Ruling on Birth Control. Retrieved from The Texas Tribune : http://www.texastribune.org/2014/06/30/cases-highlight-continued-uphill-battle-womens-hea/
Weiner, R. (2013, June 26). 6 key moments from Wendy Davis’ filibuster. Retrieved from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/06/26/key-moments-from-wendy-daviss-11-hour-filibuster/