Reproductive Freedom: It Took Massachusetts 100 Years! 

11 Nov

The recent Senate Bill # 8 in Texas, banning abortion for women at six weeks, before many even know that they’re pregnant, is outrageous! In the past year alone, more than one hundred laws restricting birth control and abortions have been introduced in many states across the country. 

It’s easy to forget what life was like for women before birth control was readily accessible. Surprisingly, Massachusetts was the last state in the union to legalize birth control. 

The Beginning

One of the first in the country, the Birth Control League of Massachusetts was founded in August 1916, created by a committee that was organized to defend Van Kleeck Allison. He had been arrested for handing out family planning pamphlets to women leaving their jobs at the North End Candy Factory in Boston. He was arrested for distributing “obscene literature” as defined by the federal Comstock Laws passed in 1873. 

Members of the Birth Control League became targets of “considerable abuse and notoriety.” Newspapers printed their pictures and columns of print gave details of Van Kleeck Allison’s trial and remarks by District Attorney Joseph Pelletier, who 

called them “Women of the idle rich who prefer poodles to babies.” He said, “What are we to think of women who would idolize a man pleading to such a charge, wasting hours of their time in order to hear publicly a story unfit for any woman’s ears.”

Sermons were preached from many pulpits denouncing members of the Birth Control League as a menace to society. At the same time, they began receiving letters from women writing in support of their work. One 27-year-old mother of five children wrote that the Roman Catholic Church used “fear, fear, fear all the time to compel Catholic women to bear unwanted children and thereby destroy their health.” 

After Allison was convicted, the Birth Control League of Massachusetts began to hold rallies, public meetings, and debates. Members of the League approached twenty-five legislators as possible sponsors of bills to overturn the laws banning contraceptives and contraceptive information. By January, 1917, each legislator who was approached had refused.

In May, 1917, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts upheld Allison’s conviction and sentenced him to three years. Chief Justice Rugg said, “Manifestly these statutes are designed to protect the public morals…Their plain purpose is to protect purity, to preserve chastity, to encourage continence and self-restraint, to defend the sanctity of the home, and thus to engender in the State and nation a virtuous race of men and women. The subject matter is well within the branches of the police power of the State.”

A Quiet Period Followed

Then, on February 9, 1928, Dr. Antoinette Konikow was arrested by two Catholic police-women for a lecture and demonstration of contraceptive methods before patients and friends in her office. Dr. Konikow’s defense was that she was not exhibiting contraceptive devices within the meaning of the law but using them to illustrate a scientific lecture and warn against possible injuries to health.  

The League attempted to get the law modified to exclude all physicians from its application. On December 30, 1930, Mr. Parkman introduced the Doctors’ Bill to Clarify the Law in the Massachusetts legislature, seeking to change the law so as to protect the rights of patients to consult physicians and of physicians to give advice. The bill was presented in the form of a petition signed by 1,300 doctors, 400 ministers, 7,000 laymen, and it was endorsed by the Massachusetts Federation of Churches. 

In hearings before the Public Health Committee in 1931, physicians testified about the medical need for giving contraceptive advice to save life or to cure or prevent disease. The opposition declared that “passage of the bill would lead to widespread immorality, claiming that it would not be safe to entrust the right to give advice to the medical profession as a whole because the medical profession is of such low order. They asserted that the birth control movement is undoubtedly supported by Soviet gold.” The implication was that the Soviets would benefit if the US birth rate were to decline.

Obviously male legislators in Massachusetts did not have the same personal investment in birth control that women do. Why don’t these men mind their own business?

A New Approach

In June 1932 the Massachusetts Birth Control League established the Brookline Mothers’ Health Office, a clinic in which to introduce contraceptive advice and other health services needed by married women. Medical and social service agencies and hospitals immediately started referring women to this clinic. Over the next few years, new clinics were opened in Worcester, Fitchburg, Salem, New Bedford, and the South End in Boston.

Five years later, police came and closed down the Brookline Mothers’ Health Office, despite the fact that that clinic had been recognized as one of the best in the United States. When it was shut down by the police, 88 medical and social service agencies were referring women to this clinic. The League’s other clinics were closed down by the police as well, leaving hundreds of women stranded who couldn’t afford to pay the usual doctor’s fees. 

Further efforts were made by the Birth Control League to change the law. In a 1940 poll of Massachusetts citizens, 82 percent supported contraception. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts legislature defeated the Medical Rights Initiative time and time again. Medical professionals were forbidden from prescribing, recommending, or providing contraceptives of any kind.

By 1945 the Birth Control League of Massachusetts changed its name to the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. During the 1950s, the Massachusetts League sent women seeking birth control services to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Providence, Rhode Island. They provided transportation for them and they paid that clinic $3 per client. In fact, 40 percent of the Providence clinic clients were residents of Massachusetts.

One woman wrote Planned Parenthood, “Is there any way possible for me to never become pregnant again? I mean until I die. We have been married for five years. I have had five children and one miscarriage. I have repeatedly asked doctors to sterilize me, but get the same answers. As long as I’m physically fit, I can have more babies every year. I have a moral obligation to the five I have. I think I should rather end my life than go through another pregnancy and bring another child into the world where it cannot be cared for properly.”

At Last!

It wasn’t until 1972, when the Supreme Court struck down Massachusetts law, that the women of Massachusetts were finally able to obtain legal birth control. With reproductive freedom, women in Massachusetts at long last had some control over their own lives.


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