Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
Birth Control --
Once a Secret; Now an Option
May 21, 1999
If this column were a TV program it would probably be rated R - or maybe X
depending on your opinion. So don't say I didn't warn you.
"Once a secret. Now an Option." Emergency Oral Contraception is available
in your doctor's office or at your pharmacy with a doctor's prescription.
Probably the young women of today assume that access to birth control
information has always been their right. The fact is, however, that they
have this option is due in great part to the lifelong efforts of one woman.
Margaret Sanger, born in 1879, nearly single-handedly brought about the
legalization of birth control in the United States. When she started her
nursing career it was illegal even for married couples to use most forms of
contraception, thanks in large part to Anthony Comstock, a self appointed
anti-vice crusader (they have been with us always). Nearly every state had
passed Comstock Laws, which prohibited the sending of obscene materials
through the U. S. mail, and defined contraceptive information and materials
As a visiting a nurse working in some of the worst slums in New York City
Sanger worked with desperately poor women, most of them with ten or more
children. She became convinced that the overall improvement of women's
lives and society in general rested on controlling population growth.
Sanger, a self defined "woman rebel", opened her first birth control clinic
in Brooklyn in 1916. Hundreds of women lined the streets for blocks on that
first day, waiting to get in. Within weeks the police had raided the clinic
and Sanger and her co-workers were arrested as hundreds of women poured out
into the streets in protest. She spent the next 30 days in jail, and later
was forced to leave the country for two years to avoid a prison sentence of
45 years for breaking the obscenity laws.
She went on to found the National Birth Control League which later became
the Planned Parenthood Federation and is now, nearly 100 years later,
carrying on her work.
In 1936 the Supreme Court struck down the Comstock Law and the American
Medical Association determined that doctors had a right to distribute birth
control devices to their patients.
Then came the Pill in the sixties and even Massachusetts and Connecticut
joined the 20th century by repealing their versions of the Comstock Act.
Finally American women have legal access to birth control information.
But nothing is perfect in this world, as proved by some statistics from
16 million couples in America had sex last night; 36,000 condoms broke or
fell off last night; 700,000 women who were not desirous of becoming
pregnant had unprotected sex last night.
Approximately 56% of the pregnancies in the United States each year are
unintended, which means that some 3.2 million American women who have not
intended to do so get pregnant each year.
Emergency contraception pills are now available. In each examining room in
the Family Physicians of Western Colorado offices there is a little wall
display that says, "Just had sex? Worried about pregnancy? You have 3
days to act." And there is available a little brown manila envelope
containing 4 pills-- along with information describing in detail what they
will do and how to take them. ECPs (emergency contraception pills) are
birth control pills given in larger than usual doses.
If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex they reduce the risk of
pregnancy by about 75%. They offer safe, one-time emergency protection.
They are not to be confused with the French RU-486.
Margaret Sanger wrote in 1920, "The basic freedom of the world is woman's
freedom. A free race cannot be born of slave mothers. A woman enchained
cannot choose but to give a measure of that bondage to her sons and
daughters.. No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her
Once a secret. Now an option.