Monday, February 18, 2013

The Social Purity Movement and Family Planning

By the 1870s, couples in all classes were choosing to limit and plan family size “by a variety of methods within a culture of abstinence”. “Considerate” husbands, who did not insist on intercourse, were admired, not least because of the high mortality rate among pregnant women. It was perhaps a good thing that husbands had decided to privately abstain from sex, since by the mid 1870’s the United States government had invaded every bedroom in the nation. In the 1870’s a “social purity movement”, spurred on by evangelical Protestant moral reformers launched a crusade against vice, including contraception, which was considered to “lead to lewd, immoral behavior and promote promiscuity”. It is not surprising that such a movement arose. The industrialization that swept America during and after the Civil War ushered in morality problems such as widespread prostitution. As urbanization flourished so did prostitution. The majority of prostitutes were young, illiterate, and poor. Higher wages for less work appealed to many young women. With little in the way of birth control, frequent pregnancies occurred among prostitutes. Since being pregnant would put them out of work, abortion became the alternative for the tens of thousands of prostitutes in America’s teeming cities. The moral laxness sweeping much of America began to impact public opinion. Social purity advocates proclaimed, “Social crimes like infanticide, that were once placed on the same level as murder, are now not only looked upon with complacency... but are defended on principle by certain theorists.”

The social purity movement successfully pressured Congress into passing the Comstock Act (named after the movement’s leader Anthony Comstock) in 1873. The Comstock Act was a federal law which, among other things, prohibited mailing, “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion”, as well as any form of contraceptive information. Twenty four states passed similar state laws (collectively known as the Comstock Laws), sometimes extending the federal law by outlawing the use of contraceptives, as well as their distribution. The most restrictive state laws of all were in Connecticut. Married couples could be arrested for using birth control in the privacy of their own bedrooms, and subjected to a one-year prison sentence. As late as 1960, thirty states had statutes on the books (inspired by the Comstock Laws) prohibiting or restricting the sale and advertisement of contraceptive devices.

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