Barrier Methods: The Church’s Ceaseless Opposition to Birth Control

I recently found myself on the air at where I argued with a staff member from the Family Research Council about birth control and its availability.

I pointed out that the pill had emancipated women by making it possible for them to more effectively balance careers with families, and I suggested that religious groups should accept this because we aren’t going back. My opponent responded by accusing me of employing “tired 1970s rhetoric.”

I wish I had responded, “it’s more modern than your 1370s rhetoric!” (I always think of the best replies after the show’s over.)

I’ve been thinking about the past a lot lately while researching the history of birth control. What I’ve learned is enlightening—and a reminder of how far we’ve come in a short time.

Here’s the short history: For quite some time reliable birth control was elusive. Men relied on methods like withdrawal, and women attempted to block access to the cervix with material like cotton or wool. Animal bladders were occasionally used to fashion a type of condom.

The vulcanization of rubber by Charles Goodyear in the mid-nineteenth century was an important step forward, producing a more reliable condom. But these early versions, being thick and brittle, were hardly ideal. It wasn’t until the invention of the latex condom in 1920 that this form of birth control became widespread.

There were a few other options, but nothing short of a revolution occurred in 1960 with the invention of the oral contraceptive pill by Carl Djerassi. The pill has been called one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century, and that’s not hyperbole. Convenient, affordable, and reliable, the pill gave women and their partners the power to regulate family size. The term “family planning” entered the national lexicon, and a social movement was born.

But social revolutions often spark backlashes, and this one certainly did. By decoupling sex from procreation, the pill was seen as a great threat by entrenched religious interests holding prudish views on human sexuality. They went on the warpath.

Nineteenth-century Comstock laws in many states had not only banned birth control—they’d banned any material discussing it. But the New England region, then under the thumb of politically powerful Catholic bishops, had some of the most repressive laws in the country. So these archaic laws were dusted off and pressed into service in the post-pill era.

In 1967 birth control advocate Bill Baird was arrested for distributing contraceptive foam to students during a public lecture at Boston College. Interestingly, Baird’s arrest came a full two years after the Supreme Court had ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that a Connecticut law banning the sale of birth control to anyone—even married couples—was unconstitutional.

The Griswold precedent didn’t faze Massachusetts authorities. Baird’s crime, they said, was that he gave birth control to unmarried people—and that was still a violation of state law. Baird contested the arrest in court, and in 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird the Supreme Court voided his conviction and struck down the Massachusetts law.

I should note that the Massachusetts anti-birth control statute was no antiquated law with minor penalties. It was enforced, and violations were considered felonies. Baird had been facing ten years in prison for violating it.

I talked with Baird by telephone in March, just a few days after the fortieth anniversary of the high court ruling that bears his name. Now eighty, he is as feisty as ever and shared recollections with me about the 1967 fracas.

Baird recalled holding up the package of contraceptive foam for the audience to see. He had earlier arranged for a nineteen-year-old student to accept the package from him. “The moment I put it in her hands, the police came forward to arrest me,” Baird said, recalling that at the time of his conviction, standing in court, the judge declared him “a menace to society.”

Progressive religious groups made their peace with birth control early on, but the Catholic hierarchy and some extreme fundamentalist Protestants still maintain that contraception is a violation of God’s will or that “natural law” should govern how many children a woman has. These groups have worked to block every attempt at making birth control more accessible, both in the United States and abroad.

Baird knew early on that birth control would come into popular use over the objections of conservative religious groups. “From day one,” he told me, “I said this is a holy war.”

Given the widespread use of birth control these days, Catholic clerics often try to appear to be moderate over this issue in public. They say they’re not trying to block access to birth control and argue that they simply don’t want to provide it to the people who work in their programs.

The problem is, many of their programs—colleges, hospitals, and social service agencies—serve the public, are heavily subsidized with taxpayer funds, and hire lots of non-Catholics. Yet the bishops still demand the right to impose a medieval view of sexuality on their employees, many of whom don’t agree with it. The hierarchy’s view on this issue is so backward and out of step with the times that the overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics stopped listening to them long ago. Surveys show that Catholic women use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholic women.

And make no mistake, the only reason the church hierarchy isn’t trying to ban birth control outright is because they know that under Griswold and Eisenstadt it’s a non-starter. So they pursue the next best thing: making it harder for people to obtain and use birth control.

To younger Americans, the idea that contraceptives might not be available sounds too far-fetched to even contemplate. After all, you can buy a package of condoms at any 7-11. But the fight is no longer about condoms. Especially for women in monogamous relationships (for whom the risk of STDs are low), it’s about the more expensive and more efficient forms of birth control—the pill, IUDs, implants, shots, patches, and even sterilization. These are the methods commonly covered by insurance plans, and it’s here that the bishops are making their assault.

The bishops are lobbying for a federal law that would allow any employer at any type of business, religious or secular, to deny birth control coverage to all employees if he or she is personally offended by it on religious grounds. If the church has its way, your reproductive rights could hinge on where your boss goes to church.

We may be far away from the days when the police dragged Bill Baird off for publicly displaying birth control devices. But if current trends continue, we may be very close to a day when millions of Americans lose access to a healthcare option they often take for granted.

Humanists like Baird led the fight to decriminalize birth control, a battle that improved the lives of people nationwide. With that right increasingly under attack, humanists once again need to step up and make it clear that access to safe, affordable, and effective contraception is a fundamental human right.