Saturday, February 18, 2012

Birth Control: Some History

The current national debate over whether or not women can have their birth control covered by medical insurance regardless of their employers' religious beliefs has had me wondering what year it is. In Waterbury, debate over birth control is usually associated with 1939, not 2012.

First, let me clarify (for those who are confused about this) that birth control is not the same thing as abortion. Most methods of birth control prevent conception from ever happening. The sperm and the egg never meet. A new life is never begun.

Now for the history:

Contraception became illegal in Connecticut in 1879, part of a movement against "obscenity" led by Anthony Comstock. The federal Comstock Act of 1873 made it illegal to send anything "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" through the mail. Birth control devices were considered obscene by Comstock.

A movement to legalize contraception was started by Margaret Sanger, who opened a birth control clinic in 1916. Sanger's dedication to promoting birth control was partly influenced by the experience of her mother, who had 18 pregnancies (11 of which resulted in live births) in 22 years, dying of tuberculosis and cervical cancer at age 50.

The Connecticut League of Women Voters began debating the issue of contraception during the 1920s. They finally voted in favor of promoting the legalization of birth control in 1933, although Catholic members of the League were strongly opposed to legalizing birth control.

Catholics were not the only opponents to birth control. Swedish Lutherans declared at their 1931 New England Conference of the Augustana Synod that birth control would destroy families and the "entire social structure."

Dr. Robbins W. Barstow, president of the Hartford Seminary Foundation (established by Congregationalists), was also president of the Connecticut Birth Control League. The League reported in 1939 that the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. was much worse than in countries where birth control was available for women of all income levels.
In 1934, Barstow's wife came to Waterbury and addressed the First Congregational Church Woman's Guild, stating that "Most of our social problems... are due to the number of unwanted, handicapped and degenerate children annually brought into the world because mothers don't know how to prevent their coming." (Hartford Courant, 19 Jan 1934).

Four years later, in January 1938, a field worker and organizer for the Connecticut Birth Control League, Leah Tapper Cadbury, began meeting with Waterbury residents to establish a birth control clinic. Her first meeting was with Anne Chase Hart, daughter of industrialist Henry Sabin Chase, and two physicians, Dr. Joseph L. Hetzel and J. Harold Root. Anne Hart recommended her sisters Edith and Mildred Chase and her sister-in-law Florence Chase as potential sponsors for the new clinic. Subsequent meetings were held at the homes of Mildred Chase Ely and Ruth Northrop.

There were some Waterbury physicians who gave birth control advice to their patients, but this was done covertly. Two Waterbury ministers who attended the early meetings were pleasantly surprised to learn about this. They had never approached any doctors about the issue, worried they might be offended.

During a meeting at the end of February 1938, former nurse Clara Lee McTernan (wife of the founder of McTernan School) volunteered to organize a transportation service to an existing clinic in Hartford. Milicent Pond, employment supervisor at Scovill Manufacturing, offered to be the driver.

Birth control at this time consisted of diaphragms and a contraceptive jelly.

Clara McTernan, after getting the transportation to Hartford established, began working on establishing the Waterbury Maternal Health Center, which opened in the Chase Memorial Dispensary across the street from City Hall on October 11, 1938.

Chase Memorial Dispensary, Field Street

Dr. William A. Goodrich, a Waterbury native who had opened his OB/GYN practice a year earlier, was recruited by McTernan to be the lead doctor. He was joined by obstetrician Dr. Roger B. Nelson, who was studying with Waterbury's Dr. Charles L. Larkin, chief of gynecology at the Chase Dispensary.

Additional staff consisted of nurse Kathryn Jennings, treasurer Harriet Griggs, and record-keeper Virginia Goss (mother of future CIA Director Porter Goss).

Clinic hours were held every Tuesday morning. The clinic was very specifically intended for poor, married women living with their husbands. There was an average of about one new patient each week. They included a woman who had given birth annually four years in a row, and another who had four children born within five years.

The Waterbury clinic had significantly fewer patients than clinics in Hartford and New Haven, largely because the other clinics no longer required that the patients have specific health problems that would make pregnancy dangerous for them. New Haven reported 214 new patients who were Catholic, 163 who were Protestants, and 20 who were Jewish.

By June 1939, the Waterbury clinic was targeted by the local Catholic Clergy Association, which called upon public prosecutors to take action. The physicians at the clinic insisted that birth control advice was given only to women whose health would be endangered by pregnancy, but the Catholic Clergy Association continued to demand that the clinic be shut down.

Clinic records were seized, and patients were interviewed by prosecutor William Fitzgerald. Charges were pressed against McTernan, Goodrich and Nelson, who were defended by J. Warren Upson.

The case dragged on until April 2, 1940, with the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors ruling on March 20, 1940 that the 1879 statute could be interpreted to apply to the distribution of contraceptives. The defendants, however, were not convicted. Fitzgerald declared that there was no criminal intent.

All birth control clinics in Connecticut closed their doors following the March 20th ruling. New clinics did not open until 1965, when the U.S. Supreme Court voided the 1879 legislation. During the decades in between, there were numerous attempts to at least modify the law to allow doctors to prescribe contraceptive devices when the married woman's life would be at risk from pregnancy.

In 1947, three Waterbury physicians were banned from St. Mary's Hospital because they supported the Alsop Birth Control bill, which would have permitted physicians to prescribe contraceptives to save their patients lives. All three doctors were Protestants. A group of 17 Protestant ministers, two Rabbis and a social worker, all in Waterbury, signed a declaration that the three doctors were exercising their Constitutional right and should be respected for standing up for their principles.

Seven decades later, some Catholic pro-life activists continue to celebrate the action that was taken by Catholic priests against the Waterbury clinic. What makes it especially interesting is that the clinic trial is usually regarded as an important foundation for Roe v. Wade.  I guess the significance of historic events is all about interpretation.

For more on the Chase clinic story, read David J. Garrow's Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade. If you are interested in serious research, the Mattatuck Museum has J. Warren Upson's papers in their archives.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very interesting and informative look at the current birth control debate.

Anonymous said...

hmmm....very informative Raechel but now could you go in depth about the facts of life :)

Litchfield Jen9 said...

I thought at some point Katherine Hepburn's mother played a role in establishing a Planned Parenthood chapter at Waterbury Hospital...?