11 Crucial Moments In The History Of The Reproductive Rights Movement
I’m one of those women who basically always thinks she’s pregnant. Seriously — at least once every month, some part of my brain convinces me that I must be pregnant, despite the fact that I’m really careful about birth control. In fact, making it to 30 without a pregnancy is somewhat of a miracle in the history of womanhood and that’s because I’m of a generation that has had the most access to birth control ever. Since I became sexually active at age 15, I’ve used a wide range of contraceptives, from the Pill to condoms to a diaphragm. But as we stare down potential moves by the Trump administration to limit easy and cheap access to contraception, it’s a good time to remember that the history of the reproductive rights movement is fairly recent — and the fight to get us here has been anything but easy.
“Over the past half century, birth control has provided enormous benefits to women and their families, and has been nothing short of revolutionary for women and society,” Dawn Laguens, Executive Vice President, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says in a statement. “But under the Trump administration, we are now facing an immediate future where a woman's ability to make a most basic and personal decision — when and if to have a child — could be limited by her boss.”
So as a reminder of what we have to lose, let’s take a look at some crucial moments in the history of the reproductive rights movement.
1. 1916: Margaret Sanger Opens First Birth Control Clinic
Just over 100 years ago, on October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the country’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. She was arrested under the Comstock law, which forbade talking about or distributing information about birth control. That didn’t stop her, though — her one clinic later grew to become the international women’s health organization Planned Parenthood.
2. 1938: Federal Ban On Birth Control Lifted
Over 20 years after that first clinic opened in Brooklyn, the federal ban on birth control was lifted. The ban — part of the Comstock laws — said that talking about contraception was “obscene” and doctors could be jailed for prescribing any time of contraception. (Remember, this is pre-Pill so we’re talking condoms and diaphragms, here.)
“It is one of the anomalies of modern civilization that the forces of bigotry, reaction and legalism could so long have kept on the federal statute books a law that classed contraceptive information with obscenity and was interpreted to prevent physicians from prescribing contraceptives,” Sanger wrote in the New Republic in 1938. “Year after year this vicious law legally tied the hands of reputable physicians, while quacks and purveyors of bootleg contraceptives and ‘feminine hygiene’ articles and formulas flourished. It was an absurd situation in which the federal law in effect nullified the laws of practically every state.”
3. 1960: The Pill Is Approved As Contraception
The initial funding for the Pill was provided by — you guessed it — Margaret Sanger, who raised $150,000 in 1950 while she was in her eighties. But it wasn’t until May 9, 1960 that the FDA approved of hormonal contraceptives. The Pill had been available before that but it was prescribed for irregular menstruation, with birth control listed as a possible side effect. By 1959, half a million women were using Enovid, the first Pill, specifically for its side effect.
4. 1965: Griswold v. Connecticut
While the federal ban on birth control was lifted in 1938, that doesn’t mean states couldn’t implement their own laws. (States rights, y’all.) But on June 6, 1965, the landmark case of Griswold v. Connecticut made it illegal for states to ban contraception for married couples. If you were unmarried, however, you’d still have to wait a few years…
5. 1968: IUDs Are Approved
IUDs, which are increasingly popular as a super effective form of long term, reversible birth control, have had a rocky history in the United States. They were invented in the early 1900s but weren’t approved by the FDA until 1968. But after the Dalkon Shied caused ectopic pregnancies, infections, and even sterilization in women, they were largely off the market for a couple of decades. These days, both the copper and low dose hormonal IUDs are considered safe and effective.
6. 1970: The Nelson Pill Hearings
Ten years after the approval of the Pill, feminist Barbara Seaman published a book calledThe Doctors Case Against the Pill. The book drew attention to the fact that some women were suffering from side effects from the Pill. It also led to Congressional hearings about oral contraceptives, at which only men testified. (So clearly this is issue of letting men decide things about women’s bodies is nothing new.)
Pissed off about the fact that no women were being heard at a hearing that was directly about women’s health, feminist Alice Wolfson jumped up and asked why there were no women testifying.
“Why had you assured the drug companies that they could testify?” Woflson asked. “Why have you told them that they could get top priority? They're not taking the pills, we are!”
In a scene that’s all too similar to Mitch McConnell censoring Senator Elizabeth Warren, Wolfson was told to stand down. However, her boldness and the subsequent protests by her fellow feminists led to significant changes in hormone levels in the Pill and a patient insert about possible side effects included with every prescription.
Feminists testified about the safety of the Pill, particularly hormone levels and side effects, leading to changes in hormone levels of the contraception.
7. 1972: Eisenstadt v. Baird
In 1967, Professor William Baird gave vaginal foam and a condom to a woman after giving a lecture at Boston College about birth control and population. He was then arrested and convicted for violating Massachusetts state law, which said that contraception couldn’t be distributed to unmarried people and could only be distributed by a registered health care professional. He appealed and the case was resolved in his — and all single people’s — favor by the Supreme Court in 1972.
8. 1973: Roe v. Wade
Y’all know about Roe, right? The 1973 Supreme Court case made it illegal for states to interfere with first trimester abortions. The case overturned Texas state law and has stood at the front lines of abortion rights every since.
9. 1998: Emergency Contraception Approved
In 1998, emergency contraception — or “morning after pill” — was approved by the FDA, making it that much easier to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.
10. 2010: The Affordable Care Act Makes Contraception Available Without A Copay
The Affordable Care Act was signed on March 23, 2010. The ACA declared that contraception is a form of preventive care and that it would be available without a copay. For the first time in history, most forms of contraception were available for free to any woman with health insurance.
11. 2016: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstadt
Texas has a long history of restricting access to abortion (see Roe v. Wade, above) but a year ago, on June 27, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled against Texas and for reproductive rights in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstadt. In this case, the court decided that it was unconstitutional for states to place “undue burden” via TRAP laws on women seeking abortion. TRAP stands for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers and includes laws that require abortion clinics to be ambulatory surgical centers, among others.
This history is by no means exhaustive — there have been big and small moments throughout the reproductive rights movement. But it’s a good reminder that this is fight is long and that the arch of history is on our side.