In 1949, when my big romance was morphing from casual to committed I was desperately searching for a reliable method of birth control. To be precise, I wanted a diaphragm, i.e. a rubber cap that would prevent my lover’s sperm from reaching my uterus. Today I could have marched into the office of a gynecologist, but then it was illegal for doctors to prescribe contraceptives to single women. I certainly could not approach my family physician. Even Planned Parenthood, founded in 1921, was forbidden to counsel me.
Surreptitiously I obtained the name of a Dr. Hertz who might fit me with a diaphragm. I made an appointment and went to see him, alone while my boyfriend anxiously paced the street outside his office. I remember telling the physician a cock & bull story about condoms and irritating spermicide creams. To his credit the doctor rather quickly understood my request. Relieved, he called out to his nurse that I wanted a diaphragm. He fitted me and I carefully hid my trophy from my prying mother. Six months later, my lover and I married and I gratefully visited Planned Parenthood. Dr. Hertz had fitted me well, but the entire experience left me with a lingering sense of guilt and underhandedness. I always hoped that there would be children in my life. Planned Parenthood, founded 29 years earlier by Margaret Sanger, made me feel that I was planning their future responsibly.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, effective contraception relied on male methods: condoms made from animals’ bladders or guts, or coitus interruptus (withdrawal before ejaculation). Both methods are ancient. The latter is mentioned in the Bible. The Egyptians already used animal bladders, as did Crete’s legendary King Minos, whose sperm contained scorpions and snakes bound to harm his fair mate.
Several reasons shaped Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of birth control. They included the widespread use of often fatal abortions, the interrelationship between poverty and large families, the toll of too closely spaced pregnancies on the health of both mother and child, and the need for women to control their own fertility. The medical data issuing from small Holland impressed Sanger. In 1878, Dr. Alletta Jacobs, Holland’s first female physician, and Dr. Johannes Rutgers, had founded the country’s first free clinic for poor women and children. Stillbirths and abortions dropped so dramatically in the vicinity of the clinic that 50 more such institutions were founded. Dr. Jacobs and colleagues also developed workable contraceptive diaphragms. In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Sanger braved the submarine-infested Atlantic and visited Holland. Back in America, she founded Planned Parenthood in 1921.
Ever since then, Planned Parenthood has provided adequate free or low-cost counseling and healthcare to women before, during and after pregnancy. It is by far not the only organization to do so, but it is an crucial contributor. By now Planned Parenthood operates 600 health centers throughout the United States. The dignified care they provide is not only humanitarian, but also a wise business decision. Readily available birth control as well as other factors have reduced abortion rates from 1.36 million annually in 2000 to 926,000 in 2014. And as demonstrated in Holland so long ago, preventive care reduces maternal mortality and dramatically reduces the risk of expensive preterm babies.
According to the U.S. Institute of Medicine, 15 million infants are born prematurely (before 37 weeks gestation) worldwide. The cost of caring for a premature infant is astronomical. Figures range from $50,000 during the first year (March of Dimes, 2009) to $2.2 million during the first 18 months (U.S. Institute of Medicine, 2012). By contrast, according to the March of Dimes, a full-term baby costs an average of $4,500 during his or her first year of life. Prenatal care, which includes birth control counseling, obviously is a wise investment.
Defunding Planned Parenthood is a cruel, insensitive and economically disastrous decision.
Suzanne Loebl is the author of Conception, Contraception: A New Look, which retells the amazing story of science’s long struggle to understand how humans and other mammals are conceived. Macmillan published it in 1974, fourteen years after the FDA approved the Pill. Today, high school students know more about human physiology than major scientists did a century ago.
I am astounded and downhearted every time this topic comes up. The use of contraception and abortion is a decision each woman needs to make for themselves. That it has become a political issue and subject to legislation is infuriating. Let’s hope the next Congress has sufficient members with conscience and backbone who will eliminate the gaps and support good, accessible health care for all.
Somehow I missed this post earlier. Mom, you continue to hit the nail on the head and as always add an interesting personal and historical perspective!