Watson Rubber Contraceptives and the Law in the 19th Century United States
Jane Watson Grover traces the tension between the development of cheap, comfortable contraception and nineteenth century ideas of sex and morality. The paper focuses specifically on developments in middle class society, following the practice of anti-vice crusaders of the time who viewed the upper class as decadent, the poor as ignorant, and both groups as beyond redemption. Instead reformers targeted the middle class, and it is on this group that Grover also focuses.
Looking to contemporary concerns with a decline in population, the proper social role of women and appropriate relations between the sexes, Grover traces the contribution of various groups to the contraception debate. These include anti-vice activists, Freethinkers, feminists, and race-suicide alarmists. Where anti-vice activists saw the proliferation of contraceptives as an invitation to sin, those who feared race-suicide viewed the practice as artificially suppressing the number of Americans, and opening the way for a society dominated by immigrants. Feminists also opposed the practice, believing that it provided greater liberty for men--free to spend most of their time outside the house--while offering few advantages to women--confined to the domestic sphere. Although feminists encouraged smaller families, their preferred method of birth control was abstinence, not contraception.
In describing the context for this debate, Grover also outlines methods of birth control practiced prior to the introduction of rubber condoms and diaphragms. Such methods ranged from condoms made of animal intestines to the rhythm method, from antiseptic douches to "danc[ing] smartly for a few moments about the room" following intercourse. Grover considers the relative merits of these earlier methods, and notes that although some had medical purposes beyond contraception, primarily the prevention of venereal disease, they were widely viewed as inadequate.
Although the debate over contraception is a long running one, Grover notes that the vulcanization of rubber, around 1840, brought the debate to a boil. The new condoms and diaphragms were cheaper, more reliable, and more comfortable methods of birth control. Critics viewed them as morally objectionable and suggestive of sexual excess; they held the sale of such products to be an official sanctioning of licentiousness. In addition, the practice ran against contemporary views on marriage and sex, whose primary, if not sole, raison d'etre was held to be reproduction. Use of contraception removed the "pregnancy penalty" from intercourse, and left couples in thrall to their animal desires. Grover notes the interesting parallel between nineteenth century arguments that making contraceptives available would corrupt morality, and today's debate about providing condoms for teenagers.
The paper also considers the role of Anthony Comstock, leader of the anti-vice forces and inspiration of the Comstock Act of 1873, by which Congress largely resolved the debate by banning the use of the mails for selling, or providing information about, contraceptives. Grover discusses the speed and confusion that surrounded consideration of the Act, and argues that Congress might not have understood the Act's ramifications. Despite this, the Comstock Act remained good law well into the twentieth century, when it was overruled, in piecemeal fashion, by various court decisions. Following its passage, Comstock was made a special agent of the Postal Service, responsible for enforcing the Act. Grover details his methods of enforcement, including his use of "decoy letters" to hoodwink pharmacists into mailing contraceptives to him. She notes, however, that the Act was not always strictly enforced, and that some sellers of contraception were acquitted after claiming there were medical reasons for distributing contraceptive devices.
In conclusion the paper mentions the Comstock Act's longevity, as well as some of the unintended consequences of its nearly century-long ban on contraception, including high rates of venereal disease in the military and the demise of medical research on contraception. An Appendix to the paper provides the text of the Comstock Act.
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