- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The 50th anniversary of federal approval of the first birth-control pill arrives May 9.

The news media already are examining the sweeping changes wrought by “the pill.”

Today, though, I thought I would take you back to the pre-pill days, when “social hygienists” and “eugenicists” led the news about sex and childbirth.

Social hygienists (who touted “clean” family lifestyles and warned against sexual vice) and eugenicists (who believed that only the best people should reproduce) played roles in Margaret Sanger’s near-fanatical search for a “magic pill” to control childbearing.

By the early 1900s, social hygienists were well known. These educated, religious leaders revered marriage and parenthood, and elevated sex to a celestial plane in which each act of marital intercourse was potentially the birth of a child.

Every couple’s goal should be “four to eight healthy, happy, well-cared-for children,” T.W. Shannon, a leader of the World Purity Federation, said in his 1913 book, “Self Knowledge.”

Besides promoting marriage, parenthood and virtuous living, Mr. Shannon joined other “purity” leaders in decrying all manner of loose sexuality, moral decay and disease. Virtue is “in great danger” when young people “spoon” or cuddle, he wrote. “Suggestive pictures” on postcards and “moving pictures found in most five and ten cent shows are positively pernicious.”

Mr. Shannon’s advice to parents seeking to “regulate” the size of their family was to have sexual relations “for a few days only, about midway” between the wife’s monthly periods. Artificial contraceptives, he warned, could lead to tumors, ulcers and poor health.

Not surprisingly, not everyone succeeded in these hygienic ways. Folk remedies to prevent or end pregnancies abounded. And, around the time Mr. Shannon was writing his book, Margaret Sanger, a nurse on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was witness to a patient’s particularly gruesome death after a self-induced abortion.

That woman’s death, plus the early demise of Sanger’s own mother after 18 pregnancies, spurred Sanger to seek — no matter the cost — a pill that would allow women to take control of their own reproductive lives.

Sanger’s allies were not the God-fearing hygienists, who saw artificial contraception as immoral. Instead, her fellow travelers were the equally zealous eugenicists, who sought to purify and elevate mankind by preventing childbearing among “the unfit.”

Deviant populations — such as alcoholics, epileptics, the deaf and blind, imbeciles and the “feeble-minded” — should not reproduce, eugenics leaders explained, citing Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest and animal-husbandry sciences. The mantra of the American Eugenics Society was that human improvement depended on marriages between the “best” and “best.”

The nascent birth-control movement wasn’t in complete harmony with the eugenicists. Sanger wanted all women, rich and poor, to have birth control. Eugenicists supported birth control (even sterilization) for poor or unfit women, but they did not want to see fewer children born to upper- and middle-class women, since those were “the very sort of people who should be having more children in order to ‘improve’ the native stock of the race,” Donald T. Critchlow wrote in his 1999 book, “Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion and the Federal Government in Modern America.”

Still, the birth-control movement and eugenics movement labored together for many years, until the latter was destroyed by its links to Adolf Hitler and his hideous plans for a “master race.”

It is ironic that 50 years after the birth-control pill was introduced, the world still fights over many of the same sexual issues. The pill certainly changed the world, but time will tell what problems it solved and what problems it gave birth to.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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