Antiabortion Movement Gunning for Contraceptive Rights, TooRoundup
tags: conservatism, abortion, contraception, reproductive rights, social reform, history of sexuality, Comstock Laws
Anya Jabour is Regents Professor of History and Director of the Public History Program at the University of Montana. The author of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America (2019), she is currently working on a biography of Katharine Bement Davis.
Last weekend, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) released a video criticizing Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, and denouncing what Blackburn called the “constitutionally unsound” ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut. In that 1965 case, the Supreme Court struck down a state law restricting married couples’ access to birth control on the basis that such laws infringed upon Americans’ right to privacy. The right to privacy established in this case subsequently informed the 1972 decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird, which extended privacy rights and contraceptive access to single women, and the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which declared access to safe and legal abortions a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Now, these landmark cases face political opposition and legal challenges.
A century ago, sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis published an excerpt from her ongoing study of women’s sexuality in which she revealed the frequency with which married women practiced contraception — and, when it failed, obtained abortions. But then, as now, discussions of women’s sexuality were deeply controversial. Davis’s study redefined birth control, masturbation and lesbianism as “normal,” but it also cost her job. At the heart of this controversy, then and now, is women’s ability to control their own bodies.
Initially, Davis spent her career policing women’s sexuality, not promoting it. One of the first women in the nation to earn a PhD, Davis served as superintendent of New York’s Reformatory for Women at Bedford Falls, where most inmates were confined for prostitution, from 1901 through 1913. As the first woman to serve as commissioner of corrections in New York, from 1914 through 1916, Davis enforced birth-control crusader Margaret Sanger’s prison sentence for distributing contraceptives in defiance of state laws.
Sanger, an advocate of free speech as well as birth control, was a longtime adversary of the law-and-order Davis. In 1914, her newspaper, the Woman Rebel, had excoriated “good, respectable Miss Davis” for imprisoning Ukrainian American anarchist Rebecca Edelsohn for delivering an antiwar speech. Sanger called Davis “a brilliant example of that rapidly growing group of respectable women who have discovered profitable and highly honorable careers in the exploitation of the victims of our social ‘law and order’ … under the name of ‘charities and corrections.’ ”
Sanger’s campaign against Davis intensified after her 30-day sentence at Queens County Jail in early 1917. After her release, she accused Davis of “studied cruelty and heartlessness in the treatment of the jail’s population.” According to Sanger, “Every inmate of the jail learns to hate Miss Davis with a bitterness and a depth of resentment that one would scarcely believe possible,” and “the girls complain that Miss Davis delights in the exercise of authority that amounts to tyranny.”
Editor's Note: A reader has pointed out that the New York Reformatory is located in the town of Bedford Hills, not Bedford Falls.