Back in the mid-1950s when I was a newly married graduate student at Columbia University, one of the most important discoveries in my new life was the Planned Parenthood Clinic on 125th Street. Having grown up in a family where contraceptives were never mentioned, I was on my own in finding out about birth control.
Contraception was a lot more unreliable during those post-war years than it is now. Aside from condoms for men, the only realistic choice was a diaphragm for a woman, but that had to be fitted and prescribed by a doctor. Of course, a few couples used the only method approved by the Catholic Church. This was the rhythm method which required a woman to take her temperature every day to figure out when she was ovulating and thus likely to get pregnant. Never the most reliable method, it was sometimes referred to as “the pope’s roulette”
The possibility of a surprise pregnancy gave employers and educators an excuse to deny women, especially married women, many of the opportunities available to men. Medical schools, law schools and employers restricted women’s applications because women were not able to control their fertility. States like Connecticut, which made the use of contraceptives illegal even for married couples, added an extra burden for women.
Gradually through the 1950s, new means of contraception were developed. The pill—the gold standard in birth control—was unveiled to the world in 1954, and during the next twenty years, the pill became more effective and safer for women. The Planned Parenthood organization was instrumental in perfecting the pill. They publicized the need for reliable contraception and helped to fund doctors and scientists who gradually perfected the methods. Planned parenthood ran clinics and publicized the availability of effective contraception as well as providing help in fertility and family planning issues. PBS has prepared a timeline to show the development of contraception.
Having the means to control fertility changed people’s lives. Birth control allowed women and couples to maintain healthy families they could support. Gradually the repressive laws that prevented people from leading healthy, satisfying sex lives were discarded. States could no longer forbid marriage between people of different races, or people of the same sex. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals had the right to privacy in making intimate decisions. Since that time, women and men have had the right to choose their partners, to decide when to have children and raise them, to limit the number of children they had, or to choose not to have children.
By 2022, the world seemed safer for women. Most of us thought our rights were settled and secure. But we were wrong. In a devastating decision, the Supreme Court abruptly declared that it had all been a mistake. A majority of the Court stripped women of the right to choose whether or not to carry a fetus to birth. Who knows what rights they may decide to take away next? The right to get married? The right to decide the number of children they have? The right to choose their partner?
America’s Founding Fathers believed people had the right to pursue happiness, but it seems our courts have decided that legislators can determine what form of happiness we are allowed to choose even in our most intimate family relationships. Legislators who know nothing about the science of how pregnancy occurs and the complexity of fetal development are given the power to impose their religious beliefs on all of us. Without any factual basis, they can determine who will receive appropriate medical treatment and who will not when complex issues of life and death occur.
Surely this is not what Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers had in mind when they declared that each of us has the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Future justices will look back on the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade as a low point for the Supreme Court. The right to privacy is worth fighting for. We must let legislators and justices know that free people do not easily surrender their rights. The struggle to preserve our freedom is only beginning. We will win it by voting in every election and electing candidates who believe in individual freedom for each of us. Americans deserve no less.