Contraception in the United States: A Short History

Many 19th-century promoters of contraceptives were religious zealots who first attacked marriage, then procreation.

Today, Catholic apologetics against contraception and abortion sometimes appear historically naive, as if these issues suddenly fell out of the sky in 1930 with Resolution 15 of the Anglican Lambeth Conference on contraception, or in 1973 with Roe v. Wade.

A little information about the early history of contraception and abortion advocacy in America—especially its deepest objectives—might help. The Catholic Church has vast resources to deploy as long as it understands its opponents well. And one important thing it should understand is that many of contraception and abortion’s early proponents were religious enthusiasts.

The philosophy of fruitlessness

The first public advocacy of contraception was not explicitly religious. It came in the form of a pamphlet by a self-defined “freethinking” materialist—a Massachusetts physician, Charles Knowlton, who wrote and published The Fruits of Philosophy in 1830.

As a young man, Knowlton had been upset by the very fact of his nocturnal emissions and had gone to a handyman and electrical tinkerer in the neighborhood who administered shock treatments for his “condition,” to no avail. Knowlton took a fancy to the electrical tinkerer’s daughter, married her, and found that his “problem” immediately was cured. Later, after conducting some private research into anatomy while studying medicine, he wound up in jail for nocturnal grave robbing, or as he put it, “depriving a parcel of worms of their dinner.” Dr. Knowlton, although he fancied himself to be among the illuminati, would seem to have been something of a creature of the night.

His pamphlet detailed all the methods of contraception that he had come across, including coitus interruptus, condoms, vaginal sponges, and the method he thought most effective, douching with a vaginal syringe. He justified birth control with an argument that remains a standard today, in arguing for sex education in schools as well as in condemning the Catholic Church for not supporting mass condom distribution:

Let not the old ascetic say we ought not to gratify our appetites any further than is necessary to maintain health and to perpetuate the species. Mankind will not so abstain, and if any means to prevent the evils that may arise from a farther gratification can be devised, they need not. Heaven has not only given us the capacity of greater enjoyment, but the talent of devising means to prevent the evils that are liable to arise therefrom, and it becomes us, “with thanksgiving,” to make the most of them.

What “Heaven” had given us, then, was sex and the means to subvert it. Knowlton speaks here about pregnancy and childbirth as “evils,” but it was his materialism that allowed him to dissect sex into its two aspects—making children and making delight—and to recommend a technology for blocking one while allowing the other. The “fruits” of his Fruits of Philosophy, in other words, would be no fruits.

We should have liked to ask this pathologist of the sexual act why nature or “Heaven” had joined them in the first place. Did he believe that his materialist universe wished to bestow on humans gratuitous and inconsequential delight? Did it not occur to him that sexual desire and passion existed at least partly as “Heaven’s” encouragement to undertake the burden of having babies? And that unlinking the two parts of the sexual act would likely have unintended consequences?

Knowlton said that he was moved to spread his good news of contraception out of compassion for the young married women of rural New England who were burdened with many children, but the tone of his writings (he ventured into debunking theology, too) give the impression of a Yankee peddler attempting to talk Mother Nature into a quick indiscretion behind the barn.

All over New England at that time, work was being re-organized so that one area of labor after another was being divided into piecework—the industrial division of labor, introduced by both capitalists and socialists—turning society into a machine, with individuals as specialized parts assigned certain functions. The division and re-organization of labor was ideologically prior—and in many cases historically prior—to the introduction of the technologies that reinforced and further enabled it.

Both capitalism and socialism placed pressure on families because the family was a hindrance to re-organizing society into a larger whole. And the ideological forces that urged and justified the efforts to re-organize society and its sexual customs along secular lines were aspects of a polemic driven by a hope for a New Age.

Materialist Knowlton’s division of the sexual act into separate functions was part of its “rationalization.” None of his contraceptive technologies were new with him; but what was new was his mechanistic rationale and a kind of missionary’s conviction that their widespread use was a moral good that would improve human life.

It was not long, however, before birth control advocacy and practice took on a more explicitly religious coloring.

“Bible Communism” and “Free Love”

About the time that Knowlton published his pamphlet, another young man with the Yankee penchant for tinkering and eccentric researches, a Vermonter named John Humphrey Noyes, became a divinity student at Yale. While there, Noyes perused the New Testament, made his own calculations, and concluded that the Second Coming had already occurred—in 70 AD—although no one had noticed until the moment of his “discovery.” Having figured this out, he believed, had set him on the other side of the great test and that consequently he had realized his perfection and could do no sin. This conviction caused him to lose his license to preach from the Congregationalists.

He founded a community—first in Putney, Vermont, and then at Oneida, New York—based on what he called “Bible Communism.” It was, he said, guided by the principle of “Free Love.” Since he and his followers were perfect, they were to live as if they were already in heaven, where “there is no giving in marriage.” This did not mean that no one had sexual relations. It meant that sexual relations were “free.” “Free” love meant “innocent” love, given and taken “freely,” no matter with whom, but without any unintended consequences, in the form of children, that would result in special obligations that drew one away from communion with the whole group. This was accomplished with birth control, a method of “male continence,” coitus reservatus, where the man learns to internally repress the ejaculation of his semen during sexual intercourse.

Noyes said he was inspired to the practice of coitus reservatus as a way to relieve his wife from having to repeat the sufferings she had previously endured in giving birth. The solution was to separate out the “progenitive” function of sexual relations from the “amative” function (just as Knowlton had done).

Today, Oneida’s sexual regime does not seem like “free love” because sexual relations were controlled, from one end to the other: permission for sexual relations were proposed to, considered, and allowed by a committee, headed by Noyes. It was, above all, Noyes’ “perfect” inner monitions that guided the community, not any set of conventional morals.

Noyes initiated all the young women in the community into the practice of “Bible Communism.” Women elders in the community trained the young men. During the years of Oneida’s existence a few women were allowed to have babies, some were not. These allowances were given to women who were deemed, for one reason or another, to be capable of producing superior children, rather in the way a farmer selects his livestock for breeding. Noyes called this “stirpiculture.”

Children were not raised by their parents, but by the community as a whole. There were no nuclear families. It was self-consciously socialistic. The community offered a count of the small number of babies born over the years, as evidence of the effectiveness of its birth control method. But as far as I know, the method is no more perfectly effective then than it is now. Unsurprisingly, the records do not show if, and how many, abortions were performed.

However, one resident wrote of an incident that seems to hint at the practice: The Oneida community ran an orphanage and boarding school, and the little girls in the school, who had all been given dolls, were found to have grown attached to them, so they were marched into a room one day and made to throw them into a stove to incinerate them, along with their “selfish” attachments to their little ones.

The regeneration of society

“Free Love” spread far beyond Oneida’s particular social arrangement, and became an ideal for many socialist-leaning “ultraist” reformers from about 1855. It would cure the ills of society, it was thought, not only by replacing the institution of marriage, but by biologically refashioning and improving the human race. The “best” specimens of the race would be free to act on their natural attractions unhindered by conventional (meaning artificial) restraints. Its advocates had the religious Nonconformist estimate of why a truly holy person should “come out” of traditional institutions, like churches and their artificially imposed moral conventions.

In 1870, Free Lover Stephen Pearl Andrews even proposed turning the Church into an evangelizing instrument for a scientifically planned parenthood:

Let science decide on and distinctly define what ought to be; let, then, the religious sentiment of mankind, the most universal and powerful of our sentiments, be converged on the persuasion and conscientious devotion of the whole people in behalf of the truth so defined; and let the Church be re-organized into the potent instrument for so converging the religion of the world upon that conduct, the necessity or desirableness of which science may have determined.

Religion is able, today, to keep millions of ignorant men and women from eating meat on Friday. Religion will be able, in the future, to keep other millions of intelligent men and women, who, under the dictates of science, ought not to do so, from propagating their kind.

There were very few “true” humans in the population, Andrews said (he, of course, was one of them). Most were closer to “varmints” and “vermin.” Better to reduce that population, so that their “life force” could be concentrated into the few higher up the ascending scale of scientifically determined good traits. Fewer children, but better ones.

Andrews had earlier gained notoriety in the press for his advocacy of “individual sovereignty”—essentially arguing the individual should have absolutely no constraints on his or her freedom to act, as long as the act did not infringe on others’ freedom. However, he and his fellow advocates for the uninhibited freedom of the individual, then as now, tended to have an ulterior motive—a vision of a higher state of society, in which individual freedom would be cast aside as “selfish,” and in which only society and its highest guiding lights would be free.

Andrews’ understanding of biological inheritance was influenced by Auguste Comte, whose work was first translated from French into English and published in America around 1855, just several years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In Comte, progress is a linear ascension toward complexity, with man at the top, but with a future “new man” above him and assimilating particular men into a new organism of human society as a whole by promoting in individuals what was of use to that new organism and suppressing what was not.

In this emphasis on transmuting a diversity of “lower” elements in an almost alchemical fashion into a “higher” form, Andrews and his fellow sex radicals were also indebted to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s notion of the inheritance of acquired traits.

Human characteristics were malleable, in other words, and so, the “lower” ones could be trained out of individuals and then bred out of successively advancing generations. This was the rationale and heart of the radical reform project. It was an undertaking of the “regeneration” of man. It was not just a religious project—of replacing a corrupted formulation of God’s will with the will of an ascendant Humanity. It was not just an educational project. It was not even essentially a political or sociological project—of breaking down the “lower” forms of social organization (most especially the traditional family) so that they could be assimilated into the State. It was also a biological project, consisting in the directed fabrication of a higher kind of human.

As radical reformer and phrenologist Orson Fowler wrote, marriage reform—which included what we would recognize today as a socially enforced system of bearing and raising children—was the ax that could cut the taproot of all the various problems that reformers were trying to address at the time. The social reformers believed they were continuing and extending the liberating work of the Protestant Reformation against oppressive tradition and institutions.

The liberation of women

The justification of birth control involved its promise to liberate individuals; but it liberated them by first dissolving the marital bonds of mutual obligation embodied in sex, and then assimilating the individuals—no longer bound (or protected) by anything—to the whole.

Ironically, access to birth control was often presented to the public as a way to strengthen marriage: it would protect the woman from the dangers to her health that accompanied childbirth. It would reduce the quantity and increase the quality of children in a marriage, making the mother’s job less burdensome. It would lessen the pressures on the family’s finances. It would allegedly reduce the number of abortions; it would protect the family from venereal diseases that the father caught while a-whoring when his wife was indisposed or pregnant. By re-educating men about the importance of “pure” love, it would reduce the number of young women drawn into prostitution by reducing the demand for their services. And it would elevate sex within marriage to its “pure,” “spiritual,” and “higher” aspects, rather than its “animal” and “selfish” ones.

Nevertheless, the ultimate goal was not to strengthen the institution of marriage, but to eliminate it. From the time that woman’s rights became a particularly demarcated cause—when its advocates were forming their political views influenced by French socialists such as Charles Fourier in the 1840s—the traditional family was an object of derision among them. It was the “isolated household,” as some called it, that placed women in servitude, and that had to be replaced, in the “Coming Era,” with “unitary”—that is, communal—living and working arrangements.

This love was “free” because it would have no degraded, which is to say, physical, consequence. Generation would be circumvented by “regeneration,” covering over one’s “sin,” as it were, with the lambskin of divine salvation. Unregenerate seed would be reserved in the man and be transmuted there, through a divine alchemy, into holiness, into higher purposes and enlightened thoughts, rather than be spent in the woman and be continued unto sinful generations. Man’s hereditary “total depravity” could be ended in a single generation, circumvented by mechanical means, and a regenerated mankind could then arise.

The mother’s choice

Noyes said that his method of birth control made motherhood “voluntary,” but that word needed to be understood precisely—pregnancies were “voluntary” only in the sense that it might be Noyes’ will that someone in the community should be a mother, that is, should become pregnant. Other pregnancies were examples of the willfulness and anti-social tendencies of mere individuals in need of correction and reeducation.

“Voluntary motherhood” appeared to some to imply only the freedom of the mother to have children when she wished to have them—that is, the right not to have children when she did not wish to. Actually, it also meant that she be prevented from having children unless others—expressed as a collective voice—wished her to do so. If she gave birth anyway, it would be an imposition on everyone else. The idea entailed both the procreation of “improved” children and the prevention or elimination of “unimproved” ones. The link between freedom and control was essential, therefore, not adventitious. The institution of traditional marriage blocked the regeneration of society because it because it set up obligations and interests on a smaller scale that were at odds with the will of society in its “highest” expression.

“Free Lovers” regarded sexual union as a good, because it fostered the spiritual union of individuals—but only on the condition that it did not bear imperfect fruit. Free Love envisioned, in its final or stable form, strict controls over the production of offspring, controls that completely trumped any merely “low” feelings of “selfish” affection between individuals that would result in “degenerate” children. It was the society as a whole—or even the human race (which is to say, whatever dictator spoke for the purified proletariat)—that would direct reproduction. Those who continued to reproduce “promiscuously,” that is, without the approval of society, and out of selfish and outdated motives, would have to be encouraged by “moral suasion” or social pressure, or made by physical force, to desist. Humanity would thereby grasp the means of its own production and sexual Utopia would ensue.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote to fellow woman’s rights activist Lucy Stone a letter to be read before a convention of those working for marriage reform. “Marriage, as we now have it, is opposed to all God’s laws,” she wrote. “Is it any wonder, then, that woman regards herself as a mere machine, a tool for men’s pleasure? Verily is she a hopeless victim of his morbidly developed passions. But, thank God, she suffers not alone! Man too pays the penalty of his crimes in his enfeebled mind, dwarfed body, and the shocking monstrosities of his deformed and crippled offspring.”

Like most sex and marriage reformers at the time, Stanton believed that base thoughts and feelings (as well as holy ones) were imprinted directly on the developing fetus. This could include either the father’s “animal passion” or anything lower than the highest spiritual, courtly love for the mother, or any shade of the mother’s own feelings of “unwanting” sex with the father or of “unwanting” the child that was conceived. Such thoughts and feelings in the parents would physically deform the child in the womb between the time of conception and birth. This was the source of reformers’ fears that the race was degenerating, and that their reforms, encompassing what we would today call “reproductive rights,” would regenerate it. At the time, this was all “settled science,” as one woman’s rights activist explained it:

It is an established fact, and one bearing directly upon the formation of this science, that acquired peculiarities and altered characteristics are transmissible from parent to offspring. In other words, that the constitution of progeny partake of the temporary condition of the parental system at the period of conception or gestation. 

The subtle and mysterious, though powerful influence of the maternal mind or “imagination” upon the plastic nature of the unborn child is no less important than it is remarkable. That varied impressions made upon the mother’s mind are capable of being photographed, as it were, upon the brain or body of the child in utero, we have the authority of the most distinguished physiologists and physicians of the present day as well as the past, for believing. 

The argument’s biological assumptions were completely but quietly overturned by Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel’s findings on the true mechanism of genetics, which became generally accepted around the end of the 19th century. Activists for contraception and abortion could no longer plausibly argue that giving birth to an “unwanted” child was unacceptable because it had already been physically and mentally damaged, and that it would place an immoral demand on the baby just to bring it into the world.

Nevertheless, Margaret Sanger and others long afterwards continued to argue the point, although the moral urgency of the evil of having an “unwanted” child had been deflated. She and others pushed the argument into the 20th century, but increasingly allowed the biological premise to fade into vague language about the evil resulting from an “unwanted” child being born into a family or society that could not—or did not wish to—take care of it. 

As late as her 1920 book, Woman and the New Race, Sanger wrote:

There are weighty authorities who assert that through the female alone comes those modifications of form, capacity and ability which constituted evolutionary progress. … Birth control itself, often denounced as a violation of natural law, is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives. So, in compliance with nature’s working plan, we must permit womanhood its full development before we can expect of it efficient motherhood. If we are to make racial progress, this development of womanhood must precede motherhood in every individual woman. Then and then only can the mother cease to be an incubator and be a mother indeed. Then only can she transmit to her sons and daughters the qualities which make strong individuals and, collectively, a strong race.

Every child a wanted child. Implying, with a probably deliberate vagueness, No unwanted child. Which is to say, No child who is born should be unwanted. And it is also to say, No child should be born whose mother has not wanted it to be born. And it is even to say, No child should be born whose mother has not willed it into existence. Which is to say, more ominously, that, unless the mother has willed it into existence, a child per se does not exist. It is only something less than human.

The mother’s autonomous will, her “choice,” became the center of gravity for abortion-rights activists not just because choice indicates her rights as against others, but because it was her internal exercise of choice that animated the child into existence, turned the fetus into a person, and because it was her unfettered exercise of choice, without regard to what she chose, that defined freedom.

By 1856, a few of the most radical speakers at Free Love conventions in Ravenna and Berlin Heights, Ohio, and (rather scandalously to a broader audience) at a Pan-Reform Convention in 1858 in Rutland, Vermont, first directed the public’s attention to the subject of unwanted children as a reform issue, and to the right of a woman to determine the children (including their number) she would have, when and if she would have them, and with whom she would have them.

Bondage and freedom

At the Rutland convention, a few speakers declared marriage itself to be illegitimate, because it was an institution that maintained the oppression of women and children by giving rights over their bodies to the husband and father. Slavery abolitionist Stephen Foster spoke on the issue of whether one could own another human, and compared marriage to slavery, declaring that, in marriage, the woman was a slave and a slave breeder, and the man was a slave owner.

The Free Lovers at the convention were still thinking about Margaret Garner, a young fugitive slave mother. The previous year, when on the verge of being recaptured, she had killed one of her children and, before she was subdued, had turned to her other young children with her bloody knife with the intention of killing them as well, intending afterwards to commit suicide. She had done this, it was reported, in order to save her children from slavery. The ultraists’ rendition of events had it this way:  Slavery was her child’s killer, not her. Or if she was responsible for her act, she had liberated her child from slavery by killing her.

Woman’s rights activist Lucy Stone had addressed the court that had considered whether to charge Garner. She asked the court to look at Garner’s remaining children, who had evidently been fathered by her former white master: “The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit,” she said. “Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right not to do so?” Infanticide could be a mercy killing, which liberated the child from the bondage of the world.

Henry Clarke Wright, ex-Congregationalist minister, abolitionist, woman’s-rights advocate, and spiritualist, wrote The Unwelcome Child and published it in 1859. His book made the case that “ante-natal child murder”—which is to say abortion—although terrible, was forced on the mother when she was pregnant with an unwanted child. Because of the monstrous effects on the developing fetus communicated from the mother’s feelings, she could be driven to abortion. Abortion could be the mother’s supreme act of love for her child, because—through no fault of her own, but because she had been oppressed in various ways—in the womb it had already become an abortion.

Wright explicitly opposed abortion. But at every step of his argument, he attributed any impulse in the mother toward abortion to the unnatural oppression of the father and the world against the mother—implicitly, here, because marriage itself was an oppressive institution—which perverted her natural loving maternal instinct. It was men’s fault that women were put in the situation of carrying unwanted children.

Woman’s-rights activists during this time—Susan B. Anthony, for example—were against abortion. Abortion was, for them, exhibit A in their case for woman’s rights, however, because for many of them it demonstrated the bankrupt moral consequences of the current, traditional marriage institution:  women undertook abortion only in extremis, and only because it was men who made it necessary for women to even contemplate it.

Most of the woman’s-rights activists who thought of abortion as morally abhorrent were being entirely honest. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the thought that some of them were arguing tactically, and did in fact believe that the “right” to abort was something that a mother had, as a function of her rights over her own body.

This is because the argument began to shift in precisely that direction, hesitatingly at first, just before the Civil War, and more commonly by the 1870s, until it was not uncommon to find it being advocated by such reformers as Angela Heywood in the late 1870s and early 1880s. By that time, such a “right” was interwoven into a full-throated argument for the progressive eugenic improvement of the race.

The mother’s “sovereignty”—as Wright put it, her “empire”—over the child in her womb was utterly absolute, and no one and nothing else had any rights there.

In this logic, the mother must see the unwelcome child as an alien or a parasite who had invaded her absolutely self-sovereign territory, her “empire.” Or, she could see it as her victimizer, a surrogate of the man who had put it there, that threatened her own integrity from within. Or, she could see it as the abandoned victim of the father’s bestial lust that left her no choice but, despite her natural sentiments, to put it out of its current and future misery, and see herself as its liberator, by sending it to “birth in the spirit land.”

But focusing on the individual’s sovereign freedom as the supreme good, inevitably and ironically leads to the individual’s being utterly stripped of its defenses against “Humanity” as a whole, embodied in the State. The Old Covenant of Charity was replaced by a New Covenant of “Philanthropy.” In his 1854 novel, The Spirit-Rapper, Orestes Brownson had one of his progressivist characters explain what 19th-century “philanthropy” entailed:

“Know, that philanthropy seeks no individual, no exclusive good, and does not consist in loving and seeking the welfare of our fellow men and women. It is the love of man, not men, and seeks the welfare of the race, not of individuals. The welfare of the race consists in progress, which is effected only by free activity. All free activity is good, virtuous, right.”

But this “freedom” is ultimately incoherent. It is this “freedom” that results in the State’s forcing everyone to honor and underwrite deliberately unfruitful sex.

The Church cannot merely oppose a mother’s claim to absolute autonomy in her “right to choose” with a claim for the baby’s own absolute autonomy, in its “right to life.” And the Church cannot accept making religion an entirely private affair of individual belief, of no material consequence for human life and flourishing. This would break the chain that links the spiritual to the material, the very chain that its Gnostic opponents wish to break. It is the chain that links the generations in spirit to the generations created in the flesh.

I earlier noted that the division and re-organization of labor was ideologically prior—and in many cases historically prior—to the introduction of the technologies that reinforced and further enabled it. This was also the case, I believe, with reproductive technologies. When Christ established marriage as a sacrament, he instituted a truce between men and women, in which both sides submitted to a holy, and therefore unbreakable, regimen, endeavoring to join together in God’s work in the Incarnation, uniting spirit and flesh, and, in the begetting of children, mirroring His own creative activity.

The Protestant reformers, perhaps unknowingly, pulled out the lynchpin when they denied that marriage was a sacrament. The result, I believe, was a slow-motion disarticulation of the unity of man and woman in sacramental marriage. The truce between them was broken. And so the fruit of their unity—their children—became suspect. Men and woman, even in marriage, became independent antagonists, predators and prey, oppressors and oppressed. Reading the complaints of women’s-rights activists in the 19th century who viewed women as enchained, and looking at the contraceptive regime of today, how else are we to view reproductive technologies except as defensive weapons for a war between men and women, the truce in which had already been broken?

About John B. Buescher 0 Articles
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. From 1991 to 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004) and The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).