The XX Factor

Planned Parenthood and the Birth of “Birth Control”

A souvenir box of condoms for the royal wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Jill Lepore’s New Yorker piece about the past and future of Planned Parenthood packs a large amount of detailed information into 12 pages, and reads like butter, giving no one an excuse to skip it. It’s hard to pick out what parts I found the most interesting. Was it how she swiftly dismantled the legend that Margaret Sanger was motivated by a love of eugenics? (In reality, Sanger was motivated by her desire to empower women and aligned herself with eugenics to gain credibility for her birth control movement.) Lepore’s nifty portrayal of the subculture of Texas feminism that gave birth to Ann and Cecile Richards? The clarity with which she lays out how reproductive rights, along with black empowerment, changed from being a complex issue crossing party lines to the source of our current partisan divide?

All of this is great, but what I really enjoyed was Lepore’s depiction of the midcentury struggle between the feminist radicals and the moderate social conservatives that populated the movement to make contraception access more wildly available. The struggle was over explaining “why contraception?” and the debate, as is custom, took the form of quibbling over semantics. Sanger, holding down the fort for the feminists, argued for the term “birth control,” whereas those who had a more conservative view of the natural relations between men and women preferred the term “family planning.” My preference falls with Sanger’s. “Birth control” conjures up the image of an individual woman taking control of her fertility, and having the final say on what is done with her uterus. “Family planning” evokes the image of a couple coming together to make decisions about how many children they have, which is good and well for people in stable and traditional relationships that likely involve marriage and children but erases the huge percentage of women who require contraception but don’t have that living arrangement. (After all, a slight majority of adult American women live without a husband at home.) The reasoning of the more conservative faction is obvious enough in retrospect; they clearly thought that by framing contraception as a male prerogative, it would seem less of a threat to the traditional order.

History proved both sides right. Early victories for contraception were, in fact, won by framing contraception as a matter for married men making choices about how to arrange their home lives. The first Supreme Court decision regarding reproductive rights, Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, extended the right to use contraception only to married couples. It wasn’t until 1972 that the right to use contraception was extended directly to women, with Eisenstadt v. Baird. However, Sanger’s preferred terminology of “birth control” has become the colloquial preference. The conservatives of the contraception movement may have seen it in terms of population control, but ordinary people engaging with contraception on the ground see it primarily as a way to take control over their own sex and family lives.

Of course, neither the midcentury feminists nor their more socially conservative colleagues could have imagined the blunt phrase “safe sex,” a term that evolved in response to the AIDS crisis but has become a catch-all phrase for taking precautions about both disease and unintended pregnancy. It does, after all, get straight to the whole point that had to be swaddled in euphemism in more conservative times. That said, I have to imagine that if Sanger had been around to hear the phrase “safe sex” bandied about, she would have been delighted.