Birth control became a prominent issue to American society in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Many groups, such as the free love communities, concerned themselves with advancing these practices, while maintaining an image of maternal integrity that empowered women of the era. While many of these communities discouraged chemical abortions for being unnatural, the practice continued among women of all classes and across races.
Views on appropriate contraception caused trouble for those defining them. An increasingly secularized America birthed movements like free love. The free lovers harbored “a passionate resentment of the Christian established churches” (Gordon, 94). They were unsatisfied with the Church’s influence and garnered ideas of sex on a more biological level. “They saw reproduction…in the context of women’s emancipation” (Gordon, 95) and formal political power became a way to strengthen the nuclear family. A strong nuclear family gave women a degree of power as the perceived cornerstone of morality. Society branded chemical birth control as unnatural and corrupting. The common belief stated that a promiscuous woman could dissolve a family by wooing the husband. The idea of contraception accompanied the thought that women desired sex. This “tended to weaken the theory of the maternal instinct” (Gordon, 97), which empowered women as models of virtue. A damaged maternal instinct could lessen a woman’s influence on those she counseled because her opinion would no longer be valued as virtuous and honorable. Her counsel bolstered her place in the private sphere as she influenced her husband and children’s views. Another concept generated during this time was whether a lack of sexual intimacy could stunt the sexual health of a couple. Periodic celibacy through the rhythm method both alleviated the sexual needs of the couple while also avoiding pregnancy, because sexual intimacy happened only during the time doctors thought a woman was least fertile. Another accepted method of birth control involved the “avoidance of ejaculation” (Gordon, 99). Celibacy and male continence resolved the issue of unnatural practices and acted as a sexual outlet, when a pregnancy was undesirable. As Rachel Dilles stated in “Let Them Be Free” that “A woman’s control over her own body is just as important as any man’s”. Free lovers of the time heralded this sentiment as there was an assumption that male and female bodies were self-regulating in sexual desire. The body would desire as much sex as was needed for a healthy disposition.
While many American communities reproached abortion, the practice happened frequently in the period between mid-19th and early 20th centuries. The Native American communities deviated in practice as the “number of abortions, among the Crows, is said to equal the number of births.” (Peiss, 309) The separation between the Native American culture and the increasingly-industrialized American culture generated many differences. A greater tie to nature among the Native Americans could have lessened the stigma of herbal abortive drugs as an unnatural solution to family planning. In dealing with the mainstream American culture of the time, the working class strained from less options related to controlling family size. “[Margaret Sanger’s] mother died from overwork and strain of too frequent child bearing.” (Peiss, 312) The lower class struggled with less means of birth control. This contributed to larger families, which would cause great financial strain. Abortions provided the lower class an option to not raise a child that could not be provided care.
The mid-19th and early 20th centuries saw changes in the level control a couple had in planning a family. Birth control provided couples sexual release, when they were unfit or unwilling to be parents. After conception, abortions provided a safety net from further economic hardship to families that were struggling before the pregnancy. The landscape of this era in American history liberalized from a more Christian, conservative view of its preceding era.
Gordon, Linda. Voluntary Motherhood. Penguin Books.
Peiss, Kathy. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston: Cengage