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Curiosity 101: The Roots of Modern Birth Control

Although yesterday’s Supreme Court decision limiting access to birth control is a contemporary issue, it is important to place it into its long historical context to better understand what our current conundrum means. Humans have been seeking, experimenting with, succeeding, and failing at contraception literally since the beginning of recorded time.

Women all over the world have been using herbs for family planning for millennia. One of the most comprehensive books of recipes for pre- and post-coital herbal contraception was written by Peter of Spain who would later become Pope John XXI in 1276. Many of his recipes are still used by indigenous populations and have been proven effective in contemporary research. 

Strangely, the least common reason for sexual intercourse is the desire for procreation which explains why and for how long women have tried to separate their sexuality from childbearing. Reliable birth control was centuries in the making, claiming many women’s lives as the toxic methods used in the interim were often fatal.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, through her decades of dedication was responsible for transforming birth control from a private practice into a political and public movement.

Almost as soon as good safe birth control options were developed and became available (including “the pill”), they became illegal. Initially, they were made available only for married women. It wasn’t until 1972 that single women were afforded the same right to control their own bodies and fundamentally their own life destinies.

In the span of only five decades of reproductive self-determination, the percentage of women who completed a college education increased six fold as well as their participation in the labor force which rose from 26 million in 1965, to 73 million by 2014. Among married women, labor force participation doubled in that time and by 2012, almost a third of women in dual-income families earned more than their husbands.

The birth control pill was declared as one of the Seven Wonders of the World by The Economist, citing that this offered a future where men and women could become true partners. Not only that, but as hormonal birth control has evolved and developed it has proven to be a crucial treatment for many reproductive disorders from menstrual disorders, to ectopic pregnancy risk and the sole treatment option for endometriosis.

Limiting access to payment for birth control is hard to understand in this historical context. Justice Ruth Ginsberg wrote in her dissenting opinion “Today, for the first time, the court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree.” She added that the ruling would have vast practical consequences, forcing poorer women to forgo contraception or use less effective methods. In fact, this decision will “disproportionately harm low-wage workers, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who already face barriers to care,” according to the National Women's Law Center

One of the most significant and impactful decisions a woman can make in a lifetime is that of becoming a mother. There is probably no other decision that will shape a life more completely than birthing and raising a child. Providing women and men with healthy and safe alternatives to support making this monumental decision most responsibly is not only the mark of a humane society, but also one of a spiritual belief in the sanctity of life.