Although contraceptive techniques had been known in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the modern movement for birth control began in Great Britain, where the writings of Thomas Robert Malthus stirred interest in the problem of overpopulation. By the 1870s a wide variety of birth control devices were available in English and American pharmacies, including rubber condoms and diaphragms, chemical suppositories, vaginal sponges, and medicated tampons. Easy public access to contraceptive devices in the United States aroused the ire of Anthony Comstock and others, who lobbied Congress until it passed (1873) a bill prohibiting the distribution of these devices across state lines or through the mail. Moreover, in England in 1877, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were tried for selling The Fruits of Philosophy, a pamphlet on contraceptive methods, written in 1832 by an American, Charles Knowlton. After their famous trial, the Malthusian League was founded. Meanwhile, a variety of contraceptive devices remained available to a large public, usually advertised in veiled but unmistakable language.
In 1878 the first birth control clinic was founded in Amsterdam by Aletta Jacobs. The first U.S. birth control clinic, opened (1916) by Margaret Sanger in Brooklyn, N.Y., was closed by the police; she received a 30-day jail sentence. She later permanently established a clinic in New York City in 1923. In Great Britain the Malthusian League, aided by Marie Stopes, established a birth control clinic in London in 1921.
Sanger also helped organize (1917) the National Birth Control League in the United States; in 1921 it became the American Birth Control League, and in 1942 the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Meanwhile, in 1918 an American judge ruled that contraceptive devices were legal as instruments for the prevention of disease, and the federal law prohibiting dissemination of contraceptive information through the mails was modified in 1936. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, birth control advocates were engaged in numerous legal suits. In 1965 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the one remaining state law (in Connecticut) prohibiting the use of contraceptives.
The federal government began to take a more active part in the birth control movement in 1967, when 6% of the funds allotted to the Child Health Act was set aside for family planning; in 1970, the Family Planning Services and Population Act established separate funds for birth control. Birth control and sex education in schools continue to be emotional issues in the United States, where adolescent sexual activity and pregnancy rates are high and bring with them increased risks of sexually transmitted diseases and complications of pregnancy, as well as societal and personal costs.
Birth control on the international level is led by the International Planned Parenthood Federation, founded in 1952, with members in 134 countries by 1995. Sweden was one of the first countries to provide government assistance for birth control, which it did as early as the 1930s. Two of the more successful birth control programs have been in Japan, where the birthrate has been dramatically reduced, and—more controversially—in China, where the government has a "one family, one child" policy and local authorities have typically intimated women pregnant into aborting a second pregnancy. Several of the so-called underpopulated nations, however, have a stated policy of encouraging an increased birthrate, e.g., Argentina, and concern over declining populations has increased in recent years in certain Western European countries and Russia. Among religious bodies, the Roman Catholic Church has provided the main opposition to the birth control movement; popes Paul VI and John Paul II reaffirmed this stance in encyclicals.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.