Unraveling the History of Contraception

By Lauren Burns

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Sixth grade health class was a time of B.O., clammy hands and the classic “birds and the bees” sex talk. The University of Maryland takes sex education to an entirely different level with various events at the health center and a never-ending supply of free condoms, not to mention Sex Week. However, this was not always the case at colleges and universities nationwide. The social movements of the 1960s, in particular the sexual revolution, brought great change in the legal and social acceptance of contraception.

According to history lecturer Christina Larocco, contraception became a legal issue during the second half of the 19th century. “The first major event was the federal Comstock law of 1873, which banned the dissemination of anything obscene through the mail,” she said.

Under this law, birth control activist Margaret Sanger ultimately served a 30-day sentence for preparing to give out information regarding contraception.

By the 1930s, the conservative legal structure around the birth control began to crumble.

Two court decisions in the 1930 Youngs Rubber Corporation v. C.I. Lee & Co. and the 1936 United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries cases allowed birth control to be sold — although it could not be marketed as such — striking down the Comstock law.

“The turning points [in governance of actual birth control] came after the FDA approval of the pill in 1960 and its emergence onto the market,” Larocco said.

From there, the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut and 1972 Eisenstadt v. Baird cases continued to reverse the early legal framework for birth control.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a second wave of feminism further influenced opinions regarding contraception.

“Younger woman especially stressed it wasn’t just having access to education or access to jobs that was important,” Larocco said,  “but rather that things that previously had been considered part of people’s personal, individual lives were political aspects that needed to be talked about openly.”

Multimedia journalism graduate student Kate Maloney thinks access to birth control education greatly benefits college students.

“My perspective is that students are still having sex,” Maloney said. “They’re having as much sex as they ever have, but because they know more about birth control and it’s a less stigmatized topic, people can talk more openly about it and have safer sex in college.”

Nikki Varney, a junior communication and history major, is training to be a campus representative for Bedsider.org, a non-profit sex education site for young people. Despite growing up in a conservative home, she now believes it is “hugely important to give women sexual autonomy, a woman shouldn’t have to restrict her lifestyle.”

With some education and awareness, students at the University of Maryland should be able to live long and prosper in all areas of life — mentally and sexually.


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