Birth Control in the United States Before the 20th Century

Classified advertisements from the New York Herald, December 9, 1841, and the New York Sun, December 15, 1841 euphemistically advertising abortions and abortifacients.

Prior to the 20th century, there were a variety of methods to prevent pregnancy, though most were unreliable and some were dangerous to women’s health. [1] During the 19th century, the fertility rate in the United States dropped 50%, with the largest drop being seen among the middle and upper class. The most common methods of birth control being used during this time were abstinence and withdrawal, though other contraceptive methods became more common during this time period. Condoms were generally unpopular and too associated with prostitution and venereal diseases. These methods also all required the cooperation of the male partner, thus taking control out of women’s hands. When those methods failed, women sought out abortions, which were dangerous to women’s health during this time period, though still on average less dangerous than childbirth. [2] Abortions done prior to quickening (fetal movement, usually at 15-20 weeks) were generally not illegal in the United States until the 1860s. By the 1890s, 40 states and territories had severely restricted or banned abortion. [3]

More laws that limited the ability of women to control when they gave birth were the Comstock laws. The Comstock laws were a set of federal laws passed in the late 19th and early 20th century that made the circulation of materials considered to be obscene, including information on contraceptive methods and contraceptive devices themselves, illegal. The name comes from Anthony Comstock, a prolific activist who for nearly 40 years used his position as a special agent of the United States Postal Service to try to rid the United States of what he considered immoral vices, including the use of contraceptives. [4] The Comstock laws forced those who sold contraceptives and those who gave information about contraceptives underground or else they risked fines and imprisonment. [5] By the end of the 19th century, most doctors would not give information about contraceptives to patients or perform abortions at any stage of pregnancy. However, urban middle and upper class women were better able to find and afford doctors willing to skirt legal and social boundaries to give out contraceptive information or perform abortions. Poor women and women living in rural areas had significantly fewer options. [6]

For a more in-depth look at the Comstock laws, please see the Comstock Control exhibit.

[1] Engelman, Peter. A History of the Birth Control Movement in America. (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2011), 3-4.

[2] Engelman, 5-6.

[3] Engelman, 13.

[4] Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 68-69.

[5] Engelman, 15-16.

[6] Engelman, 17-18.

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