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Today in Herstory: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Endorses Family Planning Information Being Widely Available

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.

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April 23, 1963: A major advance today in the fight for birth control, as the prestigious American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists officially endorsed giving contraceptive information to those who want it.

The national battle over birth control has been raging for half a century now and it was said today that the long delay in the 12 year old group’s endorsement was caused by the fact that so many ACOG members who are Catholic (presently about a quarter) opposed making birth control information available and the other members didn’t feel strongly enough about the issue to push the resolution through until now.

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Today, however, an endorsement not only passed, but apparently did so without dissent in a closed-door meeting. The group’s president, Dr. George E. Judd, of Los Angeles, said the “emotionalism” surrounding the issue in the past seemed to have died down. So, times have clearly changed. Some ACOG members said after the vote that this resolution had been “ridiculously” delayed.

Planned Parenthood Medical Director Dr. Mary Calderone expressed her delight at the resolution, saying: “We have reached a turning point.” She referred not only to the ACOG resolution, but the National Academy of Sciences report on population published this week and the fact that the Federal Government has just reversed its previous stand and will now give birth control information on request to those participating in foreign aid programs.

For many decades, both Federal law (the 1873 Comstock Act) and the State laws which were passed soon afterward classified all birth control devices, as well as information about contraception, as “obscenity” with harsh criminal penalties for those who defied the prohibition. But hard work in the form of taking the case for birth control to the public in various forums, plus legislative lobbying and legal challenges to birth control bans have brought substantial progress.

In 1918, Judge Frederick Crane ruled that in New York State, an exception must be made to Section 1142 of the State Penal Code so that physicians could prescribe birth control to their married patients, though only when necessary for the “cure or prevention of disease.” In 1936, a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals exempted physicians from the Comstock Act’s ban on contraceptive devices and information. In 1937, the American Medical Association endorsed birth control.

Today, restrictions vary among the states, but only two – Massachusetts and Connecticut – still have absolute bans on birth control. Connecticut’s law is under challenge. Estelle Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton opened a birth control clinic in New Haven in November, 1961 and were soon arrested and convicted of violating that state’s 1879 law. Their case is now on appeal and a favorable ruling by the Supreme Court could end the battle over birth control by fully legalizing it nationwide.

The A.C.O.G. resolution reads:

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists believes scientific research should be greatly expanded on (a) all aspects of human fertility and (b) the interplay of biologic, psychologic and socioeconomic factors influencing population changes; and that full freedom should be extended to all population groups for the selection and such use of methods for the regulation of family size as are consistent with the creed and mores of the individuals concerned.