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One of the longest standing issues that society faces today is the issue on the rights of women when it comes to birth control and the use of contraceptives . One of the highlight periods of this long standing societal issue was the mid19th century up the mid-20th century. The objective of this paper is to examine some of the most pertinent laws on women’s rights to birth control and the use of contraceptives starting from the mid-19th century, with emphasis on the Act for the Suppression of Trade in and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use. For a brief background on this act, this was an act that was sponsored and heavily supported by Anthony Comstock. The main objective of the law was to prohibit the overall dissemination of information about birth control through mail and other communication mechanisms across state lines; and this law’s effects on Margaret Sanger’s efforts, an active women’s rights activist who established the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952 encouraging women to use oral birth control contraceptives.
Margaret Sanger was an American women’s rights activist who also worked as a nurse and later on in her career, as a sex educator . Although she was not the one who first coined the term birth control, it was through her works that the term has been popularized. She did it by opening the first birth control center in the United States and by establishing numerous non-government organizations whose aim was to spread information to the public, especially women, on the benefits of contraception and family planning. One of the prominent products of her work as a women’s right social activist and proponent of family planning and the use of contraception is the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Her works and ideas greatly contributed to the ultimate legalization of the use of contraception in the United States.
The Comstock Laws
The Comstock Laws can be interpreted as a set of policies enacted and enforced on a federal level by the United States Congress in 1873 to legally prohibit the act of sending (often via the U.S. Postal Service or USPS) any material that contains elements or information about erotica, techniques related to abortion, contraception, the use of sex toys, or any other directly related information to the ones just mentioned. The long title of the act was Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use. One important to note about this legislation is that it was enacted and enforced, heavily, especially in DC where even acts of misdemeanor were made punishable by either fine or imprisonment or in some rare cases both, at a time when the U.S. was still living in a relatively patriarchal society that was at the same time against the principles of family planning, use of contraception as a form of family planning, and the publication of obscene materials and information. This set of anti-obscenity policies was named after its chief proponent Anthony Comstock.
The ultimate objective of the Comstock Laws was to extinguish pornography, the use of contraceptive methods and equipment to control birth and fertility, and other related descriptions. Obscenity was also one of one of the major targets of the said policy. One of the heaviest points of criticism of this policy was the way how it defined obscenity, which in itself, is a word that can have very broad definitions. Therefore, in order to reduce the number of questionable forms of law enforcement using the Comstock Laws as the basis, the term obscenity has been described and defined in detail before the congress prior to its ratification and also in some U.S. Supreme Court proceedings. Obscenity can be operationally defined as any material or means of communication whose “dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest to the average person, applying contemporary community standards and utterly without redeeming social importance” .
Discussions and Analysis
Sanger’s work and efforts as a proponent of the use of contraception and in encouraging families to engage in family planning interventions targeted working class immigrant women, mainly because this is the population of women who, during her time, was often being forced into childbirth, abortion, miscarriage, and unwanted pregnancies. Being a woman herself and a highly active member of organizations that help raise the public’s (especially women) awareness about their rights, these were the things that Sanger dreaded. Majority of her speeches and public appearances were about these formerly sensitive topics.
One of the most popular stories that Sanger used in her speeches was her experience as a nurse for one woman named Sadie Sachs. She was allegedly recruited to work as a stay-in nurse in the Sachs’ apartment after Sadie got ill due to a self-induced abortion. Worried about her health, Ms. Sachs asked the doctor how she could prevent being sick like that again to which the doctor attending to her answered abstinence. A few months after Sachs finally recovered Sanger was informed that her former patient died as a result of another case of self-induced abortion. Inside her head, Sanger did not agree to what the doctor recommended to Ms. Sachs because for Sanger, contraception seemed to be the more realistic answer to Ms. Sachs’ concern as well as of the other women in the U.S. who were having the same problem.
It is important to note that Sanger lived in the U.S. at a time when contraception, women’s rights, and family planning were concepts and or ideas that seemed legally and socially unacceptable in the American society. Nonetheless, she still persevered and in the process, she managed to awaken a significant number of women’s awareness about the highly controversial issue. Some of her actions against the then current law and organizations’ and people’s perceptions about contraception and birth control may even be described as direct and confrontational. It is also important to consider that Sanger’s proactivity in the fight against the abuse of rights of women and the wrongful manipulation on birth control, contraception, and family planning were sparked at a time when the Comstock Laws were already being implemented and enforced in the U.S. It would only be safe to say that the Comstock Laws, its proponents in the government and the organizations and people enslaved by its highly orthodox presentation of the concepts of contraception, family planning, and birth control were her biggest dilemmas.
Majority of Sanger’s efforts during the prime years of his career as a sex educator and advocate of family planning, birth control, and the use of contraception were focused on the lobbying for the overturn of the then existing laws and legislations about her and her organization’s advocacies in the United States, particularly the Comstock Laws. One of the most important milestones in her journey was in 1936, when a U.S. court favored their side when it overturn one long standing and important provision of the Comstock Laws that legally prohibited individuals and even certified and licensed physicians from buying and distributing any form of contraceptives. As a result of the lifting of the lifting of that prohibition, some prominent U.S. organizations such as the American Medical Association adapted to the new normal. The AMA, for example, fazed by the growing demand for contraceptives in the U.S., has decided to immediately adopt and recognize the use of contraceptives as one of the medically recognized methods to control birth and fertility both in the clinics and in the academe. The said organization even went as far as introducing subjects related to birth control and the use of contraceptives as one of the key components of curriculums being used by allied medical schools in the country.
Sanger who was more than 50 years old when the first victory for the pro-family planning activists was obtained via the favorable U.S. court rulings on the use and legal distribution of contraceptives, did not stop doing her work. She took advantage of the more relaxed policies on women’s rights (i.e. birth control rights) in the U.S. to spread the information and awareness further. She started to travel more frequently to different states spreading information and educating the public and not just women.
Over the next years, the then existing policies against family planning, upholding of women’s rights when it comes to the use of contraceptives and birth control, became more lax. It was during this time that the International Committee on Planned Parenthood was established, an organization in which Sanger was a founding member. It then evolved and became the largest non-government international organization that advocates family planning.
In conclusion, Sanger and her efforts can be seen as one of the best examples of dedication and consistency when it comes to advocating changes in existing policies on women’s rights and the use of family planning methods among which are birth control via contraception. What Sanger and her colleagues managed to accomplish was a challenging feat because it was the existing laws in the government against their advocacies that they managed to slowly but surely overturn.
American Express. (2002). Timeline: The Pill. American Express, pbs.org/egbh/amex/pill/timeline/timeline2.html.
This source is an electronic source published in PBS.org. It presents informative details about the history of the Pill or the contraceptives from 1951 to 1990. Included in the discussion were some of the prominent pro-pill activists including Sanger herself.
Brooks, C. (1966). The Early History of the Anti-Contraceptive Laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut. American Quarterly 18, 3-23.
This source presents the author's views about the history of Anti-Contraceptive Laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut and the U.S. as a whole, focusing on analyzing how contraception used to be prohibited and how such ideas later on became revolutionized.
Friedman, L. (2006). Privacy, Griswold v. Connecticut: Birth Control and the Constitutional Right of Privacy. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 37, 161-163.
There is a section in this source that gives information on the Griswold v. Connecticut case about birth control (a Connecticut resident using birth control v. the Connecticut government). The author goes further into the concept of privacy and the language of privacy by breaking down the role that these concepts played in the briefs, arguments, and in the debate between the defendants and justices in the Supreme Court. This becomes usable because it shows the real-life application of the laws against birth control when policies against it were still active.
Justia US Supreme Court. (2014). Roth v. United States 354 U.S. 476 1957. Justia US Supreme Court .
An online case brief where Roth and the United States went into trial about an issue of contraception, showing real-life applications of laws that support and oppose contraceptive use.
Starr, R. (2012). margaret Sanger, A Life of Passion. Commentary, 52-55.
I chose this source because it too gives insight on Sanger and her consistency to fight for women’s reproductive rights; it’s relevant to my topic and speaks on her passion for the contributions that she made. My focus is more on her passion in this source.
Wardell, D. (1980). Margaret Sanger: Birth Control's Successful Revolutionary. American Journal of Public Health, 70, 736.
In this source there are the highlights of Margaret Sanger’s success stories. This source points out two of Sanger’s major contributions. Basically Sanger worked for the protection of the women's right to have a child and the rights of a child to be wanted, concepts which apply to abortion and use of contraception, and also Sanger’s strategy against laws that lead to her success.
Weingarten, K. (2010). The Inadvertent Alliance of Anthony Comstock and Margaret Sanger: Abortion, Freedom, and Class in Modern America. Feminist Formations, 22; The John Hopkins University Press, 42-59.
This source further elaborates why Sanger was advocating the birth control method. Sanger wanted to promote the pill instead of putting women in danger of seeking wrongful abortion procedures. This source is to inform one on the importance of allowing women these rights (to utilize birth control contraceptives).
Please remember that this paper is open-access and other students can use it too.
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