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Contraception, Control & Care

By Ondine Jean-Baptiste

Posted on April 2, 2020

Everybody gets sick. For most of us, our health is a deeply personal and even private topic. But sickness and health are also public issues that have long shaped Brooklyn’s economy, its built environment, its laws and institutions, and its diverse communities.

Taking Care of Brooklyn: Stories of Sickness and Health is one of Brooklyn Historical Society’s current exhibitions which explores how centuries of Brooklynites have understood sickness and health. Through the experiences of everyday Brooklynites giving, receiving, demanding, and being denied health care, Taking Care of Brooklyn shows us that sickness is as much a social experience as a biological one. Portions of this blogpost have been directly excerpted from the exhibition.

One section of the exhibition traces the origins of the 20th century birth control movement in Brooklyn. In 1916, reformer Margaret Sanger opened an illegal birth control clinic in our borough, sparking national controversy and igniting the movement for legal and safe birth control. By featuring the story of the clinic, as well as examples of the kinds of birth control used in the early 20th century, this section shows that women’s bodily autonomy has long been a fraught topic—in Brooklyn and across America.

Underwood & Underwood, Margaret Sanger, 1922; Library of Congress.
Brownsville Clinic at 46 Amboy Street, Brooklyn, NY, 1916 Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts

Sanger chose to open the first birth control clinic in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, focusing her outreach on the largely immigrant population living there. Sanger recognized that women’s lack of reproductive freedom resulted in a myriad of health issues, including risks from pregnancy and childbirth.

As a result of Margaret Sanger’s activism, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in 1918 that physicians could prescribe birth control devices. With legalization, birth control became the domain of doctors—something that required instruction and a prescription from a physician. Sanger understood that partnering with the medical profession would lend legitimacy to the birth control movement. However placing doctors as gateways to contraception also created a different barrier to entry for many women.

Barrier methods of birth control such as condoms have been in use since ancient times. In the 20th century, design and material innovations, legal changes, industrialization, mass production, and shifting sexual norms led to increased contraceptive awareness, access, and use. Even when birth control was illegal, some states allowed contraceptives to help prevent the spread of disease.

Condoms were often the easiest form of birth control to access. Thanks to the military’s promotion of prophylactics during World War I, new mass production techniques that used poured liquid latex, the rise of advertising, and the loosening of Victorian-era sexual norms for young people, condom use spiked in the 1920s. In this era, condoms were available in pharmacies, barbershops, and some public men’s restrooms.

A guest taking a look at the various barrier methods in our exhibition.

Aside from condoms, other barrier methods such as cervical caps, diaphragms, and sponges were often promoted by birth control clinics because women did not have to rely on their partners to use them. Diaphragms were particularly popular until the pill was introduced in 1960. Research in the early 1950s led to the development of the first oral contraceptive pill, which the Food and Drug Administration approved in 1960. Over the years, different levels and combinations of hormones have been used to minimize side effects. Changes in package design have made the pill easier to use and more attractive to consumers.

Wishbone devices, used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lay against the vaginal wall with the stem extending into the uterus through the cervix, preventing a fertilized egg from implanting. Beginning in the 1930s, intrauterine devices, or IUDs, began to replace intracervical ones. A long-acting contraceptive, an IUD sits completely within the uterus and requires insertion by a medical professional. Over the years, researchers have used many different shapes and materials to increase the efficacy and safety of IUDs.

Ultimately, birth control was not declared legal for married couples at the federal level until the landmark Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut—almost 50 years after Sanger’s clinic opened. Today, activists continue to battle new legal challenges to women’s reproductive autonomy.

Taking Care of Brooklyn: Stories of Sickness and Health is made possible through generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President, Pfizer Foundation, Wellcome Trust, JP Morgan Chase & Co., the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and The Brooklyn Hospital Foundation. Related programs are also made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and are supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the New York City Council.

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