Reason.com: The Moral Endorsement of Technology
Advances in biomedicine—especially those that touch most closely on birth and death—have been the most ethically fraught. A lot of moral struggles have centered on control over reproduction. Let’s set aside the long fight over abortion and look chiefly at a couple of the other moral struggles over fertility control, contraception and artificial insemination, as examples of this process of progressive moral endorsement.
Contraception was essentially outlawed in the United States by the passage of An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use in 1873. Championed by moral crusader Anthony Comstock, this act outlawed, among many other things, the sale of “any article or medicine for the prevention of conception.” Violators could be “imprisoned at hard labor in the Penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years each offense, or fined not less than $100 nor more than $2,000, with costs of court.” Anthony Comstock was immediately made a special agent of the Post Office, and he spent the next 42 years vigorously enforcing the new law.
By the beginning of the 20th century, agitation for birth control information was increasing—as well as official pushback. In 1915, The New York Times reported on the trial of William Sanger, husband of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, for handing over a copy of his wife’s pamphlet, Family Limitation, to a Comstock agent. According to the Times, Margaret Sanger had earlier fled to Holland after being “indicted by the Federal authorities for sending through the mail Woman Rebel, a monthly paper which she edited and published.”
During Sanger’s one day trial, the three justices each examined the pamphlet and then immediately convicted and fined Sanger $150. When Sanger refused to pay, the justices ordered him hauled off to jail for 30 days. The Times quotes Chief Justice McInerney’s reproof of Sanger: “Such persons as you who circulate such pamphlets are a menace to society. There are too many now who believe it is a crime to have children. If some of the women who are going around and advocating equal suffrage would advocate women having children they would do greater service.” The Times disapprovingly reported that the courtroom was crowded with a bunch of unruly socialists and anarchists.
A year later the Times reported that the New York Medical Society was divided on birth control. In New York state, the penal code made it a criminal offense for a physician to give any advice to a patient concerning birth control. “At present any physician who gives information on this subject is liable to go to jail,’ noted the vice president of the society, Dr. J. Bentley Squier. “At the same, however, it must be remembered that if the Penal Code on the subject were altered, it would be possible for unprincipled persons to do a great deal of damage.” On the other hand, Dr. Abraham Jacobi favored changing the law “to allow every licensed physician to give advice to married people on the question of birth control.”