Catholics and Contraception: Boston, 1965
¶The issue in the spring of 1965 was whether — not how — one could gain access to birth control. But Cushing’s actions still offer a precedent for cooperation and compromise. Two states had very strong anti-contraception laws on the books in 1965. The Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of Connecticut’s all-out ban on the use of contraception. In Massachusetts, a state legislative panel was holding an open hearing on a proposal submitted by State Representative Dukakis, a politically ambitious lawyer who had been in office for three years, to remove an 86-year-old bar to the distribution of birth control devices and information.
¶It was not the first time in Massachusetts a repeal of the ban had been considered. In 1948, Cushing, then an archbishop, led a public charge against Referendum No. 4, a statewide ballot measure designed to relax the ban on contraception. From the pulpit and on the radio, the Catholic campaign argued that birth control was “still against God’s law.” Cushing defined contraception at the time as “anti-social and anti-patriotic, as well as absolutely immoral.” The campaign was a bitter one. In the end, 57 percent of voters rejected the referendum.
¶Cushing had won, but victory came at a cost. “Deployment of the Church’s political muscle,” the historian Leslie Tentler argues, offended non-Catholics in and out of the commonwealth. Four years later, the toll hit home as Cushing confided to a friend, “I hate to think of going through another battle.”
¶It was not until the 1960s that reformers next attempted to amend the state’s birth control restrictions. Even then, Dukakis recalls, “the memory of the ‘48 battle was fresh in our minds.” That seems to have been also true for Cushing (now a cardinal). He clearly had a change of heart on the appropriateness of laws like the state’s birth control restrictions, which sought to impose moral behavior at odds with individual conscience. More generally, he had adopted a conciliatory tone. Two days before a fellow Massachusetts Catholic won the first primary of the 1960 presidential campaign, Cushing argued that a Christian must engage in “friendly discussion with those whose views of life and its meaning are different than his own.” The times had changed, and so had he.
¶In 1963, while a guest on WEEI radio, Cushing took a question from an unidentified female caller who asked if he considered the birth control ban to be “bad law.” Yes, Cushing replied. “I have no right to impose my thinking, which is rooted in religious thought, on those who do not think as I do.” (The anonymous caller, I discovered decades later, was Hazel Sagoff, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts. A month earlier she had learned from a Cushing confidant that support for the state’s ban was dwindling within the local church hierarchy.) It was the first time that the cardinal publicly announced a willingness to accept revisions to the state’s contraception law.