The Strange Bedfellows of the Anti-Contraception Alliance
Criswell and others were leading the charge in an impassioned crusade against legal abortion, creating one of the first evangelical-Catholic coalitions in American political history. But birth control didn’t come along for the ride; it remained, until recently, a matter of Catholic concern. Could the same evangelical reversal be taking place today—this time, with contraception?
Catholics and Protestants weren’t always at odds over the morality of birth control. In the late nineteenth century, it was Anthony Comstock, a fiery Protestant crusader against vice, who lobbied to criminalize contraception as part of a heretical trifecta that included abortion and pornography. The “Comstock laws” of the 1870s outlawed abortion and made it a federal and, in some cases, a state-offense to transport birth control through the mail or across state lines. The laws weren’t dislodged until 1965, when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that restrictions on birth control access violated the “right to marital privacy, and 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade.
A virulent wave of anti-Catholicism helped convince Protestant reformers that birth control was a moral imperative. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Catholic immigrants from southern Europe were pouring into the country, and native-born Protestants were troubled by the legions of offspring that was the norm for these newcomers. To white-collar Protestants living in east coast cities, large families were unseemly; children, once crucial sources of farm labor, were an expensive investment. Birth rates among “native-born white” (i.e. Protestant) women plummeted from 7.04 in 1800 to 3.13 in 1920, while the average Catholic woman was still having more than six children. If Catholics continued to reproduce at these rates, the country would be overrun by multitudes of “papists.” “There was a growing concern among Protestants that the wrong people were having too many children,” says Allan Carlson, a historian and the president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. “They were thinking, maybe birth control is the best way to clean up the country and the human race.”