The Underground Birth of Birth Control

Practices to prevent pregnancy are ancient history.  But it was exactly a century ago when the term birth control was born in New York City.

Margaret SangerIn 1914, a woman by the name of Margaret Sanger began a feminist publication.  In the very first issue, Sanger made it known that an aim of the paper would be “to advocate the prevention of conception and impart such knowledge on the columns of this paper.”  This was a brave move since, at the time, it was in violation of the Comstock Act (banning the circulation of obscene material, including information regarding contraception) that could have landed her in jail.

Sanger was looking for a distinctive name to describe this concept of voluntary parenthood that also conveyed both the social and personal significance of it.  Sanger and her supporters had a brainstorming session.  After reviewing terms that existed in the medical literature and toying with new ones, the group had a short list:

  • Conception control
  • Pregnancy prevention
  • Regulation of reproduction
  • Prevenception
  • Contraception
  • Family control
  • Family limitation
  • Birth-rate control

Then, Sanger and Robert Parker thought of the term birth control and it was finalized.  Archivist Peter Engelman has studied Sanger’s work extensively:

The group unanimously accepted those simple and assertive words — maybe the most controversial phrase in the English language since Darwin introduced natural selection in 1859.  …

The coining of the term birth control and its emergence in print set into motion a series of free speech battles that launched the American birth control movement. …

Is there any other social movement that has so fundamentally altered women’s roles or affected, in one way or another, all of our lives?

The organization that Sanger created dropped the term birth control for planned parenthood in 1942 since it was more family-friendly. But birth control remains in wide use to this day. If we dissect the term birth control, it is not the most accurate description of the practices to prevent pregnancy. The goal of our current contraceptive methods is to prevent pregnancy, rather than prevent birth as the term birth control suggests.

What do YOU think of the term?  What term do YOU use or suggest using?


Reference: Engelman P. A History of the Birth Control Movement in America. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011. (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter via Flick)

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