Two Birth Control Pioneers

Posted on December 10th, 2010 by

A post by historian Dr. Deb Weiner.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on the upcoming edition of Generations magazine, which will soon go to press. The theme of the issue is “Social Justice,” and without doubt it’s going to be one of our best ever. There will be orphans running away from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and feminists clashing with male charity leaders in the 1890s, Communists sponsoring illegal “mixed race dancing” in the 1930s, rabbis and ordinary citizens taking a stand for civil rights in the 1960s. And (as always) much more.

For this blog post, I thought I’d highlight the career of Dr. Bessie Moses (1893-1965), who is featured in an article about ten Baltimoreans who stood up for social justice in the 20th century. Committed to women’s health care from an early age, she became the first female obstetrical intern at Johns Hopkins. In 1927, she and a few other doctors from Hopkins founded Maryland’s first birth control clinic, the Bureau for Contraceptive Advice (in the 1940s it became  Planned Parenthood of Maryland). She was the clinic’s medical director, a post she held until 1956.

When the clinic opened, many of its activities were actually illegal according to the Comstock Law, which restricted the dissemination of contraceptives and birth control information. The clinic stayed on the right side of the law by positioning itself as a research institute—and it took its research mandate seriously, conducting important studies on birth control methods such as diaphragms and condoms. It also provided desperately-needed care to women who had nowhere else to turn. As a rigorous scientist and compassionate physician, Moses guided both the research and patient care components.

To avoid controversy that might lead to the clinic’s demise, it served only married women, mostly poor and working-class mothers who already had large families and couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. But Moses didn’t shy away from controversy on a personal level—she became a strong advocate for legalizing birth control, speaking out publicly and testifying at Congressional hearings for repeal of the Comstock Law. (In 1936, a federal court ruled that the Comstock Law did not apply to doctors providing contraception to patients.) Her clinic served blacks as well as whites, although on segregated days, as local custom demanded. In 1938 Moses founded the Northwest Maternal Health Center to serve black patients, the first women’s health clinic in the nation staffed by African American physicians.

Moses mentored another Baltimorean who became a nationally-known birth control pioneer, and since he didn’t make it into Generations, I’m glad to have an opportunity to mention him. Dr. Alan F. Guttmacher (1898-1974) was the son of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Adolph Guttmacher and his wife Laura, a feminist, social worker, and leader of local Jewish women’s groups in the early 20th century. He joined the birth control movement as an intern at Hopkins in the 1920s, “after witnessing a woman die from a botched abortion,” according to a profile on the Alan Guttmacher Institute website (more on that later). He became involved in Moses’s clinic, while also teaching at Hopkins and becoming chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Sinai Hospital. In 1952 he moved to New York and held a similar position at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

At age 64, Guttmacher retired from medical practice to become president of the national Planned Parenthood organization. The 1960s were a time of great change in the arena of reproductive rights, and Guttmacher was in the middle of it all, as perhaps the most visible advocate for expanding the availability of birth control and legalizing abortion. “No woman is completely free unless she is wholly capable of controlling her fertility, and … no baby receives its full birthright unless it is born gleefully wanted by its parents,” he stated.

In 1968, Planned Parenthood created the Center for Family Planning Program Development, which became the nation’s leading institute for research, education, and policy analysis related to reproductive health. After Guttmacher’s death, the institute was renamed in his honor.

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