Monday, October 06, 2014

Birth Control on the Radio

 I find the timing is right to cover this topic. The hullabaloo over Limbaugh's most recent inane comments has subsided. But in senate races the topic has risen again. A century ago the legalization of birth control was opposed by the eugenics movement and white power groups. While (mostly) legal since 1918, birth control strangely find itself under attack from the same twisted and dark corners of the conservative political world. In that context I thought it was time to discuss legal changes that made it legal for radio stations to discuss birth control. You'll have to excuse me while I fill in the back-story.

Many early writers on the topic were arrested on on obscenity charges ex. Charles Knowlton. Strangely it was technically legal at the time. Birth control was not actually banned until 1873 with the Comstock Act.  Other far reaching state laws are often referred to as "Comstock laws."  The conflict with free speech here is pretty clear but that never seems to bother conservatives. In 1914 a feminist named Margaret Sanger deliberately flouted the Comstock laws by publishing pamphlets on birth control. She was charged by New York state prosecutors in 1914. they cleverly charged her under materials not related to birth control in the same pamphlets so she fled to the UK. Bitter about the near-miss they arrested her husband and that got written up in multiple publications such as Harpers and the New York Tribune.

She returned and opened a clinic in Brooklyn for which she was arrested in 1916.  She was jailed but appealed in 1917 with a mixed victory. She was still guilty.. but the Judges indicated that birth control by prescription may be permitted. Politically things rested on that stalemate for another decade. (in some ways even through today) The chess peices moved such that contraception was illegal but those laws were no longer enforced. However, radio remained hyper-conservative. Birth control advocates were blacklisted by the radio industry. This prohibition wasn't relaxed until WWII.

 In 1929 The ABCL approached 115 radio stations including 29 run by universities requesting time to discuss family planning. Only 27 responded at all.. of those only two said yes. The big win was the Buffalo Broadcasting Company which included WKBW, WGR, WMAK, and WKEN. WEVD in New York also responded in the affirmative. The things began to look up. In 1934 the FRC was replaced by the FCC. And one of the FCC's first mandates was the inclusion of educational or other public service programs. This new and vaguely defined window was what the ABCL (American Birth Control league) filled with their programming.

In 1935 the NBC Network featured Congressman Walter N. Pierce [D] discussing birth control legislation. Only Six years earlier they had refused to carry any coverage of the ABCL convention. Also in 1935, WOR-AM held a poll on birth control. Sanger herself that year gave an address on the CBS network. In 1939 on WWJ-AM in Detroit Dr. Clarence Cook Little gave a talk titled "The Relation of Birth Control to Democracy." You can read more on this in the book Broadcasting Birth Control by Manon Parry.

Not everyone on the radio was a yes vote on birth control though. The infamously villainous Father Coughlin was in the opposed column. But things were sorted out for good in 1936 when the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. Vs. One Pack of Japanese Pessaries that the distribution of information on contraception was not obscene. The following year the AMA finally endorsed birth control. By 1943 Planned Parenthood was producing programs and pre recorded syndicate public service announcements.