Birth Control for Massachusetts

"Rome played around with this and the Roman Empire fell. Unless we resist this, the United States is going down." So argued Representative Lawrence P. Smith last August in opposition to a bill to amend the 19th century law prohibiting birth control in Massachusetts. The Representative's keen historical insight apparently had its impact, for the amendment was defeated by a vote of 119-97.

It might not seem to make much difference whether the bill was passed or not. Contraceptives, even pills, are available to those who know where to get them. However, those who are uninformed about effective non-prescription products, and who depend on tax-supported hospitals and public health and welfare agencies for their medical care, are left without any source of help, since these institutions are forbidden to give information as to where and how birth control devices can be obtained. So the law has a grave effect on those who often need help the most, and this makes the irrational defeat of last year's amendment all the more outrageous. A similar bill has been reintroduced into the Legislature for consideration: it is hoped that last year's experience will not be repeated.

If the need for a rational birth control policy were not so vital, last year's defeat would be a fit subject for a Buchwaldian parody.

The bill was first referred to the Legislative Committee on Public Health for study, and a public hearing was scheduled. The hearing boded well for the bill's proponents. Twenty-five health and welfare experts advocated making birth control information and services legal. The opposition managed to produce two witnesses--a Gloucester shoemaker and his wife who stopped by to represent the people. They implied that if birth control had not been prohibited, some of us wouldn't even be here. Such was the extent of organized popular opposition.

The debate so far was not conducted on a moral or religious level. Unlike previous hearings, there was a notable lack of reaction from the Catholic Church. Cardinal Cushing in fact stated that "although natural law does not change, our here-and-now interpretation and awareness of it does." His refusal to oppose the amendment caused a great stir in the Catholic world. He was seconded by many liberal Catholic officials in the Boston area who articles redefining the Church's role in a pluralistic society and urged the Church not to impede non-Catholics' freedom of choice. Catholic thinking in general seemed to have changed: in a nation-wide Gallup Poll, 78% of the Catholics questioned had a lenient attitude toward making birth control information available (up from 53% in '63). Active opposition on religious grounds came only from a few "old-guard" Catholics, such as Senator William X. Wall and Representative Smith, who have always been strongly antagonistic to changing the law.

But the medievalists carried the day, and it is difficult to see why. Some junior representatives feared that voting for the bill would endanger their careers. And of course there were those who were waiting for a papal bull before they would change their views. But in the face of support by Catholic leaders and lack of opposition by Catholic voters--who would follow Cushing's lead anyway--the bill's defeat was a mockery of a rational democratic process. The statements of social workers and doctors who deal with the squalor of over-sized, low-income families and who see women risking dangerous pregancies because they don't know how to avoid them were countered only by such retorts as "This amendment is damnable, dirty legislation. It stinks to high heaven." The triumph of this latter argument calls into question the morality and the sheer sanity of the Massachusetts House.

Fortunately, the prospects for this year's bill look better. First of all, the bill is being introduced from inside the House rather than outside, so that an organized action of legislators will already be committed. The amendment has also been reworded to allow only prescription contraceptives; this change will pacify those who were worried about the indiscriminate sale of contraceptives to adolescents. Perhaps most important, the Religious Liberties Declaration which came out of the Vatican Council last fall urges Catholics not to interfere with freedom of non-Catholics and states that moral decisions should be left to the individual conscience. Catholic Representatives can thus support the bill this year without fearing Church disapproval.

Supporters this year should learn from the mistakes of the 1965 attempt. Last year the citizens' committee tried so hard to avert religious controversy that the public remained apathetic, and the legislators were allowed to be swayed by a handful of religious reactionaries and an unjustified fear of condemnation by the Church. If this year's proponents argue just as intelligently and a little more strenuously, they may succeed at last. The passage of the amendment would help alleviate a distressing social condition. And it would prove that Massachusetts legislators are not so benighted as most people think.