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THE COLLECTED statutes of the Common-wealth of Massachusetts are replete with quaint laws bearing titles little changed since the 19th century. Over the years, the state has allowed the most archaic of these to die in practice through lack of enforcement. One that has not died is the state's anti-birth control law, contained in the statutes under the heading "Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order."
As it stands, only physicians and druggists may legally dispense birth control information or devices, and then only to married persons. Even non-prescriptive contraceptives may not be legally sold by anyone else.
The law is enforced just enough to assure that the poor-but not the wealthy--have a difficult time obtaining contraceptives. Harvard and Radcliffe students have almost no difficulty purchasing birth control devices in nearby stores or from private physicians, but the residents of Roxbury or Dorchester are not similarly privileged. The poor are seldom financially able to consult a private physician for birth control purposes, and state-supported welfare agencies refuse to help them in such matters. As a result they bear children they often cannot afford and do not want, or try to induce abortions by such dangerous means as soap or knitting needles.
Only one of the three bills now pending to relax the Commonwealth's birth control laws faces this problem squarely. House Bill 4580, written by birth control crusader William Baird and sponsored, by, among others, Cambridge's Rep. Mary Newman, would allow government-supported social agencies to provide their clients with free birth control information and devices, in effect giving the poor the same access to birth control that the affluent already possess. It deserves a "yes" vote from any legislator who is at all concerned about the needs of the Commonwealth's citizens.
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