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The Hearing-Goer Birth Control

By Marion E. Mccollom

IT WAS A-lesson in Massachusetts politics, or maybe politics in general. A visit to one of the public hearings of a committee of the Massachusetts legislature can make the uninitiated believe that the huge building with the gold dome is an expensive set for a movie satire rather than the State House. However, the scene loses its humor when you realize that the three hours of antics known as a public hearing will determine the fate of a bill before the legislature, if its fate has not already been decided in the minds of the committee members.

The Committee on Social Welfare held a public hearing last Thursday on House Bill 520, which would repeal the current Massachusetts laws on birth control. The committee listened to testimony that Massachusetts is one of two states which still prohibit the distribution of birth control information and devices to unmarried people. They heard ecology workers describe the dangers of the population explosion. They heard a psychologist explain that the current laws discriminate against the poor. They heard a gynecologist state that laws prohibiting contraceptives encourage illegal abortions. And they heard a doctor in the Department of Public Health testify that the current laws disqualify Massachusetts from Federal funding because they discriminate between married and unmarried people.

The committee was treated to a demonstration that the laws are selectively enforced. Debby Vollmer, a member of Worchester Women's Liberation, opened an innocent-looking brown paper bag and held up a package of contraceptive foam she had bought in a drug store down the street. She pointed out that drug stores and department stores throughout the state sell contraceptive items to anyone, a violation of the law which the state ignores. At the same time Bill Baird is sentenced to prison for giving contraceptive foam to an unmarried woman.

Baird was present at the hearing and testified briefly for the bill. The committee seemed sympathetic to him, but the reason became evident as opponents of the bill began to testify. They claimed that the legalization of contraceptive care would destroy the morals of the citizens of Massachusetts. Two state representatives, a housewife, a businessman and a Catholic priest presented this viewpoint. The committee seemed particularly interested in whether the priest agreed that enforcement of the laws is discriminatory. He said yes, that the laws should be strictly enforced, that the state probably should crack down on stores which continue to sell contraceptives. The hearing ended on this note.

BETSY SABLE, counselor at Planned Parenthood in Boston, said last fall that the organizations pushing for the liberalization of the Massachusetts abortion laws were afraid to bring a bill before the legislature because the result would probably be more stringent definition and enforcement of the current nebulous law. Unfortunately, the proponents of the birth control bill did not realize that the results of their drive for a more equitable contraception law would be the same. For at the conclusion of the hearing, the committee seemed to have decided that the only way to rectify the injustices of the present laws on birth control was to make sure that everyone suffered equally. If the legislature adopts this attitude (the recommendation of the committee usually determines the fate of the bill), no variety of contraceptives will be sold in Massachusetts without proof of marital status. Advertisements of contraceptives currently published in many national magazines will have to be censored in Massachusetts-the law forbids exhibition or advertisement of contraceptives.

It is more than unfortunate that the Committee on Social Welfare closed its ears to the testimony of doctors, scientists and Public Health officials. The committee's reaction to the testimony of these experts was limited to defending their own past liberality in passing the current laws. (In 1966 Massachusetts became the last state to make contraceptive care legally available.) However, they spent twenty minutes discussing with the priest the decline of morality in the state.

Mary Newman (R-Cambridge), who introduced the bill, said at the hearing that although she personally would not use contraceptives, she felt that birth control was an issue over which the state should have no control. Her bill could be justified merely on the principle of the separation of church and state. Yet the arguments which the committee appeared to accept were those based on a religious code. Despite their constant protestations that this is not a religious issue, their attitude confirmed that it is and will continue to be if they remain in control of the situation.

The committee should not be criticized for seeing the problem of birth control as a moral issue, but they should be for imposing their views on the people who are directly affected by the laws. Their view of morality seems to be limited to disapproval of premarital sex. "Sex, sex, sex-that's all I've heard this morning," ranted William Carey (R-Suffolk). In fact, his fifteen-minute diatribe on the decay of morality in young people was the only prolonged discussion of sexual intercourse the committee heard. They listened sympathetically. The chairman at one point asked the spectators, most of whom supported the bill, to quiet down and listen to Carey. "You don't have a monopoly on the right point of view." he said.

THE HEARING on House Bill 520 was probably typical of Massachusetts politics, and it may be naive to hope that it could have been any different. It was a farce, but it was only momentarily funny. The women faced with the prospect of bearing unwanted children will not be laughing.

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