There is something truly baffling about the 2012 presidential candidates hotly debating Planned Parenthood and birth control. These battles were fought — and won — half a century ago. At that time, the vast majority of Americans, nearly all mainstream religious organizations and leaders in both political parties accepted contraception as beneficial to families, society and the world.
The move toward mainstream acceptance of contraception began in the early 20th century and accelerated in the 1940s. In 1942, the Birth Control Federation of America changed its name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Margaret Sanger, leader of the birth control movement, opposed the change. She thought the new name weakened the woman-empowering message of the term “birth control.” But she was overruled. Abraham Stone, medical director of the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau, explained at the time that “planned parenthood” signaled “the need for individual couples to plan their families and for nations to plan their populations.”
As the birth control movement became mainstream, it still took several years for the nation’s leaders to endorse it. In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared: “I cannot imagine anything more emphatically a subject that is not a proper political or government activity or function or responsibility . ... The government will not, so long as I am here, have a positive political doctrine in its program that has to do with the problem of birth control. That’s not our business.”
Just a few years later, President John F. Kennedy — a Democrat and the nation’s first Catholic president — supported family-planning programs as part of foreign aid. Even Eisenhower, JFK’s Republican predecessor, eventually came around, admitting in the mid-1960s: “Once as president, I thought and said that birth control was not the business of our federal government. The facts changed my mind. ... Governments must act. ... Failure would limit the expectations of future generations to abject poverty and suffering and bring down upon us history’s condemnation.”
For the next two decades, every American president promoted contraception as an essential part of domestic and foreign policy. Even the Catholic Church considered lifting its prohibition on contraception — and almost did.