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My Turn: The miracle of family planning

Last modified: 9/15/2015 9:53:35 AM
My great grandfather had 10 children. I recall meeting several of them, my great aunts. They were caught up in the intense religious fervor of the Third Great Awakening that swept across America in the last half of the 19th century, and they had spent their lives saving souls in India.

Large families were common back then, and they made some sense. In agrarian America, farmers needed labor, and children could supply it. As America became urban and industrial, needs changed and family size changed. Each generation of Warners had fewer children, with my generation typically having two, much like the rest of America.

The change not only fit families, it fit American society, because continuation of these earlier rates of proliferation would have resulted in an unsustainable population.

For example, if families after my great grandfather’s generation had all had 10 children, incredibly the U.S. population could have gone from 76 million in 1900 to as much as 7 billion today. Such is the power of exponential growth. With anything over a billion in population, our country would have experienced massive poverty, intense starvation and extensive death. And, that is what the larger world has in store if it is unable to stabilize its currently burgeoning population.

Researchers have concluded that, if we want all people to prosper equally – to live at an American or European standard of living – a sustainable population for the Earth is between 1 and 2 billion people, a number we already have exceeded more than three times over.

The Third Great Awakening brought with it the Comstock Act adopted in 1873 and not fully overturned until 1965. It declared contraception and birth control to be “obscene and illegal.” The impetus for it was that lower-class birth rates far exceeded upper-class rates, especially as wealthier women became educated, wanted careers, and limited and delayed having children. The pattern posed the specter of an America dominated by so-called “inferior,” “lower class” people, especially immigrants and their progeny since this was a period of massive immigration. Does this sound vaguely familiar today?

Despite Comstock, birth rates fell in America. But this occurred only because families (women primarily) opted to ignore the law, to plan their families, to obtain and use contraception (and to get abortions), all actions outlawed by Comstock. We owe these women a great debt of gratitude, for had they actually followed the dictates of the Comstock Act, we would be an overpopulated, impoverished nation today.

Given this clear picture, it is unbelievable that in the current political environment we are facing the threat of going back to the Comstock days. Our media is now filled with stories about the evils of Planned Parenthood and efforts to eliminate this valuable resource.

One Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, has actually proposed a constitutional amendment that would make most forms of contraception illegal. Further, virtually all of the other Republican candidates are pandering to the Religious Right for votes by supporting their ill-conceived desires to make family planning more difficult. And here in New Hampshire, our governing body has denied funding for Planned Parenthood.

Let’s set this situation straight with some facts.

A few religious zealots figured out that much of the American public would be upset to know that research on fetal tissue was happening (even though it was legal and could help to cure disease), so they duped some Planned Parenthood workers into open discussion about their work so that they could collect surreptitious video. They then edited the video to suggest (but not actually prove) that Planned Parenthood was doing something illegal and unethical. They are now using this video material in an attempt to destroy the best resource available to women in this country.

It is time to place these actions in the broadest of contexts and to vigorously condemn them. It is time to denounce the attempts by a narrow religious minority and its political henchmen to force its ill-conceived beliefs on the 300 million citizens of this country and to wrench us all back to my great grandfather’s time.

We live on a rare and precious blue-water planet with increasingly limited resources. Family planning and contraception are the miracles that have up to now both allowed and enhanced American prosperity and that will in the future make a critical difference as to whether the human race survives. Educating women worldwide and making women’s health facilities and contraception available to all are vital to human sustainability.

Failing to do these things invites human tragedy. But failing to do them in the name of religion is the biggest folly of all. Given the inevitable misery and death that would ensue from this ignorance – from destroying the best available women’s health facilities in the country, from putting barriers in the way of women’s right to make their own choices and in effect forcing women to have children – this sounds a lot like some Middle Eastern countries that we read about in our newspapers every day, with roaming “decency squads” imposing an ever-narrowing version of religious (i.e., “Sharia”) law onto the population. In America this smacks of a theocracy, not a democracy. It certainly does not represent any version of the religion of peace and love that I believe in.

(John Warner lives in Warner.)


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