2. Early contraception and its rejection of abortion

Summary: Chapter 2

The first contraception and its incompatibility with abortion

In this chapter we will show how, in the mind of the creators of contraception, not only is it something distinct from abortion, but it is, by definition, incompatible with it.

The theme is of great interest and relevance.  The dominant idea in bioethics and medicine is, and has been for some decades, that there is an uninterrupted continuity between contraception and abortion.  Many contraceptives interrupt the life of the young embryo; they are abortifacients.

In the times of Foote, Jr., contraception was practiced by certain non-doctors who ran the risk of suffering very harsh penalties, because it was an illegal activity.  It was extremely difficult for the doctors: they could advise it in justified cases, but it was not easy to obtain the means to put it into practice.  In addition, it was seen as a borderline and improper activity of the medical profession.

Foote, Jr., was deeply convinced of the need to control conception, as opposed to abortion, because he thought that it was the radical remedy for the evils which afflicted individuals, families, and society.  Unlike other advocates of conception control, he considered it essential that this information be based on scientific data.  Only then could contraception become the sole path to eradicating the grave social and moral crime of abortion.

It is clear that for Foote, Jr., there exists a decisive boundary, biological and moral, between control of conception and abortion, which he seeks to emphasize with the new term “contraception.”  On one side of this boundary are contraceptive methods, which impede the joining of gametes, through which no damage is done to nascent life; on the other side, abortifacients, condemnable in the light of sexual physiology and moral considerations.

Foote, Jr., never abandoned his conviction regarding the impenetrable moral and biological distance that separates contraception and abortion.  In 1910, two years before his death, in an article in which he summarizes his point of view on contraception, he affirms, “In every circumstance, contraception is preferable to abortion, and it ought to take up its place in medicine to the degree to which it is possible … When it is discovered that a married woman cannot bear a child safely, contraception is better than abortion.”

As indicated in the preceding chapter, the term B.C. was created in 1914 by either Sanger, one of her collaborators, or both of them together.

Sanger’s thought on the relationship between B. C. and abortion changed over time, apparently more because of pragmatic and political motives than for substantive or ethical reasons, until she later arrived at a firm position.

The same year, 1914, Sanger distributed a pamphlet, brief but intentionally subversive, titled Family Limitation.  It basically contained information about the contraceptive methods then in use. In spite of the fact that the printing and distribution of the pamphlet was done secretly and provoked not a few problems with the police and the courts, the pamphlet had to be reedited numerous times over the course of a few years.  Sanger introduced some changes of notable interest in the text of subsequent editions.

In 1914, her writings evidence a transparent attitude of tolerance towards abortion, in which it is viewed as an inevitable last resort when contraception has failed.

This broad tolerance for abortion has practically disappeared three years later.  In 1917, she defends the position that the only cure for abortion is to avoid conception.

It is in 1918 that Sanger took a firm position on the problem in an article titled Birth Control or Abortion?  After stating that, from her point of view, limiting the family is unavoidable, she asks how it ought to be practiced.  For Sanger, the solution is to prevent fertilization by impeding the meeting of sperm and egg through B. C. procedures.  It is clear that, for Sanger, B. C. and abortion belong to separate biological and ethical realms.  In the following years, Sanger strengthened the same ideas, and continued to give them a scientific foundation.

Robinson’s position on prevenception and abortion is complex, for it appears that two contradictory attitudes exist within him.  On the one hand, starting in 1918 he tenaciously manifested his personal and practical conviction that prevenception was the single best, practically universal solution to the problems that human reproduction could create, to the point that diligent practice of prevenception would end by making abortion unnecessary.  On the other hand, paradoxically, he admitted the necessity of some abortions, because, although he recognized that abortion was always an evil, he accepted that, at times, it represented a lesser evil compared with the catastrophic consequences that could result from not practicing it, consequences not only in the order of biology, but also in the social, economic, and eugenic orders.  This drove him throughout his life, principally at the end of it, to promote the repeal of laws against abortion.

The interesting thing here is, above all, to show how, in spite of his moral ambiguity, Robinson coined the term “prevenception” as a rejection, not merely the prevention, of abortion.  In effect, it seems that Robinson’s basic intention in introducing his neologism was to establish as much distance as possible between contraception and abortion.

It must be concluded that Robinson’s duplicitous attitude towards abortion (rejection of its practice, demand for its legalization) opens up a divide within the conviction of the pioneers of contraception which they maintained, that it was incompatible with abortion.  In Foote, Jr., this conviction was absolute and based exclusively on ethical reasons.  In Sanger, the firm opposition to abortion proceeded, from social and political reasons, more than from moral convictions, because it was evident that in order for the society of that time to be able to accept contraception, it was necessary to create a great distance between contraception and abortion.  In Robinson, the contraception/abortion incompatibility is broken, in order to create distance between restricted legal abortion and apparent therapeutic and socioeconomic advantage.



Author: Gonzalo Herranz, University of Navarra.  Email: [email protected]


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