How U.S. government got tied up with contraception

As the end of his two-term presidency approached in 1960, Dwight Eisenhower looked at the idea that the government should promote birth control and said it wasn’t good. Family planning was no business of the American government, Eisenhower pronounced. 

What a difference a half-century makes. Back then, Catholic opposition was the chief obstacle to government involvement in family planning. Today, a different president wants to force Catholic institutions into a national system for providing family planning. 

Lobbying efforts

Nixon family planning
President Richard M. Nixon, seen meeting with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1970, pressed ahead with family planning during his time in the Oval Office. CNS file photo

Numbers illustrate the change. According to a 2008 study, public spending for family planning “client services” in the United States totaled $1.85 billion in fiscal 2006, with Medicaid accounting for 71 percent of that figure and other federal programs for much of the rest. Inflation-adjusted public funding rose 18 percent between fiscal 1980 and fiscal 2006, although there have been some cutbacks since. 

Now President Barack Obama proposes co-opting Church-sponsored schools, hospitals and charities as elements of a national health care program for covering not only contraceptives — as the media regularly report — but also sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, something the media often leave out. 

This shift is a result not only of a cultural revolution but of maneuvering over many years by the birth control-abortion lobby, government officials and major foundations — with assistance sometimes coming from within the Catholic community. 

In the early 1960s, family planning’s relationship to the federal government was that of an outsider looking in. After a presidential commission headed by investment banker and Planned Parenthood enthusiast William H. Draper Jr. proposed government support for birth control, President Eisenhower issued his no. 

The Catholic Church was considered the chief opponent. Yet a 1953 poll had found 53 percent of American Catholics in favor of the idea. Opinion on what to do was divided within the National Catholic Welfare Conference, predecessor of today’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

The abbreviated presidency of John F. Kennedy brought private talks between administration officials and family planning groups, but the big change set in with the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Two Catholic administration officials, Joseph Califano and Kennedy brother-in-law R. Sargent Shriver, were assigned to cultivate the bishops. 

Catholic complicity

Tracing these events in his book “Intended Consequences” (Oxford University Press, $60), historian Donald T. Critchlow says leaders of the campaign to get the government into birth control were “upper-class, Protestant, and white.” 

A major object of their efforts was the Catholic Church, where there already were efforts to persuade Pope Paul VI to say yes to birth control in his forthcoming encyclical on the subject. The encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”), appeared in 1968 and condemned artificial contraception. But by 1965, Catholic support for government birth control had reached 78 percent. 

Helping the process along was a series of off-the-record conferences sponsored at the University of Notre Dame from 1963 to 1967 by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, with the cooperation of Notre Dame president Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., and his assistant, George Shuster. 

These talks brought together liberal Catholic academics, Planned Parenthood officials and leaders from the foundation world like John D. Rockefeller III, a determined supporter of contraception and, later, abortion. Participants understood from the start that, in Critchlow’s words, they “were coming together to formulate an acceptable liberal position for the church on family planning.” 

Turning point

President Johnson’s 1965 State of the Union address marked major turning point. In it Johnson called population growth an international problem that needed addressing, and soon the U.S. Agency for International Development was introducing family planning into its overseas programs. At home, birth control became a major component of Johnson’s War on Poverty. 

Concern for the poor moved the Catholic hierarchy to support the anti-poverty campaign while muting opposition to family planning. The bishops merely insisted that it should be “non-coercive,” with other methods besides contraception also available. 

By the time Johnson left office in 1969, Critchlow says, a sea change in government policy had occurred. 

It continued and expanded in the Nixon years. In one high-visibility incident, President Richard Nixon, with an eye on the Catholic vote, publicly repudiated the final report of a presidential commission on population headed by Rockefeller. At the same time, though, Nixon pressed ahead with family planning. In 1970, it was a $32.8 million federal budget item, but by 1975 the figure had jumped to $159.7 million. 

Shifting priorities

By now, too, Catholic opposition to government birth control had wilted, with attention — and opposition — shifting to abortion, which the Supreme Court had declared legal in its Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. 

After Roe, the bishops worked harder — and much more successfully — to mobilize opposition to abortion than they’d done a decade earlier in the case of birth control. But family planning was firmly established as an instrument of government policy by now both overseas and at home. 

Memories of this less-than-glorious history, involving an earlier generation of the hierarchy, may be among the reasons for the bishops’ firm resistance now to Obama’s plan for making Church-related institutions elements of his system of mandated health coverage for birth control, sterilization and abortifacients. 

Newly-named Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB religious liberty committee, says the bishops “will not rest” until protection under the law is guaranteed to the Church and institutions. If the story of government involvement in family planning is any indication, the bishops may not be getting much rest. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.