Before the pill and Roe v Wade

U.S. Supreme Court

Births to teenage mothers in the United States climbed almost steadily in the decade of the 1950s. In 1957, the peak year, there were 96 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19. In the early 1960s these birth rates among teenagers remained high before finally trending steadily downward. The rate of birth among teenage girls whose grandparents had emigrated to the United States was surely higher. For that generation of teenagers the rules and the religious observance of the old country had weakened and these teens found themselves in a world of newfound freedoms with few protections from risks. The 1950s and the 1960s brought a surge in the number and proportion of the United State's population that was teenaged. Teenage culture permeated and percolated everywhere, especially in film with teen themed classics like Rock Around the Clock and Rebel Without a Cause and in popular music with the birth of rock and roll. Robust post WWII economic growth added to the exuberance and the sense of freedom among teens, probably more so than among their parents who had experienced the war more directly and who had vivid memories of the not so distant history of the Great Depression. With little knowledge of, and scant access to contraceptive information, and with the increased social interaction among their peers, much of it unsupervised, unwed teenage girls of the 1950s and 1960s got pregnant in unprecedented numbers. Unlike upper class girls whose family money afforded more choices, teenagers from working class families who found themselves pregnant had little choice but to withdraw from school and marry their boyfriend. Most of the time it was the boy who impregnated her, but not always. One might say that the 1950s and 1960s was the best of times and the worst of times to be an American teenager, freedom to explore but fraught with danger.

This is a story of Grace, a fictional, but not atypical, teenager of the time. Things would change during Grace's lifetime. When Grace was eighteen in 1960, doctors were allowed to write prescriptions for a new birth control pill, but only for the treatment of severe menstrual disorders, not as a contraceptive, and only for married women. In 1965 when Grace was 23, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled married couples had the right to use birth control as a right to privacy protected by the constitution of the United States. There was no mention of such a right for single women.

In Massachusetts, where Grace would grow up, contraceptives could only legally be distributed to married couples and only married couples could be in possession of contraceptives, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972, when Grace was 29, that the state’s distinction between singles and married couples violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. constitution. It was in 1973 in Roe v. Wade that the U.S. Supreme Court established a woman's legal right to an abortion. Grace was 30.

It wasn't until 2018 when Grace was 76 that the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, signed a bill to abolish a law that banned abortions and prohibited unmarried women in Massachusetts from using contraceptives. The law, dating back to 1845, had never been taken off the books.

In 2019, a woman's right to choose to end a pregnancy, even in the early stages of a pregnancy, came under continuous challenge from laws in many states. Moves implicitly cheered by the President of the United States.

And on June 29, 2020, when Grace 77, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the latest challenge to a woman's right to work conveniently and privaty with health care providers in her decision to maintain or not a pregnancy. Grace is grateful that her granddaughters who live in Louisiana have that choice.


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