Established in 1982 at LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY with a mission to collect, preserve, and make available primary materials documenting the social and political history of New York City. We hold nearly 5,000 cubic feet of archival records and 3,200 reels of microfilm with almost 100,000 photographs and 2,000,000 documents available on our website.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Birth Control Politics: 1958 and 2012

Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs

            The New York Times article "Outcry Grows Fiercer After Funding Cut by Cancer Group" highlights the continuing controversy over birth control and abortion politics after the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation announced it had cut funds to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings.  Birth control had already become a major issue in national politics when the Obama Administration mandated that birth control must be available free of cost in all health plans.  This rule included no exemption for religious employers opposed to birth control if they served a large number of people of different faiths, such as Catholic hospitals and universities.  (See The New York Times "Ruling on Contraception Draws Battle Lines at Catholic Colleges")

            In the late 1950s, Mayor Robert F. Wagner faced a similar controversy in New York's public hospitals.  In May 1958, The New York Times reported that there was an unwritten prohibition against prescribing birth control in public hospitals.  Wagner's Commissioner of Hospitals Morris A. Jacobs denied this and stated that "There shall be no interference in proper and accepted therapeutic practices nor intervention in ethical relationships between patient and physician."   Despite this statement, Jacobs refused to allow a doctor at Kings County Hospital in July to fit a diabetic patient with a contraceptive device to protect her health. According to New York State law at that time, birth control could only be given if pregnancy was "deleterious to the health of the patient," a policy laid out in a draft Department of Health policy statement  in 1963.

            This situation placed Wagner in a quandary both politically and religiously.  Protestant and Jewish organizations, as well as Planned Parenthood and the New York Civil Liberties Union, were lobbying to lift the ban on contraception in public hospitals, while the Catholic Church was adamantly opposed.  A consensus politician who avoided conflict, Wagner left the decision to the Board of Hospitals stating, "I am a practicing Catholic. As a Catholic, I would be opposed to the use of contraceptives in city hospitals.  But I have not discussed it with the commissioner or with members of the board."

            The debate continued throughout the summer, with Wagner refusing to intervene.   When the Board of Hospitals met in September, it voted to reverse the policy.  Wagner's position, while sincere, was also shrewd.  In all likelihood, the outcome was what he desired.  He may not have been in direct communication with the commissioner or the Board of Hospitals, but he did know how to count votes and predict the outcome.    Wagner believed in letting professionals decide what was the correct health policy and was able to separate his personal views as a Catholic from the decision.  Not coincidentally, his liberal supporters were able to get the policy they wanted, while Wagner was able to distance himself from it and limit the political damage he took among Catholics and conservatives.  

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