The document project on which this lesson plan is based is available by subscription only from Alexander Street Press.
The Comstock Law of 1873 declared the distribution of contraceptives and information about contraception obscene and therefore illegal at the federal level for the first time in the history of the United States. The passage of the law ended two centuries of free dissemination of information about how to prevent pregnancy. The Comstock Law met with relatively little opposition until the second decade of the twentieth century, when reformers Mary Ware Dennett and Margaret Sanger took up the "birth control" cause. Sanger's first issue of The Woman Rebel brought the birth control movement to the attention of the American public, but also resulted in her arrest for violation of the Comstock Law. When a judge denied Sanger's request for a postponement of her trial, she fled to England. While Sanger was in exile abroad, Mary Ware Dennett founded the National Birth Control League (NBCL) to carry on the fight for birth control through legal channels.
To understand the resistance to legalizing contraception; to compare and contrast arguments for and against birth control; to examine the social agendas of birth controllers and their Catholic opponents.
Begin by reading Mary Ware Dennett, "Yes, But--" (1919), and Margaret Sanger, Hard Facts" (1919). How were the pro-birth control arguments of the two women similar? How were they different?
In class assignment: Have each student read one of three different chapters from John M. Cooper, Birth Control (1923): Overpopulation," "Underpopulation," and "War, Poverty, and Infant Mortality." Ask students to compare Margaret Sanger's arguments in favor of legalizing contraception with John Cooper's arguments against this action. Both authors use the poor to justify their positions. How does Sanger do this? How does Cooper rebut her argument?
Next, have students read Mary Ware Dennett's letter to the Catholic Members of Congress, 16 January 1925. In this letter, Dennett introduces a new argument in favor of birth control: the right to free speech. How does this argument compare to the "rights" Cooper writes about? Which argument -- that of Dennett or Cooper -- do you find more compelling?
In class debate: Have four or six students argue for and against the legalization of birth control. Have one student argue from Margaret Sanger's point of view, one from Mary Ware Dennett's point of view, and have several students take arguments from Cooper's book. Have one student moderate the debate. Give each student three minutes to present his or her case, and give the opposing side time to rebut. Have students take questions from the audience. Optional written assignment: Have each student prepare written notes for the debate, to be handed in at the end of the class.
For Further Exploration:
To investigate further the differences in opinion between Mary Ware Dennett and Margaret Sanger (as students on the pro-birth control side of the debate may wish to do), see documents from "How Did Animosity Between Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett Shape the Movement to Legalize Birth Control?"