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Catholicism Fights Birth Control

I was much interested in the article by Professor J. M. O’Neill in The New Republic of December II on “The Birth-Control Debate.” In this article Professor O’Neill, a Catholic layman, says it is “sheer nonsense” that Catholics as a matter of course are “in favor of laws prohibiting doctors, or anyone else, from giving information on birth control to mature men and women who want it.” He goes on to say that “there are undoubtedly millions of Catholics in the United States who would never endorse such laws.” One must agree at once that what Professor O’Neill says is true, and point out at the same time that it accords with democratic principles that the citizen should not want his personal convictions rammed down his neighbor’s throat. But unfortunately, the issue cannot be settled by discussing only the attitude of individual Catholics. There are also the activities of the Church itself and of the Catholic hierarchy. In a subsequent letter (The New Republic, December 25) Professor O’Neill endeavors to brush aside “extra-legal activities” on the part of the hierarchy of the Church from the discussion of his article. These, he says, are not techniques of debate and are therefore outside the question. It would be nice for Professor O’Neill if we were willing to give the “birth-control debate” the placid setting of a high-school dais and let it go at that, but unfortunately in a practical world one must consider men’s deeds along with their words, and “by their fruits shall ye know them.”

Consider then both the words and the deeds in the birth-control controversy. The attitude of most individual Catholic laymen, for example, is in sharp contrast to that of Bishop James A. Griffin of Chicago, who recently wrote to the Illinois State Department of Public Health criticizing the showing of sex-hygiene films. According to The Springfield, Illinois, State Journal of December 8, “The Bishop expressed surprise that the state of Illinois should be so concerned about the ill effects of venereal disease, while at the same time allowing sponsors of the birth-control movement to solicit aid of tax-paid visiting nurses in advancing the cause of race suicide, which threatens to snuff out the population altogether.”

The fears of “race suicide” raised by the Bishop would seem rather alarmist when placed beside the wartime records of three million babies annually. Of this matter, The Statistical Bulletin of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, a scientific authority, had this to say: “During the past decade the birth rate in the United States has exhibited remarkable resiliency. But even more important, the greater fertility has been the voluntary expression of a free people who have faith in the future of their country.”

The real question posed by Bishop Griffin is whether American citizens shall have access, through their public- health services, to information they consider desirable for personal reasons of health, security and happiness. Bishop Griffin does not want public-health nurses to tell patients where they can get that information, even when such patients are not Catholics and do not consider the intelligent planning of life a violation of “natural law.” The Bishop disregards the fact that our health services are supported by the taxes of citizens of every faith, that such services have the public duty to provide for the needs and demands of all people who seek their aid. He would withhold by extra-legal pressures what the law permits.

The action of the bishop in Illinois is not an isolated incident, nor the exception which proves the rule. The efforts to prevent health services from giving medical information on birth control to married persons who desire it and whose religious views permit them to accept it, are applied repeatedly by Catholic leadership to every other channel through which it might pass. In April, 1943, under instructions from Monsignor Glover of Newark, New Jersey, every physician—Catholic, Protestant and Jew—having the privilege of bringing patients to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was asked to sign an “application” in which the physician would agree not to give any patient advice on birth control, or any other subject offensive to “Catholic morality,” either in the hospital or in private practice.

This is the pledge exacted from the physicians at St. Elizabeth’s:
I agree that I will not disseminate any birth-control information and will not be a member of any group or organization which favors birth control or other eugenic activities at variance with Catholic morality. I further stipulate that I will live up to all the above agreement both in this hospital and in all my professional activities.

Failure to sign this pledge was to be taken as a resignation from the staff. The action came so quickly that dissenting physicians had little time to protest, for hospitals in Elizabeth were filled to capacity and the doctors faced the practical problem of where to take their patients. Under this pressure, every member of the staff but one signed.

It might be argued with some substance that ance St. Elizabeth’s is a Catholic hospital, Monsignor Glover was within his complete rights in forbidding the prescription of contraceptive information within thehospital. The point might hold even though it were shown that the hospital obtains a large share of its revenue from public funds, and as a community hospital obtains contributions from citizens of all faiths in Elizabeth. But to reach into the office of a physician and prescribe of the subject can be considered no less than a dangerous and ominous invasion of medical rights. More than a majority of the doctors on St. Elizabeth’s staff at the time were non-Catholics.

The Elizabeth incident has been duplicated in various forms and in various places on numerous occasions before and since. For example:

In June, 1939, the Catholic Clergy Association of Waterbury, Connecticut, passed a resolution condemning birth control and demanding that the Waterbury Maternal Health center be “prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” The resolution was read at mass in every Roman Catholic Church in Waterbury on June 11. On June 12 the Health Center was raided and the staff was arrested and brought to trial. Although this action was later dropped, the Connecticut State Supreme Court held the law to be constitutional, and every birth-control clinic in the state was closed and has been closed ever since.

In Massachusetts in 1942, it was proposed to amend the state law against birth control so that doctors could give contraceptive information to married persons for the protection of life or health. Largely because of the efforts of the Roman Catholic Clergy, the amendment was defeated. Subsequently, some Roman Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts dismissed members of their medical staffs because these men had signed the petition for the referendum.

In Patterson, New Jersey, St. Joseph’s Hospital, a Roman Catholic institution, is the largest in the city, Paterson also has a Planned Parenthood Center. All doctors connected with the Planned Parenthood Center were told that they must break this connection or they would not be forbidden to attend patients in the hospital. There were peremptorily ordered to let the hospital know “whether or not you have severed your connection to the Birth Control clinic or organization.” Because of public protest, however, this ruling has not been strictly enforced.

In Austin, Texas, the Maternal Health League had headquarters in Backenridge Hospital, which receives county and municipal funds. Because of Roman Catholic Pressure, this clinic was expelled from the hospital.

IF DOCTORS can fall victim to this type of compulsion, what group is immune? It may come as a shock to many to realize that civic leaders of community chests, and through them such Protestant agencies as the Young Women’s Christian Association, can be led to submit to the pressures of a Catholic archbishop.

Only three months ago, executives of the Planned Parenthood League of Maryland and the Baltimore YWCA found themselves in agreement as to the need for more adequate marriage-counseling services in their city. Representatives of the two organizations decided to go together in calling a dinner meeting for the subject. They sent invitations to more than a thousand physicians, Protestant and Jewish clergymen, educators, social workers and nurses.

When a small announcement appeared in the Baltimore papers a week before the meeting, the YWCA executive was hastily summoned to the offices of the Baltimore War and Community Fund. The YWCA is a member agency of the Community Chest, but neither the Maryland League for Planned Parenthood nor the Catholic agencies in the community are members, although Archbishop James Curley was serving as a vice-chairman of the combined war fun and community-chest campaign then in progress.

The YWCA representative was told that the dinner on marriage counseling must be immediately canceled. The situation presented was this. When Archbishop Curley had accepted an honorary post in the war-fund drive, he had asked for, and been given, assurance by the fund officials that none of the member agencies was associated in any way with the Planned Parenthood organization.

During the drive the Archbishop had sent a letter, to be read at every mass, urging Catholic members strongly to support the fund campaign. When the Archbishop had learned of the marriage-counsel dinner, he let it be known that he would have to “countermand” the letter unless the YWCA withdrew its participation. In the minds of fund officials the Archbishop’s action would have seriously jeopardized the success of the drive. Later these officials expressed the view that even if the Archbishop had not communicated his opinion as to the dinner, they themselves would have felt it necessary to as its cancellation, because, they said, “controversial issues” have no place in a community-fund effort.

No reasonable explanation has been forthcoming as to how the War and Community Fund, without prior consultation with the YWCA board, could assure the Archbishop that the Protestant agency would not act at any time so as to offend Catholic dogma and teaching. In face of the pressure for community harmony in wartime and its own desire to have the War Fund reach its goal, the YWCA representative acquiesced in the cancellation of the dinner.

There is considerable point to the argument that an Archbishop is justified in withholding Catholic cooperation in a situation wherein the principles of his church might be, in his opinion, compromised.

That is quite different, however, from permitting the threat of non-cooperation to be used as a weapon over other agencies in such a way as to jeopardize their own rights, their freedom of assembly and speech. If the civic leaders of Baltimore can be influenced, intimidated or frightened, by the necessity of obtaining funds, into sacrificing the civil liberties which an agency no less that a private citizen should possess, then an Archbishop or any other majority or minority leader may be able to dictate the policies of community funds and agencies in Los Angeles, Dallas or any other city. If the YWCA is susceptible to compulsion through a community agency, so may also be the YMCA, the USO, the Red Cross, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers and every other non- Catholic or non-sectarian community agency. If as a result of Catholic pressure a Protestant agency can be prevented from association with the program of Planned Parenthood, cannot that same compulsion be applied to muzzle democratic action and free discussion in relation to venereal disease, sterilization, day nurseries, divorce and marriage, public-school education, child labor and a hundred other subjects on which the Catholic clergy has sharp and separate points of view? As a matter of fact, the public has already been witness to such threats in relation to venereal-disease control campaigns and efforts to establish proper programs of sex education in the public schools.

Let us consider another recent example of how Catholic action—not the action of individual Catholic laymen but of members of the clergy—worked to prevent planned parenthood from taking its normal place in and as a part of community services. In 1937 the El Paso, Texas, Mother’s Health Center, whose doctors advise married couples with health problems on how to space their children through medically approved means of birth control, became a member of the El Paso Central Council of Social Agencies by invitation. Three years later, A. W. Norcop, representing the Catholic Welfare Association, stated to officers of the Council of Social Agencies that if the Mother’s Health Center remained a member, all 20 Catholic agencies would be forced to withdraw. When, a few days later, the Central Council of Social Agencies applied for financial support from the Community Chest, the 20 agencies did in fact resign en masse. It was obviously hoped that this action would force the resignation of the Mother’s Health Center from the Council. The Council, however, refusing to be panicked into overt action, did not ask for the resignation of the Center. When the Community Chest admitted the Council to membership, acceptance of the resignation of the 20 Catholic agencies was postponed.

Later in 1940, the threat of withdrawal of the Catholic agencies from the Council was renewed. In a letter to all members of the Council’s executive committee, the late Bishop A. J. Shuler of El Paso claimed that the Mother’s Health Center “has never been and is not an organization of the nature qualified for membership in the Central Council” under the body’s bylaws; that “its object and purpose is highly controversial, disapproved and opposed not only by Catholics, but also by a majority of Protestants and Jews.”

All efforts to change the Bishop’s stand were futile, though three highly respected business men and a popular rabbi of the city interviewed him in a group, pointing out among other things that the Council of Social Agencies was non-sectarian under its constitution. For three years the 20 Catholic agencies remained out of the Council.

In April of 1944, the representative of the Catholic Welfare Association asked that the constitution of the Council be rewritten, although he had no official position in the Council since the withdrawal of the agencies. But in an effort to be eminently fair, all his suggestions were accepted and incorporated into the constitution except one—that requiring compulsory registration o-f all cases with the Social Service Exchange, a unit of the Council.

Compulsory registration would have meant that any agency could have obtained the name and history of any patient who had placed herself in the confidence of another member agency. Could all this have meant that the Catholic agencies were willing to share members hip in the Council with the Mother’s Health Center if they could find means of obtaining the names of Catholic patients seeking the help of that center?

This is the statement of the Bishop’s representative, Mr. Norcop, made at a meeting of the Council to consider the constitutional changes and reported in The El Paso Herald-Post of May 2: “To offset the implied approval of a birth-control agency in the Central Council, which would follow if Catholic agencies belonged to the same group, the clergy feel that all cases should be registered so that Catholic agencies may contact Catholic cases at the Mother’s Health Center.”

As any physician and social worker will testify, this would have been a basic violation of professional trust. The amendment on compulsory registration was voted down by the Council 58-4, the Catholic agencies having lost their vote by withdrawal. The president of the Council, Judge Mulcahy, a Catholic, thereupon resigned at the request of the Bishop.

The incidents in New Jersey, Maryland, Texas and elsewhere are but a few in a pattern of action which has been manifest in almost every state. They are part and parcel of the “birth-control debate,” involving not simply a question of free and fair discussion, as Professor O’Neill seems to see it, but a fundamental question of civil liberties which must be of concern to every American, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

No one can question the right of Catholic leadership to denounce birth control in vehement terms. No one can question the right of Catholic clergy to prescribe the most severe maledictions on followers who use methods of birth control not approved by the Church. But, one asks, in this year of democracy’s crisis—what of the rights of the parents of some 28,000,000 non-Catholic American families who might like to make up their own minds on this subject?

At one time, Catholic leadership worked to prevent the opening of Planned-Parenthood clinics by the enactment or invocation of legislation to that end. This battle has been thus far effective in only two state, Massachusetts and Connecticut, where today a doctor may not prescribe birth control even if he feels a patient’s life and health may depend on it. The action which resulted in closing of Planned-Parenthood clinics in these two states has thus far been sustained in the state courts, but there is considerable legal opinion which believes the laws will be found unconstitutional if tested before the Supreme Court.

Still at other times pressure has been strongly exerted against free speech and public discussion of this subject. This battle, too, has been largely lost, though many magazines and radio stations still hesitate to give the subject the same scientific discussion they would give to other subjects­—remembering past threats, intimidation and boycotts used against them.

Is there a democratic solution to this dilemma? Can Catholic leaders be convinced that they have no more right to deny birth control to non-Catholics through the health and welfare services in their communities than would the ordinary Catholic layman to walk into his neighbor’s house and command him to have five more children?

Solution will not be easy. There has been thus far a blank refusal on the part of Catholic hierarchy to acknowledge that non-Catholics have rights which should not be abridged by action of the Church, proper only in relationship to its own members. Recently the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut sought a conference with the Bishop of Hartford in the hope of reaching some amicable understanding regarding a bill that is soon to be introduced into the Connecticut legislature. This bill would permit physicians to prescribe birth control for their married patients when in their medical judgment they deem it wise and necessary. The Bishop’s reply was a polite and firm “No.” “The opposition of the Catholic Church,” it said, “is a matter of fundamental natural moral principle upon which there can be no compromise. In these circumstances, you will, I am sure, agree with me that a conference would unprofitable.”

Yet one planned-parenthood organization did find an answer. By agreement with the Catholic Welfare Society in its community, it arranged to refer patients coming to it for aid but to whom medical means of birth control presented religious objections, to be give the services of Catholic physicians able to instruct in the Rhythm Method. This carries Catholic “ecclesiastical approbation.” In view of the scientific uncertainties of “Rhythm,” this may be an imperfect solution, but it is an advance over the defamation and mud-slinging which Mr. O’Neill deplores, and the undemocratic forms of community coercion now still widely in evidence.