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The Birth-Control Raid

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Testing condoms in the United Kingdom, circa 1930

The New Republic abandoned New York for Washington in 1950, but the fact of its birthplace is crucial to its story. Greenwich Village, with its burgeoning bohemianism, was both physically and spiritually a short walk from the office. During the earliest years of the magazine, Walter Lippmann was often there, drinking at Mabel Dodge’s famous salon just off Washington Square, where he met the likes of Gertrude Stein and Emma Goldman. Margaret Sanger, the contraception crusader, also inhabited this demimonde. Her big issue—birth control, a term she invented—was considered impolite for more respectable company. But the necessity of contraception resonated with all the early concerns of the magazine. It wasn’t about sexual liberation, at least not explicitly. The movement emphasized the plight of immigrants, whose supersized families defied any reasonable set of household economics. Then there was the heavy hand of the state, which confiscated the pamphlets that Sanger and her comrades wrote. Birth control gained its initial traction as a civil liberties issue.

With its early articles on the subject,
The New Republic helped imbue contraception with a touch of needed legitimacy, transporting it from the domain of Wobblies and socialists into the mainstream. And like Lippmann, Sanger eventually exited the world of radicalism, an ideological odyssey that culminated in the founding of the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. But as this essay shows, Sanger’s turn toward the center hardly insulated birth control from the opprobrium on it by authorities.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor,
Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

This is my party!” shouted Policewoman Mary Sullivan, in the midst of her personally conducted raid on the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York City, last week. Subsequent developments have demonstrated that this boast was as premature as it was untruthful. For Policewoman Sullivan’s little raiding party, carried out with a vigor that swept aside as unnecessary such things as common courtesy and ordinary good manners, has proved to be of vital interest to every thinking member of this community. And the end is not yet in sight. As I write these indignant words, the announcement comes that Chief Magistrate William McAdoo now admits that the police, in seizing the case histories of our patients, had exceeded the scope of the search warrant he had issued authorizing this raid—an act on their part which constitutes a misdemeanor.

After you have spent some fifteen years, slowly and with infinite pains and patience working for the right to test the value of contraceptive practice in a scientific and hygienic—and lawful—manner, without interfering with the habits or the morals of those who disagree with you, it is indeed difficult to submit with equanimity to such brutal indignities as were gratuitously thrust upon us at the clinic a week ago. Compensations there have been, of course—mainly in the enlightened attitude of such dailies as the New York Herald Tribune and others, and the generous offers of aid from distinguished physicians. But even these can scarcely counterbalance the evidence of the sinister and secret power of our enemies.

As in the breaking up of the birth-control meeting in the Town Hall, in 1921, the raid on the Birth Control Research Bureau gives us a glimpse of the animus which may direct the action of the police. In their futile efforts to annihilate a social agency which had already been given a clean bill of health by the health department of the municipality, by the state board of charities and by the Academy of Medicine, our hypocritical antagonists have not the courage to fight us squarely, in the open, but adopt the cowardly subterfuge of utilizing minor and crassly ignorant members of the police force. Our research bureau has been functioning since 1923, operating within the law, and cooperating with recognized charitable institutions.

From whatever point of view it is analyzed, Policewoman Sullivan’s “party” was a deplorable failure. A failure, first of all, because it has exposed a complete lack of intelligence in those who conducted it, and a woeful lack of coordination in the police department itself. It is not enough for Grover Whalen or District Attorney Banton to disclaim all foreknowledge of the raid. Modest as may be the headquarters of the research bureau, it is highly significant and important. Therefore, to permit minor members of the police force, or hostile assistants in the office of the District Attorney, to pass judgment upon its fate, denotes either a lack of coordination of powers, or a bland carelessness in directing them. Certainly no official of the city government, cognizant of awakened public opinion concerning the social value of contraception, and aware, moreover, of the searching criticism to which the police department of New York City is now subjected, would ever have chosen the present moment as one psychologically suited to inaugurate a brutal raid upon a modest unadvertised clinic which was functioning quietly and successfully in an obscure side street, minding its own business and hoping that its powerful ecclesiastical neighbors would mind theirs. At a time when the criminal elements of the city—racketeers, gangsters, gunmen, and hijackers—are so active and successful, it would seem to a bystander that all the intelligence, skill, and brawn of the force should be mobilized and focused upon “crime control.”

Even the thrill of satisfaction we have had in the offers of distinguished doctors to testify in our behalf, in the letters to the press, and the courageous outspoken editorials, cannot obliterate the memory of Policewoman Sullivan standing in the clinic and shouting vigorously and victoriously “This is my party!” I would rather forget that here was a woman fighting against other women who were devoting their lives to succor and to save their fellow women. By trickery and hypocrisy she had obtained her “evidence,” and now she triumphantly commanded the doctors and nurses into the waiting patrol wagons.

Whatever the outcome of this raiding party, I hereby call upon the citizens of New York to find out for themselves how and where it originated, and why it was carried out. I ask them to recall the breaking up by the police of the birth-control meeting in Town Hall, with the subsequent revelation that this illegal action was instigated by Roman Catholic ecclesiastical authorities. We are paying, and paying heavily, for the support of a great police force. It is our right and duty to insist that it shall function in an efficient, legal, and socially effective manner. Policewoman Sullivan’s “party” exposes it as operating in a manner which suggests the gratification of private prejudices and unreasoning emotion, rather than the even-handed administration of justice and the law.