A South Boston mother of six is found dead in her apartment. The cause of death is determined to be internal laceration, the result of an attempt at self-abortion.
In a northern suburb of Boston, a woman college student drops out of school and cancels a promising musical career to bear an undesired child.
A Roxbury doctor is arrested and, like a common criminal, thrown into jail for performing a safe, simple, short, and possibly lifesaving operation upon a patient too poor to travel out of state.
An infant, beaten to death, is found abandoned on the steps of the state capitol building.
These are some of its less fortunate victims, Massachusetts birth control laws. Passed in 1897, modified in 1966, Mass. General Law, chapter 272, sections 20 and 21 ("crimes against chastity, morality, decency, and good order"), prohibits the sale, distribution, or dissemination of birth control items or information to unmarried persons. Those convicted under this stature face up to 5 years imprisonment and $1000 fine for each violation.
The object of the law, explained Assistant District Attorney Joseph R. Nolan, in the Boston Globe of Dec. 3rd, 1968, "certainly is morality and morals." Other officials say that it's supposed to dampen promiscuity.
But even a brief study of the wording of the laws would show that, to the extent promiscuous love-making is thwarted, so too are serious affairs. The actual design of the law, then, is an attack on premarital sex, on the faulty assumption that sex before marriage is, by its nature, immoral. Setting aside the issue of whether or not premarital sex is moral, does the State have the right to dictate morality to its citizens? No. The proper function of government is the use of retaliatory force to protect its citizens from initiated force or fraud; voluntary use of birth control items by individuals or consenting couples cannot be considered the proper concern of the State. The idea that the government can dictate to what peaceful purpose an individual must or must not put his body is a total negation of the proper role of government.
Even if birth control could be shown an evil, laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives would still be wrong. A moral government must punish, not prevent, criminal acts; in order to prevent crimes it would be necessary, to some degree, to initiate force against innocent citizens, an operation no moral government may rightfully perform.
William Baird, the man who successfully challenged the birth control laws of New York and New Jersey, recently said of Massachusetts' laws: "Nowhere else in the world can a person lose up to ten years of his life for a lecture on birth control with a contraceptive tube in his hand."
With the exception, perhaps, of Soviet Russia.
The ten years Mr. Baird speaks of are his own. On April 7, 1967, he was arrested for the display and distribution of contraceptive material at a student assembly at Boston University. Convicted on October 17, 1967, he is presently free on bond, awaiting the final decision (expected in January) of an appeal directed at the Mass. Supreme court on December 2nd, 1968.
While Mr. Baird's crusade against the laws is admirable, his arguments are not. He has an unnerving habit of expending an enormous amount of energy convincing his audiences of the dire consequences of overpopulation rather than concentrating upon the pivot issue: rights. To this issue, which will decide where he spends the ten years, he seems incapable of properly applying himself. In fact, he appears intent on chopping away whatever protection it might have afforded him. At his trial, he allowed his lawyer to argue that birth control freedom is a "constitutional" right rather than an "economic" one. The implication of that claim is truly terrifying. Legally, there is no such dichotomy as "constitutional" rights versus "economic" rights. The two are not divisible; "constitutional" rights (such as the right of free speech) hinge upon "economic" rights (such as the right to own property). For example, how could an individual exercise his…right to free speech, unless he has some property to speak from, and the right (or privilege, if the property belongs to a second party) to use it for the purpose of speaking?
Speaking of the Pope's statements on birth control during a Boston Globe interview, Mr. Baird asked, "How dare the Pope tell world government leaders not to set aside funds for birth control?"
From this, it is a fair inference that Mr. Baird favors government distribution of contraceptives. Assuredly, those would be passed out to those too poor to purchase them on the open market. Who would be forced to pay for all this? We don't believe Mr. Baird has taken this question into consideration. Does he propose, to increase the tax on the family of six whose income is the arbitrary government-set "poverty" line? Or does he propose to more heavily tax the corporations, whose giant capital accumulations made the research, production, and distribution of the contraceptives possible in the first place. Either way, everyone loses. The "argument from need" is, indeed, no argument at all.
But in addition to these considerations, there is a probable long range effect of government-sponsored birth control. Even those with only a passing knowledge of American politics are aware that government "help" has a strong tendency to become government meddling, and to finally proceed to government control. How long would It be before the government would be under pressure to require couples to submit applications in order to have children?
Let's not find out. Those who would support drives to abolish birth control laws, but at the same time, are consistent enough to see the fallacy of government distribution of contraceptives, should make clear the basis of their support. They should make clear that they are arguing from the world of rights, not the wasteland of need. Otherwise, they may someday find they have to ask permission to have a left-handed kid.