Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts Records
In 1873 Congress passed the Comstock Act which declared contraceptives and any literature describing contraception as obscene. Six years later Massachusetts passed an even more restrictive "Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency and Good Order" law which prohibited the selling, lending, giving away, or exhibiting of contraceptives. It was in the opposition to these restrictive laws that the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts had its roots.
In the summer of 1916 Van Kleek Allison, a Fabian socialist agitator, was arrested for distributing family planning pamphlets to workers at Boston's North End Candy factory. A group of citizens, known as the Allison Defense Committee, formed in his support (Allison was sentenced to two months in prison in 1917). By August 1916 the group was sufficiently organized to vote to change its name to the Birth Control League, although beginning with the October 30, 1916 minutes, the group referred to itself as the Birth Control League of Massachusetts (BCLM). Separate funds were raised, one for Allison's Defense and the other for the League. In autumn a constitution was drafted and adopted with Blanche Ames Ames as President.
Over the next few years organizers of the League developed ambitious and far-reaching plans designed to make birth control a public issue. They were active in educational work, meetings, and conferences, and membership slowly grew. In May 1919 under the leadership of Dr. Evangeline Young, the League reorganized as the Family Welfare Foundation.
The Foundation was unsuccessful in its goals and the group voted in 1920 to disband. In February 1928 one of the original members of the BCLM, Dr. Antoinette Konikow, printed a flyer inviting interested women to her house for a discussion and demonstration of contraceptives. She was arrested on the evening of the meeting and was charged with violating Massachusetts law against "advertising" or "exhibiting" contraceptives. (She was later acquitted.) Members of the old BCL formed the Emergency Defense Committee on her behalf. In May 1928 the Emergency Defense Committee returned to the old name of the Birth Control League of Massachusetts (BCLM) with Blanche Ames Ames once again as president. (She held the post until 1935 when she resigned along with Cornelia James Cannon because of a conflict over the wording of an advertisement that ran in Boston newspapers). During the next year the membership campaign continued and by May 1930 a paid field secretary, Caroline Carter, was engaged and an office rented in her home on Joy Street in Boston.
In 1931 the League went before the Joint Legislative Committee on Public Health for a hearing at which fourteen physicians testified to the medical need to give contraceptive advice to married women for medical reasons. A petition, "The Doctor's Bill to Clarify the Law," was signed by more than a thousand physicians and presented to the committee. It was unsuccessful. However, in 1932 Attorney Murray Hall advised the league that it would be acting within the law if it opened clinics, and funds were raised for the establishment of the Brookline Mother's Health Clinic. The following year a similar clinic opened in Springfield, followed by clinics in Worcester, Fitchburg, Salem, New Bedford, and in the South End of Boston. The League sponsored these clinics (Mother's Health Offices), placing them under the supervision of a Medical Advisory Committee. By 1936 the Mother's Health Offices or doctors in the outlying districts who worked in cooperation with the League to care for patients unable to pay the usual doctors' fees were serving five hundred people yearly.
Although the League was operating under the assumption that these clinics were legal, the Salem clinic was raided by police in 1937. The police took all the patient records and filed complaints against the doctor, nurse and social worker. The clinic was closed pending trial. Two more clinics, Brookline and Boston, were also raided and similar charges made, although no records were seized. The League then closed all the clinics. The clinics, which cared for 3000 low income married women, never reopened.
In 1939 the BCLM became the Massachusetts Mothers' Health Council (MMHC) and the members began working to change the anti-birth control laws through legislation. After three attempts (1940, 1947 and 1948) to put a referendum on the ballot and much soul searching, the Council decided to abandon further attempts to change the law and to work within it using education about family planning and modern methods of birth control. It channeled inquiries for advice on birth control to out-of-state clinics and established offshoot organizations including the Clergymen's Advisory Committee, the Physicians Committee for Planned Parenthood, and the Men's Committee for Medical Rights, to broaden the base of community support. These organizations conducted membership drives and solicited funds and support for legislative efforts especially the 1942 initiative and referendum campaign. In 1945, following the example of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America of which it was an affiliate, the Massachusetts Mothers' Health Council changed its name to PPLM and became a voluntary health education agency.
While attitudes and laws toward birth control changed around the country, Massachusetts and Connecticut remained the only states still operating under the Comstock laws of the 1870s. Although federally funded family planning programs were beginning to operate across the nation, Massachusetts law denied physicians the right to advise or prescribe birth control measures to women whose health would be endangered by becoming pregnant. In 1966 a group of Massachusetts physicians challenged the law through the courts. The passage of their bill, House Bill 2965, made it legal for married women to receive contraceptive advice through a physician and to obtain birth control devices through registered pharmacists.
Although PPLM decided not to open any clinics, it helped establish, fund, and support clinics within existing hospitals and health care agencies throughout the state believing that family planning should be an integral part of comprehensive health care services provided.
It was not until 1972 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Eisenstadt v. Baird that Massachusetts laws restricting the availability of contraceptives to married women were unconstitutional on the grounds that they discriminated against unmarried women and, therefore, did not guarantee equal protection under the law. This victory for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, along with the legalization of abortion in 1973 (Roe v. Wade), brought to a close the long effort by the PPLM to make contraceptives readily available.
Despite the legalization of abortion, in January 1976, a Massachusetts court convicted Dr. Kenneth Edelin, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Boston City Hospital, for performing an abortion on a woman in her twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. During the appeal that overturned the conviction, PPLM and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America joined forces to file an amicus brief in Dr. Edelin's defense.
In the 1980s Planned Parenthood began offering HIV testing and counseling. When it became clear that the need exceeded available services, PPLM again decided to open clinics which would provide a full range of reproductive health care services. In 1983 it opened a clinic in the Worcester area and in 1987 one in Greater Boston. The two clinics endured virulent protests, clinic blockades, and invasion. In 1993 PPLM's advocacy helped pass the Clinic Access Bill, the first pro-choice legislation ever passed in the state. On December 30, 1994, a gunman, entered PPLM's Brookline center and murdered a staff member, critically wounded three others and then attacked Preterm Health Services, killing another staff member and grievously injuring two more victims. As a result of this incident, Preterm Health Services merged with the Brookline center to become Planned Parenthood/Preterm Health Services of Greater Boston and moved into a PPLM-owned, state-of-the-art medical facility in Boston. In 1999 PPLM extended its medical services to the Western Massachusetts community, purchasing a practice in Springfield.
PPLM continued to solidify its role as a leader in reproductive health care while the national climate continued to become more hostile toward reproductive rights. In April 2004 PPLM sent thirty buses of students and supporters to the March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C., the largest political demonstration in American history. PPLM achieved one of the organization's most significant legislative victories in 2005 with the passage of "An Act Providing Timely Access to Emergency Contraception." Thanks to strong bipartisan support, and a major statewide lobbying campaign by PPLM activists and allied organizations, the Massachusetts House and Senate overwhelmingly overrode Governor Mitt Romney's veto and enacted the legislation.
Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts celebrates its 80th Anniversary in 2008. It continues a commitment to preserve and expand reproductive rights and unrestricted access to health care.