American physicians and birth control, 1936-1947.
The transition from resistance to acceptance of birth control in the US can be characterized as a 3 stage process, with each period facing its own issues and choices. The 1st stage -- the fight over birth control in the early 20th century -- has been documented by historians like James Reed, Linda Gordon, and David Kennedy. A 2nd stage, approximately the years from 1936-60, has not been fully explored although the period was crucial in shaping the current system of contraceptive health care. This discussion focuses on this transitional period, particularly its 1st decade, 1936-47. Physicians' attitudes, as revealed through American Medical Association (AMA) policy and a national survey conducted in 1947, are considered in relation to reported data on clinic and private practice. This evidence reveals that despite the liberalization of laws and public opinion in the mid-1930s, contraception did not become widely available until after 1960 -- the beginning of the 3rd stage in the history of American contraception -- and that the restriction of birth control information during the period was traceble in large part to the medical profession. Analysis of the 1936-47 decade, particularly with regard to the concerns of doctors, provides a framework for understanding the forces that affected contraceptive health care in the mid 20th century and suggests conditions that continue to shape the politics of birth control. In 1936, when the AMA's committee on contraception submitted its 1st report, it was clear that legal and public opinion had moved decisively toward more liberal attitudes concerning birth control. In 1937 the AMA passed a qualified endorsement of birth control, indicating that the organized medical profession as represented by the AMA held views on birth control at the beginning of the 2nd stage that were more conservative than those of most middle-class Americans. Its conservatism was challenged by lay groups who threatened to circumvent standard office practice if physicians failed to modify their views. Public opinion and behavior thus had a demonstrable effect on medical attitudes. 10 years after the AMA resolution a suvey found that more than 2/3 of physicians approved of contraception for any married women who requested it. The 1937-47 period witnessed 2 important changes in medical attitudes toward contraception: the profession's public, though cautious, endorsement of birth control; and the apparent adoption of liberalized standards for the prescription of contraceptive materials. The period also was a time of tremendous growth for the new birth control clinics that offered services to women who could not afford private care. Available evidence suggests that physicians' attitudes toward contraception, and particularly toward birth control clinics, were more important than either laws or public opinion in limiting the availability of those contraceptives considered most efficient (and most compatible with sexual pleasure) between 1936-60.