Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends Reproductive Rights

Birth control proponents, feminists, and social planners, after decades of advocacy, effected federal legislation making family-planning services, excluding abortion, available to all women in the United States.

Summary of Event

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, when the modern birth control movement emerged under the leadership of Margaret Sanger, feminists, social planners, and health care professionals have campaigned for public policy that would first acknowledge and then advance the legitimacy and importance of contraception and its practice. The Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970 brought this effort to fruition by legislating a central agency to direct “population affairs” and by designating monies to support and extend family-planning services to all Americans regardless of their ability to pay. Contraception
Family Planning Services and Population Research Act (1970)
Reproductive rights
[kw]Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends Reproductive Rights (Dec. 28, 1970)
[kw]Population Research Act Extends Reproductive Rights, Family Planning Services and (Dec. 28, 1970)
[kw]Act Extends Reproductive Rights, Family Planning Services and Population Research (Dec. 28, 1970)
[kw]Reproductive Rights, Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends (Dec. 28, 1970)
[kw]Rights, Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends Reproductive (Dec. 28, 1970)
Family Planning Services and Population Research Act (1970)
Reproductive rights
[g]North America;Dec. 28, 1970: Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends Reproductive Rights[11090]
[g]United States;Dec. 28, 1970: Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends Reproductive Rights[11090]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 28, 1970: Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends Reproductive Rights[11090]
[c]Women’s issues;Dec. 28, 1970: Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends Reproductive Rights[11090]
[c]Health and medicine;Dec. 28, 1970: Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends Reproductive Rights[11090]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 28, 1970: Family Planning Services and Population Research Act Extends Reproductive Rights[11090]
Sanger, Margaret
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;reproductive rights
Tydings, Joseph
Gruening, Ernest H.
Chisholm, Shirley
Rockefeller, John D., III
Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;reproductive rights

The act advanced the opportunity for considerable numbers of American women, especially poor women, to have access to birth control information and reproductive health care. Viewed by supporters as a legislative watershed in advancing enlightened health care for women, as well as affording poor women the same opportunities or rights as the advantaged, the bill’s most controversial elements, such as abortion, continued to be debated long after its passage and implementation. During the late nineteenth century and for the greater portion of the twentieth, information about contraception as well as contraceptive aids and procedures, including abortion, were banned in various ways on both the state and federal levels. Feminists, Feminism beginning with Elizabeth Cady Stanton Stanton, Elizabeth Cady , advocated a woman’s right to control the frequency of conception. This extremely controversial position contributed to divisions in the women’s rights movement and was eventually abandoned by the mainstream of female suffrage reformers at the turn of the century.

The cause of legal contraception was revived in the twentieth century by the personality and activism of Sanger. A trained nurse and a socialist, Sanger educated herself about “birth control,” as she was the first to call it, and then turned to the task of educating American society. She spoke of what she saw daily in New York City’s lower East Side, of the women who worked in the sweatshop industries, and their ill health, fatigue, and desperate dread of frequent pregnancies. Sanger’s graphic descriptions of these conditions and circumstances, especially the common resort to self-induced and often fatal abortion, awakened a growing number of Americans to the importance of legal birth control. For Sanger and her movement, which grew in size and effectiveness during the first half of the twentieth century, making legal the availability of birth control information, aids, and practice was more than a woman’s right: It was essential to ensuring sound public health policy for women and children specifically, and for the American family generally.

During the 1930’s, the courts’ lifting of the federal ban on birth control combined with the actualities of the Depression to encourage policies that incorporated birth control counseling and reproductive health care into national and federally subsidized state programs. By the end of the decade, two pieces of legislation, Title V of the Social Security Act Social Security Act (1935) and the Venereal Disease Control Act Venereal Disease Control Act (1939) of 1939, designated several million dollars for maternal and child health services as well as the prevention of sexually transmitted disease. As administered by the Children’s Bureau Children’s Bureau, U.S.[Childrens Bureau, U.S.] and the United States Public Health Service Public Health Service, U.S. , these programs offered, to married women only, public health programs that recognized and advanced the legitimacy of birth control practice.

Attitudes about birth control and family planning shifted after the war. During this period of peace and prosperity, concerns about population growth diminished and the ethos of traditional family values prevailed, despite the ever-increasing number of women entering the labor market. Although the Truman and Eisenhower administrations rhetorically endorsed family-planning research and reproductive health services, little actual progress was made until the 1960’s, when Congress and the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations turned national attention once again to issues of poverty and social welfare.

Margaret Sanger, a pioneer in the struggle for women’s reproductive rights.

(Library of Congress)

In 1963, Senators Ernest H. Gruening and Joseph Clark Clark, Joseph introduced legislation calling on the president to increase family-planning research programs within the National Institutes of Health National Institutes of Health and to make widely available the results of such efforts. Two years of extensive hearings followed, heightening public awareness and concern regarding reproductive health care, population growth, and declining resources. Committed to making war on poverty, President Johnson promoted federally financed family-planning services, and in his 1966 “Message on Domestic Health and Education,” “Message on Domestic Health and Education” (Johnson)[Message on Domestic Health and Education] he endorsed the idea of each American’s “freedom to choose the number and spacing of their children within the dictates of individual conscience.”

In 1967, Johnson appointed a Presidential Committee on Population and Family Planning Presidential Committee on Population and Family Planning (soon to be known as the Rockefeller Commission Rockefeller Commission ) led by John D. Rockefeller III and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) Wilbur J. Cohen Cohen, Wilbur J. . In the same year, as part of the Johnson legislative agenda, Congress passed amendments to the Social Security Act (Title V) and the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) Act Office of Economic Opportunity, U.S. , extending reproductive health care programs. Under Social Security, more monies were to be directed specifically to family planning, and all states were required to extend family planning services to any Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipient who requested such. In OEO, project grants for family planning became a special priority.

The report of the presidential committee recommended an expenditure of $150 million by 1973 for family planning to reach all women who wanted but could not afford services, a consolidated center for population research, and appropriations of an additional $130 million for research in 1970 and 1971. President Richard M. Nixon endorsed, in principle, the recommendations of the Rockefeller Commission, and in 1969, Senator Joseph Tydings and twenty-three cosponsors introduced the Family Planning Services and Population Research Bill (S. 2108). The Tydings bill primarily sought to consolidate all extant family-planning and population-related programs scattered throughout HEW Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;population issues in a National Center for Population and Family Planning National Center for Population and Family Planning, U.S. that would also coordinate comparable programs in OEO and other departments, and report to Congress. In this regard, the bill responded to what many believed had been the slowness of HEW to implement the 1967 amendments.

Testimony in hearings on the bill emphasized the persistent inadequacy of reproductive health care for poor and “near-poor” women in the United States. HEW’s own surveys estimated that fewer than 800,000 of an eligible 5.4 million women were receiving family-planning assistance, and Tydings argued that as of late 1969 “it was unlikely that any woman had yet received family planning services through Title V.” The Nixon administration introduced its own bill (S. 3219), which avoided any administrative reorganization but also proposed the various project grants as amendments to the Public Health Service Act (1912) Public Health Service Act (1912) , although no appropriations were specified.

For most who supported the bill, the issue of federal family-planning services was a matter of equal opportunity. They strongly believed that poor women should have the same “fundamental individual rights” as already enjoyed by the middle classes and the affluent. Allowing poor women to exercise their reproductive rights was understood as a way of attacking the poverty cycle as well. The bill also was designed to address the larger issue of “unwanted” births, especially those resulting from ineffective contraception, which most agreed contributed to family instability for rich and poor alike. Not only did the bill encourage more aggressive research in the field of safe and effective contraception, but it tacitly responded to the arguments of a small group of feminists who held that women had an absolute right to control all phases of reproduction, including the option of medically advised abortion.

Representative Shirley Chisholm, calling the laws prohibiting abortion “compulsory pregnancy laws,” argued for the legalization of abortion and that it be recognized in the proposed legislation as an acceptable method of family planning. Neither Senate bill mentioned abortion, leaving the option open for its recognition. The House received the Senate bills and, although enthusiastically supporting the Tydings version in principle, found reason to propose alternative legislation. The modifications concerned the authorization for the project grants, stipulating these as amendments to the Public Health Service Act at a significantly smaller dollar amount, and the provision that no federal monies used in the context of family planning be expended on abortion.

Although the preponderant testimony before the House endorsed all aspects of the Tydings bill, the National Right to Life Committee National Right to Life Committee , making its public debut, joined the traditional Catholic opposition and argued against any federal acknowledgment of abortion as legitimate. The House clearly did not want to have to defend the expenditure of tax money on this controversial and still, in all states, illegal practice of birth control. Nor did the Senate, which, after conferees met, agreed to the House version. On December 28, 1970, President Nixon signed into law the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act making contraception, excluding abortion, available to all American women as their right and as a vital means for improving the quality of life for all.


With the passage of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act, considerable amounts of money were directed to reproductive health care for the first time. In 1973, when Congress considered extending the bill for three more years, close to three million American women were receiving comprehensive family-planning services under its provisions, although it was estimated that close to seven million women still remained to be served.

From its inception, the most controversial aspect of the legislation was the role abortion should play in federally subsidized family-planning services. After the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, Roe v. Wade (1973) the issue became particularly vexing for policy makers whose intent was to extend to poor women the same reproductive health care available to the nonpoor. As long as state law and court dicta recognized the legality of abortion as defined by the guidelines of Roe, poor women not served by public programs or whose contraception failed had little recourse in terminating unwanted pregnancies. In 1975, the Hyde Amendment Hyde Amendment (1975) was passed, denying Medicaid reimbursements for elective abortions, and in 1977, Congress liberalized this restriction somewhat by allowing for Medicaid reimbursements only in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the woman’s life. These restrictions left millions of poor women the choice of forced motherhood or “back-alley” abortion.

After 1973, pro-life groups, primarily from the Religious Right, proliferated and increasingly put pressure on Congress and the courts to undermine and overturn the Roe decision. Public clinics often were targeted for protest demonstrations. By the 1980’s, violent confrontation of this type was a common occurrence.

Despite this activity and the modified Hyde amendment, the family-planning programs operated during the first seventeen years under regulations that allowed clinic employees to provide information about abortion as well as about childbirth. Contraception
Family Planning Services and Population Research Act (1970)
Reproductive rights

Further Reading

  • Alan Guttmacher Institute. Fulfilling the Promise: Public Policy and U.S. Family Planning Clinics. New York: Author, 2000. A forty-eight-page report by a nonprofit organization that specializes in research on reproductive rights. Section topics include “Origins of the U.S. Family Planning Clinic Network” and “The Role of Family Planning Clinics Today.” References, table, and notes.
  • Baer, Judith A. Historical and Multicultural Encyclopedia of Women’s Reproductive Rights in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Examines the nexus of birth control, abortion, and government policy with race, ethnicity, age, class, education, religion, and sexual orientation. Includes articles on laws, court cases, political attitudes, activism, and technology.
  • Berelson, Bernard. Family Planning Programs: An International Survey. New York: Basic Books, 1969. The introduction by John D. Rockefeller III and various chapters give a good composite of social planners’ and policy makers’ views concerning population control on the eve of the act’s passage. Index.
  • Blank, Robert, and Janna C. Merrick. Human Reproduction, Emerging Technologies, and Conflicting Rights. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1995. Examines the complex issues surrounding reproduction from a public policy perspective.
  • Cisler, Lucinda. “Unfinished Business: Birth Control and Women’s Liberation.” In Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan. New York: Random House, 1970. This article offers an excellent feminist analysis of the legal status and availability of contraception and abortion on the eve of the act’s passage. Bibliography.
  • Gordon, Linda. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth Control in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. This volume is the definitive history of birth control in America. Chapters 13-16 offer excellent feminist analyses of birth control law and practice and activists’ response to these during the period of the 1970 act. Index but no bibliography. See also Linda Gordon and Allen Hunter, “Sex, Family, and the New Right,” in Radical America 11 (Winter, 1977-1978): 9-25.
  • Guillebaud, John. The Pill and Other Hormonal Contraception: The Facts. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Explains the basic facts about the pill and other forms of contraception. Written for general readers with little or no scientific knowledge of contraception.
  • Hole, Judith, and Ellen Levine. “Abortion.” In Rebirth of Feminism. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1973. A good synthesis of the issue of reproductive rights with predominant attention given to abortion. Little discussion of legislative action. Chronology, historical documents, bibliography, and index.
  • _______. “Origins and Development of the New Women’s Movement.” In Rebirth of Feminism. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1973. With the article “Abortion,” offers a good synthesis of the issue of reproductive rights with predominant attention given to abortion. Chronology, historical documents, bibliography, and index.
  • Kennedy, David M. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970. Focusing on Sanger’s long career, Kennedy offers an excellent account of the birth control movement and the politics that led to liberalization of law and policy. Bibliographical essay and index.
  • Knight, James W., and Joan C. Callahan. Preventing Birth: Contemporary Methods and Related Moral Controversies. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989. Political and philosophical aspects of contraception, including the moral debate and social policy concerns surrounding elective abortion.
  • McLaren, Angus. A History of Contraception: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Traces the concept of fertility control in various cultures.

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