• U.S.

The Administration: About-Face on Birth Control

3 minute read

The Federal Government has executed a crisp about-face on birth control. Until two years ago, Washington hewed to Dwight Eisenhower’s blunt 1959 decree on the issue: “That’s not our business.” But Ike, who has been honorary co-chairman (with Harry Truman) of a private group called Planned Parenthood-World Population for the past two years, has had a change of heart. Only last week, he declared he would “personally support all programs, public or private,” that offer birth-control information to families.

Advice & Device. The Government has undergone a similar change of heart. Until recently, says Sargent Shriver, generalissimo of the war on poverty, birth control was “like syphilis—politically, you couldn’t talk about it.” Now the Government is not only talking about it but—in a limited way—doing something as well.

Washington currently spends more than $25 million a year to help provide contraceptive know-how to 180,000 women in 41 states. Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity, which cautiously began underwriting projects nearly two years ago in communities like Corpus Christi, Texas, supports programs in 75 cities from Juneau, Alaska, to San Juan, P.R. Half a dozen Government agencies—notably the Department of Health, Education and Welfare—finance the dissemination of advice and devices from pills to diaphragms. Even the Defense Department has joined the act by making drugs, contraceptives and sterilization available to 500,000 military wives.

Almost certainly, it was the speed with which such programs have been expanding that persuaded the Roman Catholic bishops of the U.S. to protest last month against “coercive” federal programs (TIME, Dec. 2). Other critics complain that free federal contraceptive aid would be the biggest boon to promiscuity since the back seat of the automobile. Some black nationalists charge that birth-control programs, because they affect large numbers of Negro welfare recipients, are a plot to exterminate the black race.

Greater Effort. Nonetheless, the Government is moving determinedly ahead. While the U.S. birth rate has declined markedly in recent years, in part as a result of the pill, the decrease has been concentrated mainly in the higher economic and educational strata. Nearly 5,000,000 U.S. women of childbearing age are too poor and uninformed to have access to birth-control services, and the Government may well multiply its outlays fourfold in the next few years in order to reach them.

Not even religious prohibitions deter women from using birth-control devices when they have access to them. According to Princeton’s Dr. Charles Westoff, a nationwide survey shows that 53% of married Catholic women aged 18 to 39 use contraceptives in defiance of church doctrine. In eleven years, he told the Notre Dame Conference on Population last week, the number rose 22%.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com