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Massachusetts Legislature debates archaic law banning birth control for unmarried women

Today, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Judiciary is debating whether to repeal portions of an bygone law regarding women’s access to contraception.

House Bill 515, introduced early this year by state Rep. Ellen Story (D-Hampshire District), would amend a section of the “Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency and Good Order” to legally allow unmarried persons to buy birth control or contraception from a pharmacist or to be prescribed a form a birth control from a pharmacist. The law currently reads (emphasis added):

A registered physician may administer to or prescribe for any married person drugs or articles intended for the prevention of pregnancy or conception. A registered pharmacist actually engaged in the business of pharmacy may furnish such drugs or articles to any married person presenting a prescription from a registered physician. A public health agency, a registered nurse, or a maternity health clinic operated by or in an accredited hospital may furnish information to any married person as to where professional advice regarding such drugs or articles may be lawfully obtained.

The Massachusetts Chapter of the National Organization for Women describes the bill as outdated and long-irrelevant, yet still technical law that should be modified:

This bill would repeal outdated, unconstitutional, and archaic laws that remain on the books in Massachusetts, including a pre-Roe v. Wade abortion ban, a medically unjustified and burdensome hospital mandate, and a birth control ban for unmarried couples. It would ensure that abortion rights are upheld in the Commonwealth should Roe v. Wade ever be overturned.

An Harvard Crimson news article from 1970 addressed controversies to the law more than four decades ago:

The Committee on Social Welfare held a public hearing last Thursday on House Bill 520, which would repeal the current Massachusetts laws on birth control. The committee listened to testimony that Massachusetts is one of two states which still prohibit the distribution of birth control information and devices to unmarried people. They heard ecology workers describe the dangers of the population explosion. They heard a psychologist explain that the current laws discriminate against the poor. They heard a gynecologist state that laws prohibiting contraceptives encourage illegal abortions. And they heard a doctor in the Department of Public Health testify that the current laws disqualify Massachusetts from Federal funding because they discriminate between married and unmarried people.

The committee was treated to a demonstration that the laws are selectively enforced. Debby Vollmer, a member of Worchester Women’s Liberation, opened an innocent-looking brown paper bag and held up a package of contraceptive foam she had bought in a drug store down the street. She pointed out that drug stores and department stores throughout the state sell contraceptive items to anyone, a violation of the law which the state ignores. At the same time Bill Baird is sentenced to prison for giving contraceptive foam to an unmarried woman.

Baird was present at the hearing and testified briefly for the bill. The committee seemed sympathetic to him, but the reason became evident as opponents of the bill began to testify. They claimed that the legalization of contraceptive care would destroy the morals of the citizens of Massachusetts. Two state representatives, a housewife, a businessman and a Catholic priest presented this viewpoint. The committee seemed particularly interested in whether the priest agreed that enforcement of the laws is discriminatory. He said yes, that the laws should be strictly enforced, that the state probably should crack down on stores which continue to sell contraceptives. The hearing ended on this note.


THE HEARING on House Bill 520 was probably typical of Massachusetts politics, and it may be naive to hope that it could have been any different. It was a farce, but it was only momentarily funny. The women faced with the prospect of bearing unwanted children will not be laughing.

Story’s bill would also repeal parts of the law that stipulates penalties for those who attempt to “procure miscarriage“; distribute advertising “for the purpose of causing or procuring the miscarriage of a woman pregnant with child”; or lend or sell “an instrument or other article intended to be used for self-abuse, or any drug, medicine, instrument or article whatever for the prevention of conception or for causing unlawful abortion.”

Additionally, the bill would remove language from a current abortion law that mandates an abortion after 13 weeks be performed in a hospital.

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