It’s My Moment! Archives and Conspiracy Theories in Post-Roe America
Volume 7, Cycle 3
We're all familiar with this scenario: a scholar spends years of her life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge on a relatively narrow topic, and the reward for this dogged pursuit is the esteem of colleagues and mentions in specialist publications. Then, an event occurs that overlaps with the scholar’s area of expertise. This scholar’s topic now dominates the news cycle. Many would view this as cause for celebration, a chance to share their research with a broader audience. Our hypothetical scholar might announce, over drinks with friends, “It’s my moment! I’ve been training for this for years!”
Last year was definitely my moment, but I wasn’t celebrating. That’s because my scholarship focuses on reproductive topics. I often write about birth control, abortion, and pregnancy as they appear in literature, culture, and medical history. In recent years, it has been “my moment” several times: in 2010, for instance, when the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act classified birth control as a preventative health care measure that must be covered by all insurance plans without co-pay, coinsurance, or deductible; at the time of the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have religious rights in some circumstances, and that the rights of the Hobby Lobby corporation were violated by the contraception mandate; and most recently and seismically, since last year’s ruling Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade and held that abortion is not a constitutional right. The tenor of “my moments,” the percussive frequency of them, and the steady hum of smaller events that eroded access to reproductive healthcare, saps me of the excitement that other scholars may rightly feel at their moments.
Nevertheless, recent history has galvanized my commitment to modernist scholarship that engages with political issues. The hyper-partisan discourse surrounding reproduction in the United States presents opportunities and challenges for public scholarship on this politically-charged topic. One the one hand, interest in reproductive topics is high and non-specialist venues clamor for experts who can provide context for the profound changes occurring in the wake of Dobbs. On the other hand, vitriolic rhetoric and actual violence place scholars in danger of psychological and physical harm for speaking about reproductive topics in public venues. A current project of mine provides a good example of these challenges and opportunities. I am creating a digital archive of the Birth Control Review (BCR) and, in the process, attempting to use this archive to fight conspiracy theories around reproductive issues. It’s a lofty goal, I realize, but if I achieve even a fraction of what I set out to do, I will have done something worthwhile. Unfortunately, working on this project also requires that I constantly consider and protect my physical, mental, and professional well-being.
The Birth Control Review and Post-Roe America
The BCR has held my interest for a long time. I first came across it about fifteen years ago. Ten years ago, I published an article that focuses on several BCR stories. My work on the magazine has been on a backburner since then, but I’m finally returning to it now for several reasons. Central among them is the current political situation. Many of the topics that animate reproductive discussions today, in post-Roe America, were part of the conversation 100 years ago, long before Roe was decided in 1973. A drawing by Lou Rogers (Fig. 1) from the May 1918 issue of the BCR illustrates some of these similarities. In this drawing, a woman is crushed beneath the weight of restrictive reproductive laws and the men who make them. (Not all people who have the potential to get pregnant are women but the majority of them are, which means that women bear the brunt of restrictive reproductive laws.) Indeed, some of the same laws that curtailed access to birth control and abortion in the interwar years are surfacing again in efforts to further limit access to abortion today. A hundred years ago, writers and artists used their mediums to fight against laws that prevent people from accessing reproductive healthcare.
The BCR is fascinating from scholarly and intellectual perspectives, but very little scholarship has been done on it. The publication was begun by Margaret Sanger in 1917 and ran until 1940. Sanger was the most famous birth control activist in the United States. While she didn’t operate alone, she was central to the early formation of the American birth control movement. Sanger’s experiences working as a nurse in New York City in the 1910s inspired her to a life of activism devoted to increasing access to birth control. She established a network of clinics that provide reproductive healthcare. These clinics eventually became Planned Parenthood and the Birth Control Review became the official newsletter of Planned Parenthood. Sanger is a complicated figure because her activism was both significant and deeply flawed, particularly regarding race. Throughout her career, she increasingly aligned the birth control movement with eugenic causes. It is possible that she did so for pragmatic reasons to increase the legitimacy of her movement, though there is evidence that she personally believed in the rightness of some aspects of eugenics. Regardless of the reason, this alignment harmed communities of color, poor communities, and people deemed mentally “unfit” by providing justification for restricting their reproductive choices. But I’m less interested in Sanger herself than I am in the publication as a historical artefact, as well as the hundreds of writers who published in the BCR over its 23-year history. My recovery effort is more motivated by the publication’s historical significance than by its ethical significance, though there are many pieces published therein that align with today’s progressive politics. An example is Angelina Weld Grimké’s “The Closing Door,” which was written specially for the BCR and published in September 1919. The story’s anti-lynching theme can be read as a forerunner of today’s reproductive justice movement. Activists in this movement argue that justice goes beyond reproductive choice; it must include the ability to raise children in safe and healthy environments. For much of the twentieth century, mainstream feminists focused on the legal right to choose abortion and access birth control. “The Closing Door” illuminates the need for a more wholistic approach to reproductive issues, though the story’s message would not be heeded by white feminist leaders for decades to come (the extent to which it has been heeded today is debatable). Stories like Grimké’s make the BCR a rich resource for what it reveals about the reproductive landscape of the interwar years—and also the landscape of post-Roe America.
The BCR merged literature and politics to help bring birth control into public discourse. (For the sake of clarity, “birth control” in the early twentieth century mostly referred to barrier methods like the diaphragm and the condom and behavioral methods such as withdrawal and abstinence. The pill wasn’t available in all states until the 1960s and then only for married people. Contraceptive practices have been documented in every society for which we have records, but the term “birth control” wasn’t coined until 1914.) The April-May 1917 issue is typical of the publication in its early years. It includes a pen and ink drawing titled “Breeding Men for Battle” followed by a fictional vignette by the South African author Olive Schreiner. Another typical issue, January 1920, features a one-act play by L.L. Pruette, several photographs, and a pen and ink drawing. The BCR published works by some of the most notable figures of the day, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Havelock Ellis, and W.E.B. Du Bois. By 1924, the BCR had a circulation of 15,000 and—perhaps partly as a result— birth control was a frequent topic of discussion in major newspapers.
This success came at the expense of the poorest women. The pieces in the BCR often feature poor women, and these are frequently women of color. The BCR consistently links poverty with inferiority, pitying poor women who continue to have children they cannot afford and suggesting they are unable to help themselves. For example, a disturbing picture of maternity develops in “They That Sit in Darkness,” a “One-Act Play of Negro Life” written by Mary Burrill in 1919. The events begin with a “shrill cry of anger and pain” from the Jasper children, who are “unkept, ragged, under sized, under fed.” Two Jasper children have already died, and a third one seems destined for the same fate. Mrs. Jasper tells a visiting nurse, “it ain’t dyin’ Ah’m skeer’t o’, its livin’—wid all dese chillern to look out fo.’” Along with pity-filled pieces like this one, the BCR published stories that feature women who use birth control as happy, healthy, and affluent—women who are typically white. As revolutionary as Sanger’s ideas about birth control might have been at the time, the BCR does not extend this activist zeal to other causes. The magazine does not, for instance, make any sort of sustained argument that racism is a root cause of much poverty. Rather, the BCR reduced the issue of poverty to the need to control the body through access to birth control.
Restrictions to reproductive healthcare in our time continue to have the most detrimental effects on poor people and people of color. Affluent individuals who seek abortions are generally able to receive them, mostly because they can afford to travel to a location where it is legal and safe, and because they can take time off work. Poor and working-class people who seek abortions but aren’t able to receive them are likely to experience worse economic strain. The Turnaway Study, a landmark study of nearly 1,000 women conducted between 2008 and 2016 by researchers at the University of California San Francisco, demonstrated that “being denied an abortion lowered a woman’s credit score, increased a woman’s amount of debt and increased the number of their negative public financial records, such as bankruptcies and evictions.” Reproductive outcomes for non-white people have become a medical crisis in the United States. The mortality rate for Black people and the infants they give birth to is two times higher than that of white people, even when income is controlled for. Although the impact of race and class on reproductive outcomes is more frequently discussed in 2023 than it was in the interwar years, the size of the disparities shows that much more discussion and action is needed. Today’s discourse, marked as it is by a lack of nuance regarding identity differences among pregnant populations, is a disturbing echo of the discourse in the BCR.
The Comstock Act: Censoring “Obscene” Materials
In the interwar years, lack of discussion about birth control restricted access to it. Many people thought it was too private to discuss in public forums, and whisper networks about accurate methods had limited reach. But birth control was also legally restricted. The law that prohibited the circulation of information and devices is still on the books and has been used by anti-abortion activists to further their cause in 2023. The law is called the Comstock Act. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, birth control had become the target of campaigns to censor discussion and circulation of “obscene” subjects. Carole R. McCann explains that the 1873 Comstock Act was an amendment to the U.S. postal code that “prohibited the shipping of obscene materials on both public and private freight carriers. All information and devices that could ‘be used or applied for preventing conception’ were included among the obscene materials proscribed under the law.” This law had multiple parts; one part made the sale of birth control devices illegal, while another part outlawed the distribution of materials containing practical birth control information. As a result, doctors could not legally discuss birth control with patients, much less provide devices, even if the pregnant person’s life was in danger. In order to circumvent the Comstock Act, the BCR avoided direct discussions of contraceptive techniques. Instead, it used storytelling to gain support for the cause, which could—and eventually did—result in the loosening of the Act. In story after story, the “private” issue of birth control is reframed as a public problem because the solution is a change in the law.
In 2023, Comstockery is back. Especially post-Roe, the postal service has once again become a battleground with the rise in prevalence of medical abortion. Since the FDA approved the use of mifepristone in 2000, medical abortion has become increasingly common, accounting for more than half of all abortions in the United States by 2020. In 2021, explains journalist Rebecca Ackerman, the FDA made a pandemic-related decision to temporarily allow health care providers to mail the pills to patients. The mail-order provision later became permanent. The pills still required a prescription, but a telemedicine appointment sufficed where an in-person visit used to be required. In the wake of Dobbs, medical abortion has taken on heightened significance, and demand for telemedicine abortion providers like Hey Jane and Aid Access has grown dramatically. As a result, the postal service is once again a linchpin in fights over reproductive control. In December of 2022, the Justice Department released an opinion that “concluded the federal law did not prohibit the mailing of abortion pills.” The federal law at the center of that opinion is the Comstock Act.
I want to emphasize the irony here. The Comstock Act was originally designed to restrict access to reproductive devices and information. Activists, including literary ones, in the early twentieth century were not able to get the Act overturned, but they were able to win revisions. These revisions were substantial enough that the Justice Department used Comstock in 2022 to argue for the side of increased access to birth control. But the legality is being contested again. In January of this year, twenty Republican attorneys general issued a letter warning CVS and Walgreens against using mail carriers to distribute abortion pills.
Using Archives and Public Scholarship to Fight Conspiracy Theories
If a major goal of the early birth control movement was getting people comfortable talking about birth control in public, today’s reproductive discourse would suggest that the goal was achieved. There’s no shortage of politicians, pundits, and reporters willing to talk about birth control and other reproductive topics. Perhaps this is a pyrrhic victory, however. Today’s reproductive discourse is marked by an all-too-frequent disconnect from truth and accuracy. Conspiracy theories surrounding reproduction are rampant. For example, the idea that the COVID-19 vaccine causes sterility continues to circulate despite no evidence of impact. Logically unsound theories appear frequently, too. In 2012, for example, two philosophers argued that second- and third-term abortion is morally equivalent to the killing of healthy newborns. The idea circulated widely in right-wing venues despite consensus in philosophical communities that it is “biologically and conceptually nonsensical.” High-profile individuals routinely make mistakes about basic facts related to the history of reproduction. For example, NPR reporter Cokie Roberts said in 2019 that “there are many articles by abortion rights proponents who claim the procedure was so common that newspapers advertised providers. Look, I did a search of 19th century newspapers and couldn’t find them.” Historian Lauren MacIvor Thompson thoroughly refuted this idea by producing numerous specific examples of ads that Roberts did not find because she was not familiar with nineteenth-century terminology. Such mistakes, illogical arguments, and conspiracies highlight the need for more, and more public, scholarship on reproductive topics.
It is in this environment that I’ve conducted my work on the BCR. The publication is caught up in the web of misinformation, which makes research on it difficult and ethically fraught. Ironically, the only place to find all 243 issues of the BCR online is on the website for Life Dynamics, Inc., an anti-abortion organization that promotes conspiracy theories. The organization has accused Planned Parenthood of “operating an illegal pedophile protection racket,” and elsewhere asserted that people seeking abortions are frequently raped by doctors in clinics. The site often refers to an “abortion holocaust” in contemporary America, drawing direct comparisons to the Holocaust of World War II. Because Life Dynamics is the only place to find all issues online, and because digital records are far more easily accessible than, say, a microfilm machine at a library (which is how I accessed the publication 15 years ago), Life Dynamics largely controls the narrative around the BCR. Researchers hoping to read the BCR through a platform that is less politically charged have piecemeal access, at best, and none of these sources provide context for the pieces published in the BCR. My current project will correct this situation. I recently received funding that allowed me to convert my libraries’ microfilm of the BCR into a digital format. With it, I am creating a public-facing, freely-available digital archive of the BCR. My goal is to provide a guide to the publication that is underpinned by scholarly research and complemented by a comprehensive index (which does not currently exist).
Life Dynamics’s conspiracy theories are part of the broader landscape of misinformation related to reproduction. Current events like those outlined above have amplified the need for accurate information about the history of reproduction in the United States. A full history of reproductive debates requires an understanding of literary activism. I am happy to report that my personal experience suggests that the general public is eager for such histories. In the past year, I’ve been invited to give several public lectures on reproductive storytelling. While preparing for these lectures, I felt the usual mix of excitement and anxiety that accompanies any presentation. There was fear in my preparations, too. My talks included the word “Roe” in the title. They were open to the public. I had to prepare for the possibility of an attendee whose sole purpose was disruption, confrontation, or worse. When I asked the organizers of one event if they had a plan to address a situation like this, it was clear that a plan was created only on the fly after I asked. They offered to hold my lecture in a room with an emergency button under the dais, but when I arrived at the event there wasn’t a dais in sight. Another venue offered police presence during the talk. Since I’m a cis, white woman who was born in the United States, I felt reasonably comfortable that the officers would ensure my safety if a problem occurred. I worried, however, how their presence would affect people in the audience. For scholars who are Black, queer, or otherwise marginalized and who do public scholarship on controversial subjects, an offer of police presence might introduce different kinds of safety concerns rather than mitigate them. Thankfully, nothing happened at any of these events to cause concern, and audience members were engaged and thoughtful. Nevertheless, the fact that I had to consider my safety is a sign of the difficulties that accompany public scholarship about controversial topics. Because my next book is titled Masculine Pregnancies: Modernist Conceptions of Creativity and Legitimacy, 1918-1939, and because the rhetoric around pregnancy and queer lives shows no signs of cooling down, I’ve created a plan for keeping myself and my online accounts safe when the book is published in December.
Politically engaged scholarship is undoubtedly complicated, and not all scholars are in a position to do it. For those of us who are, however, I firmly believe that it can help move us toward a more just society. I draw inspiration from Heather Love, who argues that literary criticism can serve two functions: it “lays bare the conditions of exclusion and inequality” and “gestures toward alternative trajectories for the future.” More simply, “if we want to change the world, we [need] to conceptualize it differently,” as philosopher Kate Manne argues. Literature is central to that reconceptualization process. It is a realm where we are not just allowed but encouraged to leave the world as it is behind and imagine something different. When we look to works of literature about pregnancy that were written in the years between the World Wars, we gain language and frameworks for imagining a better, more just, reproductive future.
 This wasn’t “my” moment alone, of course, since many scholars in various disciplines focus on reproductive topics. Among the excellent scholars whose work considers reproduction in modernist or interwar literature are: Beth Widmaier Capo, Layne Craig, Daylanne K. English, Jane Garrity, Christina Hauck, Erin Kingsley, Susan Merrill Squier, and Karen Weingarten.
 For more on this movement, see Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017).
 This circulation figure comes from Sanger’s Autobiography, which may inflate the number. The circulation was nevertheless significant. Margaret Sanger, The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004).
 Mary Burrill, “They That Sit in Darkness,” Birth Control Review (Sept. 1919): 6.
 Carole R. McCann, Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916-1945 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 23.
 Medical abortion is the use of pills to terminate a pregnancy, usually a process involving the medications mifepristone and misoprostol.
 I have not linked to the Life Dynamics site because I do not want to contribute to their web traffic. Further, it is possible that their PDFs of the BCR are embedded with tracking code. For these reasons, I do not recommend accessing the BCR through Life Dynamics. Early issues of the BCR are available through HathiTrust. For later issues, please contact me.
 As I’m not a DH expert, this project is dependent on my acquiring the necessary methods and skills. I am actively seeking training, funding, and partners for this project. If you can recommend resources or want to get involved, please get in touch.
 Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 29.
 Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 42.