History, Department of


Date of this Version

January 2004


Published in The Encyclopedia of Chicago, edited by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, Janice L. Reiff; cartographic editor, Michael P. Conzen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Copyright © 2004 The Newberry Library. Used by permission.


People have long taken measures to control their fertility. Through the use of abortion, withdrawal, breastfeeding, and abstinence as well as condoms, douches, and pessaries, nineteenth-century Americans dramatically reduced their fertility rates. Chicago was known as a source of contraception and abortion providers because of its massive concentration of medical practitioners and commercial resources. Some believed, however, that the use of birth control disrupted the social order and promoted illicit sexual behavior. By the 1870s, coalitions of physicians, politicians, and lay reformers obtained the passage of “Comstock laws” restricting contraceptives, in addition to federal, state, and city statutes banning most forms of abortion.

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