In the summer issue of Perspectives on History, published online, historians wrote about the historical context of the Supreme Court decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In “Property v. Liberty: The Supreme Court’s Radical Break with Its Historical Treatment of Corporations,” Ruth H. Bloch and Naomi R. Lamoreaux examine the legal history surrounding the rights of corporations. Alonzo Hamby reflects on the Hobby Lobby case as representing a cultural conflict, and John Fea writes about it in the context of religious history.
The newest article in this forum, “Birth Control and Hobby Lobby” by Jean Baker, approaches Burwell v. Hobby Lobby from the vantage point of women’s history. She writes,
It is not surprising that birth control would have priority as a claimed exemption. The matter of affording women control over their reproductive lives has long been contested and still is, especially when considered as a social responsibility. In the case of Hobby Lobby, on religious grounds its owners object to paying for health plans that include IUDs and Plan B, which they consider abortifacients, having the effect in their view of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing and inhibiting its attachment to the uterus. Most scientists disagree with this claim. In any case, corporations can now use their personal objections to take away a woman’s right to contraceptive coverage guaranteed by federal law.
The history of the birth control movement gives context to the Hobby Lobby decision. In 1873, the US Congress defined contraception as pornography, making it illegal and punishable by five years in prison to send through the mail information about “contraceptive medications and devices.” Birth control did not disappear; rather the insistence that it was essential for women’s health became the platform of dedicated women activists. In 1916, when Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, she was arrested, tried, and jailed, as were other activists. Her unsuccessful defense was based on her First Amendment right of free expression and the benefit to society of healthier mothers and children. Justice Ginsburg echoes the latter sentiments in her dissent: “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”
Read the rest of her article here.