WATERBURY, Conn. — On June 11, 1939, all 20 of the Catholic pastors in Waterbury, Conn., called for the closing of the city’s new, illegal contraceptive dispensary. A week later, authorities closed the dispensary, and they soon shuttered the other seven dispensaries in the state.
Waterbury Catholics hold the story up as a model for the way Catholics can and should be shaping their communities today.
They say the action of the Waterbury residents 75 years ago marked the start of the pro-life movement. The same forces that were opposed to their pro-life witness in Waterbury would later bring abortion to the mainstream in the United States.
A celebration marking the 75th anniversary of the dispensary closing was held on June 21 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury — the site where the 20 priests drafted their statement. On that day, they proclaimed that birth control is contrary to the natural law and, therefore, immoral. They also called on public officials to “prosecute to the full extent of the law” those involved with the dispensary.
One of the parishioners in attendance was the new state’s attorney, Bill Fitzgerald, who heeded the call and closed the Waterbury dispensary on June 19, 1939. The distribution of contraceptives in Connecticut remained illegal until 1965. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which overturned state laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married couples and established the right to privacy that led to the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions that legalized abortion throughout all nine months of a woman’s pregnancy in 1973.
Link to Abortion
In New York City in 1916, Margaret Sanger opened her first contraceptive dispensary, which was promptly closed by authorities. She continued to open other sites but did not establish a secure foothold until contraceptive use became increasingly accepted. She opened dozens of illegal dispensaries in the 1930s, including the one in Waterbury — the first of the 1930s’ clinics to be closed by authorities, according to John Waite, who organized the anniversary event.
“Waterbury really was the first [instance] that anyone has pushed back against this movement,” he said. “Like a lot of events that happened in the pro-life movement, it’s one that has been overshadowed and ignored. We intend to see if we can right that.”
He called the closing a “significant setback” for the abortion movement.
Sanger had previously lobbied for the legality of contraceptives, testifying before the Connecticut Legislature in 1923 that advocates of birth control were not in favor of abortion. But she went on to found the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, currently the largest supplier of abortions in the United States.
According to Planned Parenthood’s website, the push for legal contraceptives and abortions were intrinsically linked. The site explains, “Working as a nurse with immigrant families in New York’s Lower East Side, Sanger witnessed the sickness, misery and death that result from unwanted pregnancy and illegal abortion.”
Waite said that, for many years, he supported contraceptive use. “To most young people, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with contraceptives, and that includes most Catholics. And I would say that, for most of my life, I fell under that category also,” he said.
He did not rethink his beliefs until he learned that Sanger advocated for contraceptives, abortion and eugenics. He began to see that the three were linked. Now, he hopes that highlighting the pro-choice movement’s history will enlighten others.
Getting the Message
The 75th anniversary celebration of the contraceptive dispensary’s closing was co-sponsored by Immaculate Conception Basilica and the Connecticut Right to Life Corp. In the morning, the basilica hosted a pro-life Mass and procession to the site of the closed dispensary. Now an office building, the brick structure still has the name of the dispensary engraved above the door. A luncheon and speaking presentation followed in the afternoon.
Father John Bevins, rector of the basilica, said that the 20 pastors who spoke against contraceptives 75 years ago understood the long-term harm that widespread contraceptive use would cause. Many of the negative consequences were also predicted by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth).
Paul VI said that the use of contraception would lead to an increase in abortion and the breakdown of the family.
“That’s exactly what has happened,” said Father Bevins. “Every place that has contraception eventually has led to abortion and to the degradation of women and to the trivialization of sex.”
He said the pope’s timeless message is “absolutely” needed in our time. He hopes that increased awareness will lead to a reversal of these negative anti-life trends.
The first step, he added, is getting the message to Catholics: The Catholic Church must continue to defend the family, the sanctity of the marriage bed and the dignity of life.
Fighting the Real Fight
Anne Hendershott, a professor of psychology, sociology and social work at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, said that, currently, only a small number of Catholics are willing to visibly fight abortion businesses and those who profit from them.
“Catholics have become comfortable, and we tend not to want to put ourselves out that way,” she said. “We have to move away from comfortable Catholicism and to fight the real fight.”
Hendershott, who spoke at the anniversary of the dispensary closing, along with Dr. Paul Carpentier of In His Image Family Medicine in Massachusetts, called the actions of the priests in Waterbury 75 years ago “something else.”
“It shows that we Catholics at one time were able to be mobilized. We are less able to be mobilized today, but it’s still possible,” she said, adding that more priests need to talk about the evil of abortion from the pulpit.
She said, “If enough Catholics mobilized, it could end abortion.”
Christine M. Williams writes from