There is a delightful scene in the 1950 movie Cheaper by the Dozen, the story of Frank and Lilian Gilbreth, in which a birth control advocate approaches Lillian to speak at a rally. Lillian asks her husband to assemble their family to consider the request and to the amazement of their visitor, children pour forth from every direction. The Gilbreths have 12 children, by choice as they explain while reminiscing after the birth of child number 12. On their wedding night Frank had suggested that they have 12 children because everything you buy is “cheaper by the dozen.” Frank is the engineer who conceived the “motion study” principles and he’s all about efficiency (true story). It’s a running gag through the movie, but their large family is an expression of the importance of choice, the cornerstone of birth control.
The Gilbreths could afford 12 children, but in the 1920s when the movie is set, contraception was illegal and many people were impoverished by the pressure to feed their growing families. Under Canada’s Criminal Code of 1892, birth control was obscene, “tending to corrupt morals” and those promoting its use were liable for jail time unless their advocacy could be proven to be “for the public good.”
In the 1920s, international research into human sexuality was underway and in Canada the 1892 law was questioned. Those in the higher socio-economic brackets were limiting the size of their families and informed couples could get “under the counter” solutions. It was the beginning of women’s ability to exert authority over their own bodies. However, among the less educated poor, who had less access to information, high fertility rates—and high infant and maternal mortality—persisted. Birth control advocates urged free contraception for those who wanted it.
In 1930, philanthropist A. R. Kaufman began the Parents’ Information Bureau (PIB), through which clients could obtain simple contraceptives by mail order and get referrals to willing physicians for diaphragms and even sterilization. The organization sent knowledgeable married women, many of them nurses, to the homes of poor families to offer needy mothers the chance to apply for contraceptives.
Dorothea Palmer, a PIB nurse, was arrested on September 14, 1936 for distributing birth control information and contraceptives in Eastview (now Vanier), a low-income suburb of Ottawa, as she was leaving the home of a French Roman Catholic family on relief with several children. The mother had requested the visit.
Kaufman knew his organization was breaking the law and that it was a matter of time before someone was arrested. Palmer’s arrest was an opportunity to test the law and Kaufman persuaded her to undergo the trial. He hired Toronto lawyer Frank Wegenast, who mounted his defence under the “pro bono publico” clause of the Criminal Code, which stated that no one should be convicted of an offence if it could be proved that the action served the public good. Wegenast’s 40 witnesses included Eastview women happy to have received information about contraception, clerics who had no objections to family planning, social workers who described the poverty of large families, and medical people who explained the health problems often associated with large families. The prosecution called Roman Catholic leaders and an elderly doctor who objected to disseminating information about contraception on moral grounds.
The six-month trial was the longest in Canadian history to that date and it was extremely hard on Palmer. She was vilified by members of the public, accosted, and her marriage suffered. Kaufman’s lawyers won an acquittal for Palmer on March 17, 1937. The Crown appealed but the case was dismissed without defence counsel being called. Before long, PIB was helping 25,000 clients per year. The landmark verdict was a step forward in giving women a voice in their own fertility and opened the way for other advocacy groups, which didn’t equal the popularity of Kaufman’s program for three decades, when contraception was fully legalized in Canada (1969) and the Pill became available.
After the trial, Dorothea Palmer severed her ties to Kaufman and PIB and faded into obscurity, a reluctant heroine for women’s autonomy.