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Martin Luther King Jr.: A Freedom Fighter for Women, Too

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This coming Monday we officially celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. -- civil rights activist, minister, freedom fighter, martyr, contraception advocate.

Huh?

If you didn't know that, you're not alone. While King was advocating for civil rights, he was also speaking out for the basic human right of women and couples to decide for themselves the number of children they wanted and were able to care for. Family planning, in other words.

Incredibly, it's a position that is still steeped in controversy, half a century later.

In 1954, King began his ministry career at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. The post-war baby boom was picking up speed. Oral contraceptives weren't yet available. Griswold v. Connecticut -- the Supreme Court case that ruled people have a right to privacy and a state can't ban contraception -- was more than a decade away. The average American woman had nearly twice as many kids as she does today, and it wasn't always easy to get by, especially for women and families of color. As one mother wrote to King in his December 1957 "Advice for Living" column, published in Ebony magazine:

"We have seven children and another one is on the way. Our four-room apartment is bursting at the seams and living space in Harlem is at a premium. I have suggested to my husband that we practice birth control, but he says that when God thinks we have enough children, He will put a stop to it. I've tried to reason with him, but he says that birth control is sinful. Is he right?"

King's response, in short: Your husband is wrong.

"I do not think it is correct to argue that birth control is sinful. The natural order is given us, not as an absolute finality, but as something to be guided and controlled. [...] Changes in social and economic conditions make smaller families desirable, if not necessary. [...] A final consideration is that women must be considered as more than 'breeding machines.' It is true that the primary obligation of the woman is that of motherhood, but an intelligent mother wants it to be a responsible motherhood -- a motherhood to which she has given her consent, not a motherhood due to impulse and chance. And this means birth control in some form. All of these factors, seem to me, to make birth control rationally and morally justifiable."

King put his beliefs into action. He supported the work of Planned Parenthood and agreed to serve on the sponsoring committee of a Planned Parenthood study on contraception. King was concerned about the consequences of unwanted pregnancies and wrote of his hopes that "the federal and state governments will begin to appropriate large sums to educate people to the need for such [contraceptive] devices." In 1966, his wife, Coretta Scott King, accepted Planned Parenthood's inaugural Margaret Sanger Award on his behalf, presented for "his courageous resistance to bigotry and his lifelong dedication to the advancement of social justice and human dignity."

So where are we nearly 40 years later? Progress is painfully slow, and sometimes, it seems like all could be lost.

Some public figures such as Rick Santorum decry contraception, saying it's "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." Health care reform is passed requiring that insurance policies cover contraception, yet right-wingers in Congress vote (again and again) to repeal the law, and some short-sighted corporations sue to block its implementation. That public funding King wanted for family planning? In many places, it's been stripped away. Opponents of women's rights are doubling down, attempting to pass laws that would give fertilized eggs full human rights -- and deny the reproductive rights of fully formed human beings.

Where would Martin Luther King Jr. stand? We can't be certain what would have happened had King not been lost on that fateful April morning. But we do know this: In his lifetime, King believed that human dignity depended upon the ability to choose the size of our families. And that ability is something to celebrate, today and every day.

John Seager is President of Population Connection, the nation's largest grassroots population organization. The organization's website is populationconnection.org.