The Racist Roots of the War on Sex Ed

JBS-supported billboard accusing Martin Luther King Jr. of communist ties. Image: Bob Fitch photography archive, Stanford University Libraries

The 1960s were a decade of dramatic social and political changes, many of them catalyzed by the shock of assassinations or the dawn of culture-changing technology like the birth control pill.

It would seem, then, that by the end of the decade it would have taken an especially grave development to prompt warnings of a “subversive monstrosity,” a “mushrooming program” that was forced upon an unwitting public through an insidious campaign of “falsehoods, deceptions, pressures, and pretenses.”

The John Birch Society published those words 50 years ago this month in their January 1969 newsletter. What atrocity spurred JBS founder Robert Welch Jr. to write this clarion call? No trigger warning is needed for this one. He was alerting his readers to the “filthy Communist plot” known as sex education.


It wasn’t just premarital and extramarital sex that stirred anxieties. So, too, did interracial sex.


Welch’s alarmist language was common currency in an organization that was known for its anti-Semitism and its espousal of conspiracy theories. They were traits that kept the Birchers’ numbers modest throughout the 1960s and ’70s — an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 members — and led to the group’s decline in later decades. The JBS, a far-right group that advocated for limited government, got its name from a Baptist missionary and military pilot who was killed by Chinese communists — an early martyr of the Cold War.

However fringe they may have been, Welch’s words signaled the beginning of intensive backlash against sex ed among a broader base of conservatives. Within months, that backlash put organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Medical Association on the defensive. As the debate raged, the NEA sought allies nationwide in churches, civic groups, and the media to save sex ed. By the following year, the NEA was reporting that sex ed programs had been “canceled, postponed, or curtailed” in 13 states and were under scrutiny in 20 state legislatures. Continue reading

A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 4, Looking Back

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ve shared her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this final installment, we look at her thoughts about her time at PPFA and her life after leaving Planned Parenthood.

In 1970, just a few years after receiving her master’s degree, Faye Wattleton left the Dayton Health Department and the Visiting Nurses Association to serve as executive director for Planned Parenthood of Miami Valley in Ohio. While she was there, the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down, and when a local reporter asked for a comment, Ms. Wattleton realized that her affiliate had no prepared statement. As she wrote in her autobiography, “The national offices had communicated no strategy for addressing the implications of such a landmark decision.”


“The exercise of safe reproductive health services and choices for women around the world is vital to the planet.”


At the time, no one had known what to expect from the Supreme Court, and the ruling came as a shock to Wattleton and her colleagues. But the Roe v. Wade decision would eventually thrust Planned Parenthood into the highly politicized abortion debate, despite the fact that their mission was — and is — broader than that, focusing most of their energies on contraception, preventive care, and education.

When Ms. Wattleton became Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s president in 1978, the organization had become, according to a 1979 Time Magazine article, “as all-American as the Girl Scouts and debutante parties.” But Ms. Wattleton restructured the national office staff in preparation for increasing political challenges, while continuing to expand medical and education services. During her first year, more than 60 percent of the national managerial staff left the organization.

Reflecting on the restructuring, Ms. Wattleton says that had she known then what she knows now, she would have begun her tenure at PPFA differently. “I had been the executive director of a Planned Parenthood [affiliate] for seven years before I became president [of the national organization]. I felt like I really knew the organization, but what I learned [is that] anyone who has the privilege to ascend to national or international responsibilities can’t quite appreciate what it’s like, until you’re actually in the seat. Perhaps I really overestimated my perspective on some of the nuances of the importance of touching base with a number of the elements within the organization; like any other organization, Planned Parenthood has its factions.” Continue reading