On March 5, 1953 a memo was sent to the Board of Trustees of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies on the instructions of Milton Weill, then President of Federation. Enclosed with the memo were “a number of interesting and important letters on the problem of the admission of the Planned Parenthood Committee in the Welfare and Health Council of the City of New York [the Council].” As controversial as Planned Parenthood is in 2012, it apparently offered services just as divisive in 1953, when the Council’s actions in response to Planned Parenthood sparked a barrage of meetings, memos and correspondence among the member institutions of the Council, and within the Council itself.
At the time, the most controversial service provided by Planned Parenthood was birth control. Upon application for membership in the Council, the Board of the Council denied membership for fear of losing its Catholic agency members. An editorial in The Christian Century dated February 4, 1953, states: “[The Welfare and Health Council of the City of New York] declined [Planned Parenthood’s] application for membership because, as stated in their resolution, ‘Catholic Charities of the dioceses of New York and Brooklyn and their member agencies are opposed in principle to a substantial part of the program and policies of Planned Parenthood organizations and are resolved to cancel their membership in the event a Planned Parenthood organization is admitted to the Council’. … A major effort seems to be shaping up to get the Welfare and Health Council to reconsider. Whether it will do so or not probably depends upon Jewish agencies, which number about 40 per cent of the membership. Protestantism can muster only an ineffectual 20 per cent in the city where the National Council of Churches has its headquarters.”
Perhaps the most moving argument against the actions of the Council was made soon after the Council’s vote in January by Justine Wise Polier, then the Chairman of the Free Synagogue Child Adoption Committee, and long an advocate for orphan children’s rights. The following is from a letter from Polier to Coverly Fischer, the President of the Council: “In the United States where happily the principle of religious freedom is basic to our beliefs, ideals and way of life, any action that threatens such freedom becomes a matter of grave concern. Religious freedom involves not only the right to believe in accordance with conscience but the duty to respect the beliefs of others. Any attempt to outlaw, or ostracise [sic] any group of citizens because they do not accept the religious beliefs or doctrines of another group violates the principle of religious freedom.”
The New York Board of Rabbis passed a resolution in February that may have made it easier for Federation to take the stand it did with the Council: “The New York Board of Rabbis voices its strong disapproval of the action taken by the Welfare and Health Council of New York City in declining the application of the Planned Parenthood … for membership. Despite the disagreement among our own membership regarding some of the objectives of the Planned Parenthood committee, we unite in deploring the denial of the right to membership of any social welfare agency in a public body which provides a valuable forum for discussion of problems effecting the well-being of the entire community.”
Milton Weill and Joseph Willen, one of Federation’s Executive Vice Presidents, provided an exhaustive study of the issue to Federation’s Executive Committee that February, after having polled 37 of the 41 Federation member agencies who were also members of the Council. The Board of Trustees of Federation voted in April to direct their delegates at the next Council meeting to vote to replace the Council’s board with a new board who would vote to allow Planned Parenthood’s membership, and to “introduce and support the passage of a resolution urging the new Board to continue to do whatever possible to find an amicable solution of the problem.”
The New York Times on May 5th ran the headline, “Parenthood Issue Near a Showdown”. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F70C1EF63C5B157A93C7A9178ED85F478585F9
The results a few days later of the Council’s final vote were summed up by a headline in the May 8, 1953 New York Times: “Planned Parenthood Backers Win in Welfare Council Vote”.