Alan F. Guttmacher 1898-1974
The Guttmacher Institute, an independent, nonprofit, tax-exempt organization with offices in New York and Washington, D.C., was established in 1968 to provide research, policy analysis and education in the fields of reproductive health, reproductive rights and population. It was named to honor a distinguished obstetrician-gynecologist, author and leader in reproductive rights. While Alan F. Guttmacher was president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a leader in the International Planned Parenthood Federation in the 1960s and early 1970s, he saw the need for the institution that now bears his name, and he nurtured its development.
The entry in Who's Who is factual, terse:
It describes a man who lived a long and eventful life, but conveys neither a sense of him as a person nor of his place in history. To those who worked with him, Alan Guttmacher was:
Old Testament prophet
And much more. He never was comfortable with the complexities of organizational life or the ways of bureaucracies; yet no one was better able to unite the Planned Parenthood organization or summon it to carry out its historic mission. He looked like an old-fashioned man and had a penchant for old-fashioned virtues; yet his rapport with teenagers was magnificent and he refused, as he put it, "to acknowledge the immutability of the present." He abhorred the cant which, in his experience, was often associated with power; yet more than most he was able to move the powerful. He was given to strong opinions and direct relationships; but even those with whom he sharply disagreed walked away from the encounter respecting and loving him. He was enraged by injustice and hypocrisy and impatient with the glacial pace of progress; yet he knew that each fear of change, however irrational, must be dealt with, and that a revolution is composed of a thousand steps, most of them small. Never for a moment did we doubt that we were in the presence of an authentic and special human being.
He joined the birth control movement in the 1920s when he was an intern, after witnessing a woman die from a botched abortion. In Baltimore, he was an effective advocate, organizer and worker for family planning at The Johns Hopkins and Mt. Sinai Hospitals and the Planned Parenthood affiliate. Following his appointment as director of obstetrics and gynecology at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital in 1952, he assumed increasing leadership of the national Planned Parenthood organization, first as member, then as volunteer chairman of Planned Parenthood's National Medical Committee and, in 1962, as full-time national president. In the 1960s, he took major responsibility for the work of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, serving as chairman of its Medical Committee and travelling to scores of Asian, African and Latin American nations to lecture to physicians, work with program personnel, talk with ordinary people and meet with heads of state.
His whirlwind schedule would have exhausted younger men. His actions were informed by a pervasive social consciousness: his purpose—to end discrimination in medical care based on class or race—to set things right. Almost as soon as he arrived in New York, he was appalled to learn that the city's municipal hospitals, which provided the bulk of medical care for the poor, prohibited physicians from prescribing contraception. In the mid-1950s, Alan Guttmacher and a handful of colleagues laid the groundwork for the public campaign in 1958 to end the unwritten ban. His role was to persuade, cajole, badger, shame—through any and every legal means—to rally the city's sometimes reluctant medical leadership to change what he regarded as a discriminatory practice which disgraced his beloved profession. The campaign he led succeeded beyond the most optimistic hopes of those of us who participated. It established the policy framework for the provision of family planning services by public health agencies throughout the country in the 1960s.
He travelled to Washington innumerable times in the last decade to appear before congressional committees and meet with administration officials. Whenever he was asked for help, he gave assistance generously. And he made a difference. In 1966, he put the issue before the country simply and squarely:
"We really have the opportunity now to extend free choice in family planning to all Americans, regardless of social status, and to demonstrate to the rest of the world how it can be done. It's time we got on with the job."
Fortunately, he lived long enough to see the national family planning program—which now includes thousands of hospitals, health departments and community agencies—make rapid strides toward this goal. He had the satisfaction of witnessing many of the principles of voluntary fertility control to which he devoted his life inscribed in the law of the land by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Griswold and Baird cases on contraception and the Wade and Bolton cases on abortion.
To those of us who worked with Alan Guttmacher, it has been an exalting experience. We shall miss him deeply. We have been privileged to know and work with a rare human being. We can pay Alan F. Guttmacher the homage and respect he richly deserves by completing the social changes for which he fought and by building a society in which every child is wanted, loved, healthy and brought into the world with the best care that modern medicine can offer.
Frederick S. Jaffe
March 20, 1974
Reprinted from Family Planning Perspectives, 1974, 6(1): 1-2;
Frederick S. Jaffe was the first president of the Guttmacher Institute, from its founding in 1968 until his death in 1978.
Quotes from the writings of Alan F. Guttmacher.