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Borderlands: Betty Mary Goetting Brought Birth Control to El Paso 28 (2010-2011)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Betty Mary Goetting Brought Birth Control to El Paso

Article first published in Vol. 28 (2010-2011)

By Kim Wilson and Jane Van Velkinburgh

Straightforward. Ahead of her time. These words were spoken by Kurt Goetting about a woman he knew not only as a loving mother, but one of El Paso’s earliest women’s activists and co-founder of Planned Parenthood of El Paso: Betty Mary Smith Goetting.

The daughter of a physician, Betty Mary Smith was born in Jefferson, Texas, in 1897. After moving with her family to El Paso in 1910, she began working at the El Paso Public Library in 1913, where she met and was befriended by Maud Durlin Sullivan, an El Paso librarian, who became like a second mother to her. In 1915, she graduated from El Paso High School and attended Riverside Library Service School in California in 1917, where she helped the Red Cross during World War I.


Image caption: Betty Mary Smith (Goetting) in 1917 attended the Riverside Library Service School in California. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso Library, Special Collections).

In 1918, Smith became involved with the women’s suffrage movement spreading across America. During that time, she worked as an assistant at the New York Reference Library. In 1919 she married Charles A. Goetting, prominent El Paso contractor. Three children would be born to the couple, but only two survived. As an avid reader and history buff, Betty Mary Goetting became a co-founder of the History Club in 1926. She also founded the first book club in El Paso and was a charter member of the El Paso County Historical Society, where she served as curator for 15 years and contributed articles to Password, the society’s journal, on notable local women.

Goetting’s interest in history led her to realize that women needed to fight for the rights of equal treatment and pay. Though working hard to preserve the past, Goetting became known as a pioneer and even a radical in the early years of advancing birth control for women in El Paso.

In 1873, the Comstock Law was passed in America prohibiting “obscene” materials from being sent in the mail, aimed at the dissemination of birth control methods and/or devices. According to “Comstockery in America,” an article by Margaret Sanger, national leader of the movement to legalize birth control and founder of Planned Parenthood of New York, these laws were designed to “aid and abet” moral and religious “prejudice and persecution,” preventing physicians from offering family planning because of the threat of imprisonment.

During her work in New York, Goetting became aware of the birth control movement and Margaret Sanger’s work. Just before she was married, Betty Mary wrote to Sanger under a pseudonym because of family opposition, inquiring about methods of birth control. In her letter she said, “I feel that it is my right to say when my children shall be born.”

Sanger, whose mother was pregnant 18 times, bore 11 children and died at 40, was a nurse who worked with poor immigrant women. She saw the effects of unchecked childbearing but also knew that obtaining information about birth control was almost impossible for poor American women. Poor women also often resorted to having illegal or self-induced abortions and many died. In 1916, Sanger, her sister and a friend opened the first birth control clinic in the country, serving some 500 women in 10 days before police raided the clinic and arrested the three women.

Out on bail, Sanger continued her work. The Crane decision in 1918 allowed physicians to prescribe birth control for their married patients “for the cure and prevention of disease.” It would take 18 more years to reverse the Comstock Law’s classification of birth control literature as pornography with the legal case of United States v. One Package.

Goetting was inspired by Sanger’s fight against the Comstock Laws and expressed the wish that she could meet her. “I thought she was the greatest woman in the country,” Goetting told the El Paso Times. Sanger had made her first trip to El Paso in 1936, but ironically, she and Goetting did not meet because of the birth of Goetting’s second son. In 1937, they did.

Returning to help organize an El Paso clinic, Sanger planned to speak at the Hilton Inn during her second El Paso visit. Pressure from local churches caused the hotel to revoke the reservation, so Sanger spoke to a packed house at the Paso del Norte Hotel. According to the Times, it was then that Goetting and Sanger met and became fast friends, with Sanger staying at the Goetting home at least eight times.

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Betty Goetting’s work with the poor made her realize that El Paso was in desperate need of family planning. Women who could not pay were denied access to the services of a doctor. She met women who looked twice their age from having 16 or more children.


Image caption: Betty Mary Goetting began supporting women’s causes early in life and was instrumental in establishing Planned Parenthood clinics in El Paso. (Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society)

Goetting, along with other women volunteers, canvassed the city for donations to set up a birth control clinic, but opposition was fierce. Renting a location for the clinic was also difficult; as soon as the owners knew what the property was to be used for, prices doubled. Doctors agreeing to serve the clinics were threatened with boycotts. Goetting told the El Paso Times that she never would have made it through that time without the support of her husband or the six doctors who agreed to help her. “Without those six valiant men we could never have gotten off the ground.”

Finally, with the slogan, “Every Child a Wanted Child,” on April 27, 1937, the El Paso Mothers’ Health Center opened at 1820 East Rio Grande St. with Goetting serving as president of the board. The clinic was affiliated with Sanger’s Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. According to a July 26, 1937, El Paso Herald-Post article, the “cheerful” and “spotlessly clean” nonprofit clinic had a registered nurse on duty 24 hours a day, with 12 doctors alternating their noon hours for patients.

The El Paso Times reported in April 1938 that the clinic had advised 731 patients in 11 months. Goetting told the Times that the future outlook was “highly gratifying,” and that they hoped to open more clinics in El Paso.

In an effort to clear any misunderstandings as to the services the center provided, in 1939 the center’s name changed to the El Paso Birth Control Clinic. Although abortion services were not provided, controversy continuously followed. In a 1937 letter to the El Paso Herald-Post, Rev. Michael Sanctics wrote that the clinic made women untrue to their natures, and thus, unhappy, by destroying “the qualities which God gave women.” In an effort to combat controversy, the clinic’s first board members were all mothers. Goetting told the El Paso Times in 1977 that they could not risk having women without children on the board. “We were supposed to be child-haters, you see.”

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Even under controversy, the dream of more clinics was realized with the opening of an auxiliary clinic in South El Paso in 1940. In 1942, another clinic opened in South/Central El Paso. In 1946, the clinics affiliated with Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Then, in 1954, all three facilities consolidated in a house on Arizona Street. The clinic moved two more times before 1982 when the clinic relocated to 2817 E. Yandell Dr. and was renamed the Goetting Clinic in honor of its founder.

Goetting continued to be an advocate for birth control until she died in 1980. According to her son, Goetting carried clinic pamphlets in the glove box of her car. She offered them to pregnant women she met who had other small children in tow. Kurt Goetting also recalled his mother being very adamant with him and his fiancée about having as many children as they wanted, as long as they could take care of them, both financially and emotionally. Goetting worked with Planned Parenthood on a national level and spent three years on its national board.

In 1966, Goetting became only the third person in the United States to receive the National Margaret Sanger Award for her work in the birth control movement. In 1968, she received the Planned Parenthood Center of El Paso Leadership Award, the Presidential Award in 1970, and the Paseña Valerosa Award in 1974. In 1977, Goetting was recognized by the El Paso Women’s Political Caucus as a Pioneer in Women’s Rights. She received an honorary life membership from the El Paso Library Association in 1979. In 2009, she was named to the El Paso County Historical Society’s Hall of Honor.

In a surprise move in July 2009, Planned Parenthood closed six facilities in El Paso because of financial problems. According to the El Paso Times, more than 12,000 patients were forced to look for alternate care.

Kathleen Staudt, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, told the El Paso Times that she was shocked. “How could the 21st largest city in the United States – El Paso – not have Planned Parenthood clinics?”

While other providers attempt to fill the gap, Planned Parenthood in El Paso will be missed. It will take another organization, other individuals to carry on the work and pioneering spirit of Betty Mary Smith Goetting, who did so much to help El Paso women.

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