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Senator who questioned Supreme Court birth control ruling led campus group that promoted it

"Zero Population Growth" was supported by Nixon when Marsha Blackburn led a women's group at Mississippi State University.
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Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on April 7, 2022.Eric Lee / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, an anti-abortion rights Republican who recently dismissed as “constitutionally unsound” a longstanding Supreme Court ruling that legalized contraception, was once the leader of an on-campus women’s group that promoted birth control. 

Blackburn, whose maiden name is Wedgeworth, was president of the Associated Women Students (AWS) chapter at Mississippi State University from around April 1972 through February 1973, according to minutes of the AWS meetings that were obtained by NBC News from the university’s archives. She graduated from MSU in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in Home Economics.

During Blackburn’s tenure as president, the AWS “sponsored” a “birth control program” that was held on campus on Dec. 5 and Dec. 7, 1972, where information about contraception was provided to female students, former AWS members said.

Marie Naklie, who preceded Blackburn as AWS president, said such programs were “more informational than anything, for women to be more aware that these issues were out there and that they were being debated.”

Blackburn’s AWS chapter also sponsored programs where hot-button issues and organizations that she has stridently opposed as senator — including abortion and Planned Parenthood — were presented and debated, former AWS members said. AWS was a student government association founded in 1913. 

Blackburn, who is 70 and originally from Laurel, Mississippi, raised no objections to the group hosting these discussions for other women at MSU, according to available minutes from AWS meetings.

“Don’t forget, there were so few women on campus,” Naklie said. “I think in AWS there were never more than 25 to 30 women total. I don’t remember those programs being particularly well attended.”

Naklie, who graduated in 1972 and went on to a trailblazing career as a chemical engineer in Texas, said she doesn’t know where Blackburn stood on birth control at the time.

Blackburn appears in the two photographs for AWS in the 1972 edition of MSU’s yearbook, The Reveille. One is a group shot of all of the club’s members and the other shows the four women who served as the club’s officers.

Marsha Blackburn, then Marsha Wedgeworth, in a photo of Associated Women Students in Mississippi State University's "Reveille" publication in 1972.
Marsha Blackburn, then Marsha Wedgeworth, in a photo of Associated Women Students in Mississippi State University's "Reveille" publication in 1972.

The yearbook blurb states that the organization sponsored programs aimed at young women on the subjects that “included venereal disease programs, Big Sister-Little Sister, fire safety, and Zero Population Growth.”

In response to questions about Blackburn’s stances on abortion and birth control when she was an undergraduate student and for more insight into her tenure as AWS president, one of her aide’s replied in an email, “Senator Blackburn has always been a freedom-loving conservative and fought to protect the unborn.”

Zero Population Growth, or ZPG, is an organization co-founded in 1968 by Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich, the author of the best-selling book “The Population Bomb,” which promoted both contraceptive use and abortion as a means of preventing over-population. From the start, the organization, now called Population Connection, has advocated for birth control and abortion rights.

Sarah Portis, who was the adviser to AWS when Blackburn was chapter president and later taught at Auburn University of Montgomery, told NBC News she remembers there were discussions about ZPG.

“I can tell you that the club officers decided which causes to take on and one of them was zero population growth,” Portis said. “Marsha was the president, I think, so she would have been involved in making that decision.”

The MSU chapter of AWS was not the only one focused on limiting world population growth, said historian Kelly Sartorius, an expert on women’s university education.

“Zero population growth was a huge issue in the early 1970s, and many AWS chapters were focused on this,” said Sartorius. “I wouldn’t call AWS a feminist organization, but many chapters focused on issues that directly affected women, like the availability of birth control.”

Marty Wiseman, a retired Mississippi State University professor of government and longtime friend of Blackburn’s, said that as undergraduates they often had “spirited but friendly debates” over cups of coffee and she would always take the conservative side while Wiseman leaned liberal. 

“You caught me by surprise,” he said when told that Blackburn had been a leader of AWS when it sponsored birth control seminars and that ZPG appeared to be on the agenda. “In our discussions I never got the feeling that she was anything but pro-life. In fact, I have been fascinated by how she staked out a position as a conservative Republican so early on and never wavered for 50 years.”

But Wiseman said she was a strong supporter of President Richard Nixon at the time and would have aligned with his politics.

“If Richard Nixon supported it and she knew it, I think she would have supported it,” he said. “She was all in with Nixon and the Republican Party.”

In a 1969 address to Congress, Nixon warned that unchecked population growth was “one of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century” and encouraged “family planning.”

Blackburn said in her 2020 book, “The Mind of a Conservative Woman,” that her conservative political leanings were still forming when she was an MSU undergraduate. 

“I certainly had not fully arrived as a conservative by the time I went off to college,” Blackburn wrote on page 28.

In March, Blackburn sparked speculation about where she stands on birth control when she took issue with the 1965 Supreme Court ruling known as Griswold vs. Connecticut, which legalized access to contraception. 

In comments criticizing Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Blackburn said, “Constitutionally unsound rulings like Griswold vs. Connecticut, Kelo v. the City of New London, and NFIB vs. Sebelius confused Tennesseans and left Congress wondering who gave the court permission to bypass our system of checks and balances.” 

Most Americans are strongly in favor of birth control, including people who, like Blackburn, are adamantly opposed to abortion, polls have shown over many years. 

Blackburn, a married mother of two grown children and grandmother of one, did not explain how the Griswold ruling might be “constitutionally unsound” and did not address questions about her own position on birth control.

Shortly afterward, tweets claiming that Blackburn believes birth control should only be allowed for married couples started circulating.

Blackburn’s spokesman responded on Twitter by referring to a May 9 tweet from CNN fact checker Daniel Dale.

”She didn’t say birth control should only be for married couples,” Dale wrote. “Rather, she criticized as ‘constitutionally unsound,’ the 1965 Griswold decision that ensured married couples’ access to birth control.”

In “The Mind of a Conservative Woman,” Blackburn decried Planned Parenthood’s “tragic agenda” and labeled abortion as “barbaric.” She also insisted in the book that she is “on the record as opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment.”

“The Constitution of the United States guarantees me the same freedoms and protections under the law as any other American citizen,” she wrote. “I don’t need an ERA.”

The Constitution does not explicitly recognize women’s rights. And while Congress passed the ERA in 1972, it fell three states short of the 38 needed to ratify it in order to become part of the Constitution.

Mississippi was debating the ERA when Blackburn was in college, and the minutes from April 26, 1972, showed that during her presidency, AWS hosted a forum on the proposed constitutional amendment that was deemed “a success.”

“I remember working for ERA to pass because it made a difference in my career,” Naklie, a former classmate, said. “Before ERA I couldn’t get a job interview even though I was at the top of my class. But that opened the door for me, gave me a chance.”

Naklie said she doesn’t remember AWS advocating for the ERA or where Blackburn stood on the issue.

“At the time, most of the women on campus were majoring in things like primary school education or home economics and they weren’t trying to establish careers in fields that were dominated by men,” Naklie said. “So they didn’t have as much vested in seeing the ERA passed. I’m sure Marsha is for equal rights for women. Just not sure she was for the ERA.”

Around the time Blackburn was in college, AWS had more than 250,000 students and chapters at universities across the country, Sartorius said. Chapters began to fold in 1972 after the passage of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibited sex-based discrimination in schools — and eliminated the need for a separate student government organization for women.

Naklie said the most pressing issue during her tenure wasn’t birth control.

“What I remember was pushing to get the curfew moved past 10 p.m.,” Naklie said. “This was a different time. The ratio at Mississippi State was seven guys for every woman. And we were required to be back in our dorms by 10 p.m.”