Birth control has had a complicated relationship to eugenics. While birth control makes it possible for a woman to decide for herself when (and if) to have children, eugenics puts society’s interest in reproduction above the individual’s desires. Yet proponents of birth control often used eugenic arguments while eugenicists distributed contraceptives in poor communities to reduce births among those they considered unfit. The tension between the right to choose birth control, a precondition for women’s freedom, and the coercive use of birth control as a means of population control, has shaped social policy and the politics of reproduction.
Birth Control and the Law: Criminalization and Legalization
Women and men in every society have sought to control their own reproduction. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, rising expectations for health, child welfare, and women’s rights, combined with elite anxieties about immigration and the declining birth rate among educated whites, brought personal decisions about reproduction and child welfare into the public eye. “Birth control” – that is, legal contraception, abortion, and contraceptive sterilization – entered the world of policy and politics.
Birth control and even abortion were largely unregulated in North America until the late nineteenth century. In 1873, the U.S. Congress enacted the Comstock Law, which defined contraceptives as obscene and made it a federal crime to send information about contraception or abortion through the mail or across state lines. In Canada, the Criminal Code of 1892 prohibited the advertisement or sale of any literature or device intended to prevent conception or cause abortion.
Laws against contraception and abortion generally remained in place until the 1960s. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the prohibition on contraceptive use among married couples in 1965 and extended the right to use contraceptives to unmarried couples in 1972. A year later in Roe v. Wade (1973), the court ruled that the constitutional right to privacy included abortion (until the fetus could live outside the womb). In Canada, contraception was decriminalized and some abortions made legal in the 1969 revisions to the Criminal Code. In 1988, the Supreme Court decision R. v. Morgentaler legalized all abortions in Canada. Even so, the right to contraception and especially abortion remains hotly debated, especially in the United States.
The Question of Contraceptive Sterilization
In law, there is a distinction between eugenic and contraceptive sterilization. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld compulsory eugenic sterilization in the notorious Buck v. Bell decision in 1927, but voluntary sterilization for contraceptive purposes (like all other forms of birth control) had an ambiguous legal status until the 1970s. Most U.S. hospitals restricted voluntary sterilization to patients who met the 120 rule (a woman’s age multiplied by the number of her children had to be at least 120); voluntary sterilizations were also restricted in Canada prior to the decriminalization of contraception in 1969. In both countries, public pressure led to the relaxation of restrictions and public funding for contraceptive surgery in the 1970s, just as eugenic sterilization laws were being repealed. Sterilization quickly became one of the most popular forms of birth control. At the same time, there was a significant increase in coerced “contraceptive” sterilizations, both in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Canada.
The legal-political status of birth control in Canada, and to a lesser extent the United States, was also shaped by the doctrine (and lobbying power) of the Catholic Church. In 1930, the papal encyclical Casti Connubii affirmed the sanctity of marriage and condemned divorce, artificial birth control, abortion, and eugenics legislation.
The Two Sides of Birth Control
Both birth control and eugenics emerged as political issues in the early twentieth century, in the context of industrialization, immigration, and the changing status of women and racialized groups. At first, conservative eugenicists opposed legal contraception because of its association with feminism. They thought that “fit” white women were already having too few children compared to the poor and uneducated and worried that expanding women’s reproductive options would lead to “race suicide.” By the 1930s, however, birth control’s association with feminism had weakened and many eugenicists saw contraception as a tool of population control.
Birth Control as Woman’s Right
In the nineteenth century, most North American women lacked the right to vote and sit on juries. Married women were economically dependent on their husbands and legally obliged to submit to their sexual needs. Elite women who objected to the idea that constant pregnancy was the married woman’s fate asserted the principle of “voluntary motherhood.” Using the language of degeneracy, they claimed that the damage caused by involuntary motherhood could be passed on to succeeding generations. Only if motherhood was truly voluntary could superior offspring be ensured.
From the 1890s to the 1910s, a small group of feminists and sex radicals, such as the American Margaret Sanger, took the radical position that women were entitled to heterosexual pleasure without fear of procreation. They claimed that “birth control,” a term coined by Sanger, was essential to women’s freedom and self-fulfillment and they openly defied the laws that made disseminating birth control information a crime. Sanger was arrested after she opened the first North American birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York, in 1916. After a lengthy legal battle, a New York court ruled in 1923 that physicians could provide contraceptive information. Birth control was a medical decision, not a woman’s right.
Birth Control as Population Control
The idea of birth control as population control took root in the 1920s. The slogan, “more children from the fit, less from the unfit,” wrongly attributed to Margaret Sanger, reflects both many birth controllers’ deep-seated eugenicist beliefs and a politically expedient strategy designed to win support from physicians and potential donors. In the infamous Negro Project of the Birth Control Federation of America (later Planned Parenthood), the racist-eugenicist goal of reducing the birth rate of southern backs undercut Sanger’s own commitment to birth control as a woman’s right.
The population control argument for birth control was also pervasive in Depression-era Canada. Rubber manufacturer A.R. Kaufman, a prominent birth controller and eugenicist from Kitchener, Ontario, founded the Parents’ Information Bureau (PIB), which hired visiting nurses to distribute contraceptive information to poor couples with large families. In 1936, when PIB worker Dorothea Palmer was arrested in a French Canadian neighbourhood in Eastview, Ontario, Kaufman’s lawyers launched a spirited legal defense. They contended that distributing contraceptives to poor Francophone Catholics was a public good and secured Palmer’s acquittal.
Population Control vs. Women’s Rights in the Postwar Era
After the Second World War, contraceptive use became an increasingly respectable form of “family planning,” and population control advocates shifted their attention to reducing fertility in the global south.
The tensions between population control and women’s rights exploded in the 1970s. Feminists demanding easier access to abortion and contraceptive sterilizations had to confront the reality that large numbers of African Americans, Indigenous women, Latinas, and women with disabilities were being coerced into sterilization. After the sterilization of two black girls at a family planning clinic in Alabama became an international scandal in 1973, a federal judge declared that “the dividing line between family planning and eugenics is murky.” He prohibited any government-funded sterilization where the patient’s capacity for non-coerced consent was in doubt, including minors and persons with intellectual disabilities (ID). Yet social workers and trial judges have continued to pressure welfare mothers and drug users to “choose” long-term contraceptives, and some parents of children with intellectual disabilities have sought sterilization for their daughters. In 1986, the Supreme Court of Canada barred court-ordered contraceptive sterilizations of persons with ID.
The Tangled Histories of Birth Control and Eugenics
Reproductive decisions must never be coerced, and the shameful association between birth control and eugenics should be exposed. In recent years, however, Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of eugenics has been used to tarnish all publicly-funded reproductive health services, especially the U.S. Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which requires most insurers to pay for contraception, including voluntary sterilization, as part of women’s health care. In fact, the history of birth control is two-sided. Birth control is not just another term for population control; the right to use – or not to use – birth control is also a cherished women’s right.
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