Reproductive rights have a complicated and controversial history that has connections with eugenics, and continues to affect elements of ‘newgenics’. Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that “reproductive rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.” (Gender and Reproductive Rights, World Health Organization, 2014).
This concept of reproductive rights has evolved in response to some of the ways that people’s choices when it comes to reproduction have been restricted in the past. Eugenics programs were a key part of that history, by restricting reproduction among certain segments of the population, and in particular among people historically considered feeble-minded and disabled. Race, gender, class, language, ability, so-called character, and intelligence were major factors that determined whether an individual might be subjected to sexual sterilization once they were viewed by the eugenics board. By contrast, so-called healthy families have also historically been targets of eugenic ideas as they were expected to reproduce and in some cases were legally restricted from using contraceptives or abortions. Eliminating eugenics programs, therefore, played an important role in opening up discussions about who should reproduce and who should control reproduction, which gave rise to the concept of reproductive rights as part of human rights.
Birth control, abortion, and reproductive rights have a complicated and controversial history that has engaged policy makers, religious authorities, medical professionals, women, men and families in contests over family values. In Canada, abortion and contraception were made explicitly illegal in the Criminal Code in 1892, and were not decriminalized until 1969. Meanwhile, eugenics programs in Alberta (1928-1972) and British Columbia (1933-1973) allowed for the sterilization of people deemed feebleminded, without their consent. This meant that while so-called normal or healthy people were not allowed to use contraception to restrict their fertility, people considered of lower intelligence or with mental disorders where sterilized to prevent their reproduction. Although the laws have changed, the issue of who is allowed to reproduce continues to play out in debates over family values, same-sex marriages, sex-selection technologies, and cross-border adoptions.
Sexual sterilization, as is often associated with eugenics, and has been considered one of the key forms of negative eugenics. Positive eugenics, by contrast, involved encouraging so-called healthy people to have more children. Both the restriction and the encouragement of reproduction, then, has affected the way that reproductive rights are understood. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s in Canada that the specific language of reproductive “choice” emerged as part of human rights campaigns, notably among second-wave feminists, but also among patient and mental health consumers who had long been the targets of debates over who was “fit” to reproduce. Canada changed its laws in 1969 to decriminalize abortion, and to allow people to use contraception. The United States changed its laws on abortion in 1973, which permitted abortions under medically-necessary conditions. The specifics surrounding access to abortion have continued to attract controversy as some people argue that access to abortion is a fundamental reproductive right, and others see abortion as connected to eugenics. Issues of sex-selection, or pre-natal screening that leads to abortion are particularly controversial issues as they are reminiscent of the eugenics policies of the past that targeted people based on gender and disability.
The targets of eugenics-based sterilization have differed, but were invariably subjects of social racism, sexism, classism, and had often been institutionalized based on disability or mental illness. Nearly 3,000 people were sterilized in Alberta, for example, many of whom were not even told that they were having the operations. People diagnosed as feebleminded, or with low intelligence quotients, were not considered capable of giving consent, or understanding the operation. Contrary to that assumption, people began challenging these decisions as they were released into the community. Their actions stimulated some of the debates over reproductive rights in the 1980s, showing that those rights were not simply part of a feminist campaign to restrict fertility, but were also part of a history of abuses faced by people who had been institutionalized.
Only one person has successfully sued the Alberta government for its role in the eugenics program. Justice Joanne B. Viet ruled in the case of Leilani Muir versus the Queen in right of Alberta that her sterilization had proceeded wrongfully; the institution had treated her unfairly; and the accumulated effects had resulted in a loss of dignity and civil rights. Leilani Muir emerged as a new face for challenging the eugenics laws and representing an abuse of power over reproductive rights, but hers is only one story among the thousands of men and women in Alberta and hundreds in British Columbia whose reproductive choices were made for them. Elsewhere in Canada more informal eugenics practices affected women who were institutionalized during child bearing years, explicitly due to concerns of disability, immorality, and immaturity. Although only two Canadian provinces had formal eugenics programs, others sent women and girls to institutions and kept them segregated from society during childbearing years. In these cases women predominated among those who were kept confined in institutions, for wayward girls, training schools for feebleminded children, mental hospitals, Residential Schools, all of which restricted the movements of these women and girls and placed them under the watchful eye of nurses, social workers, doctors and administrators who participated in monitoring their activities. Although they are not typical eugenic experiences, these kinds of restrictions had serious implications for the reproductive choices.
Sexual sterilization surgeries in Canada took two distinct paths after the Second World War. Operations associated with eugenics remained confined to institutional and quasi-institutional settings, such as the Alberta Provincial Guidance Clinics, or the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives, which had been set up to siphon candidates into the mental health system, or schools and communities where teachers and parents identified children as likely suspects for mental deficiency. Eugenic sterilizations continued to rely on the idea that certain individuals were a genetic risk to the population, and that even if biology did not sufficiently explain their defects, they were unlikely to make good parents on account of poor choices, poverty, a lack of morals or criminal tendencies.
Conversely, sexual sterilization among middle-class and healthy families was considered immoral and illegal. Families seeking sterilization lobbied for it as a matter of reproductive rights, a matter of choice. Tubal ligations and vasectomies became increasingly popular operations, as a matter of choice for some people. In 1960 the first oral contraceptive, or birth control pill, was introduced, which pushed the issue of reproductive onto the public stage even more. The issue attracted widespread controversy and became the subject of an encyclical from the Pope in 1968, a US federal inquiry in 1970, and a rallying cry for feminists who lobbied for safe access to contraception.
The papal encyclical, Humane Vitae, drew a firm distinction and took an aggressive stance against all forms of contraception, even in cases that endangered a mother’s health. The political reaction to this position was deeply divided, as some people continued to see reproductive rights as women’s rights, or women’s choices, while others associated reproductive rights with the rights of the foetus and with victims of reproductive restrictions, including people who had been traditional targets of eugenics programs. Contemporary issues, including pre-natal screening, have introduced new technologies that further complicate the issue of reproductive rights as we continue to wrestle with the complicated moral elements of reproductive politics.
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