Contraception: Much More than Preventing the Meeting of Ova and Sperm (Christabelle Sethna)
My research interests include sex education, contraception and abortion history. I was mulling over how I could make my research more available to general audiences when Viviane Gosselin, Curator of Contemporary Issues at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV), asked me to participate in the exhibition project, Sex Talk in the City. Most academics are familiar only with the idea-to-research-to-print trajectory. My participation is, therefore, an opportunity to advance what is trendily termed “knowledge translation.” I am delighted to work with a team of creative individuals who want to introduce museum audiences to the work of Canadian historians. It’s a dream come true!
The history of contraception in Canada is deeply intertwined with the law, the secularization of society and women’s changing status. According to Canada’s Criminal Code, contraception and abortion were illegal from the late 19th century onward. A small public birth control movement arose in the 1920s. It was supported by feminists and socialists, but was increasingly dominated by eugenicists. Intent on promoting contraception to curtail the fertility of the working classes, the handicapped, immigrants and nonwhites, eugenicists agreed on the need for contraception. They also insisted on sterilizing individuals they deemed unfit to procreate. Abortion remained a clandestine practice.
Contraceptives can be male- or female-dependent, or require the cooperation of both sexes. The birth control pill is entirely female-dependent. It was developed in the 1950s as a family planning aid for married women in the developed world and as a eugenically tinged population control mechanism in the developing world. The introduction of the pill into Canada in the early 1960s led many to lobby for Criminal Code reform. Due to the breakdown of religious authority, contraception, like abortion and homosexuality, came to be regarded as a matter of individual conscience. In 1969 Parliament decriminalized contraception and homosexuality. Abortion was legalized, albeit under very restrictive circumstances. The Supreme Court of Canada struck down this abortion law in 1988.
The pill is misunderstood as the catalyst for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Yet young, single women were engaging in premarital heterosexual relations long before the pill was widely available to them. In fact, doctors were reluctant to prescribe it to this population because they feared promoting sexual immorality or were unsure about its side effects. Doctors did prescribe the pill to young, single women for menstrual irregularities or shortly before a marriage.
Some of my research is specific to Vancouver. My favourite artefact is The Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia (UBC) student newspaper. I used headlines, articles, editorials, letters to the editor, cartoons, captions, advertisements and photographs from issues published in the 1960s to examine student experiences of the sexual revolution in regard to young, single women’s sexual autonomy. My happiest find is an article about the bold exploits of Ann Ratel, a student reporter whose undercover sting operation in 1965 deigned to test the stated reluctance of the UBC Student Health Services (SHS) at Wesbrook Hospital to prescribe the pill to single female students. Ratel borrowed a wedding ring, assumed a false last name, and presented herself to the SHS as a newlywed. She was given a two-year prescription for Ortho-Novum. Under the pun-filled front-page headline, “Unortho-dox: Our bachelor girl perforates leaky Wesbrook pill policy,” The Ubyssey printed Ratel’s prescription with the physician’s signature mercifully blacked out.
Ratel’s stunt ignited a firestorm. One student blamed the SHS for forcing single students to gamble on an unwanted pregnancy. Others denounced Ratel, reasoning that the SHS would now require women to produce marriage certificates for prescriptions. Still others accused the newspaper of sensationalism. The bluntest insisted that Ratel merely confirmed that the SHS would provide the pill only to married students.
The pill is now most widely used by young, single women for contraceptive purposes although some brands are designed to eliminate acne or reduce the number of menstrual cycles. Thanks to the popularity of the pill, contraception is viewed as a woman’s duty. On the one hand, this responsibility allows a woman control over her fertility; on the other hand, she is often held culpable for an unwanted pregnancy. Today, renewed opposition to abortion may place even more emphasis on the importance of using contraception effectively. Or, it may signal that female-dependent contraception itself will come under fire because it is a profound symbol of women’s sexual autonomy.