Privacy in the Past: Woman & Contraception

Kristofer Nelson writes about Privacy, autonomy, and birth control in America, 1860-1900, its a fascinating article on the ways in which gender and privacy have historically played out. This becomes particularly problematic when dealing with birth control. While access to contraception and abortion are still highly discussed today, they are not discussed in this way. What is interesting is the ways in which the private and public domains have been mapped and their borders re-drawn over time. Indeed

Access to birth control became, controversially, protected by the “right to privacy” in 1965;1 a hundred years before, “procreation was a matter of public concern.”2 Yet, contradictorily and confusingly, Victorian women — and their bodies — were protected (and limited) by a powerful social division between private and public spheres.

The rights of woman to her body was viewed in relation to other rights and needs. She was either “property” of her father or husband, or a national commodity as it was the women who would bear the American children. Therefore her use of contraception conflicted with a public interest:

A woman’s body was both a private and a national commodity. If she took steps to control her fertility she entered into the public domain and came into conflict with laws governed by public interest. If she interfered with her husband’s right to her body, she offended him as a man and a potential father.9

The latter quote is from Annegret S. Ogden, The Great American Housewife: From Helpmate to Wage Earner, 1776-1986, Contributions in Women’s Studies, no. 61 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1986).


Ethics of overpopulation

Martin over at Aardvarchaeology has written a post on the ethics of overpopulation that has generated a flood of comments. He begins by stating that there are too many people on earth and presents three suggestions:

  1. It is unethical for anyone to produce more than two children. (Adoption of orphans, on the other hand, is highly commendable.)
  2. It is unethical to limit the availability of contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation and adoption.
  3. It is unethical to use public money to support infertility treatments. Let those unfortunate enough to need such treatment pay their own way or adopt. And let’s put the money into subsidising contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation and adoption instead.

If we ignore the fact that ethics is a notoriously vague term I agree with all of his suggestions. I would like to go a bit further to than this. Considering the position of the earth today and the nonsensical religious pro-life arguments and based on the understanding that children are not a right, I would prefer to propose the following restatement of suggestions 2:

  • Limiting the availability of contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation and adoption should be criminalized.

I fail to see why the concept of religion should be used as a valid argument for limiting contraception which can prevent the spread of disease, cause personal and financial hardship in addition to increasing a world population.

But I also find it bizarre that individuals can motivate spending (and/or demanding public funding) vast amounts of money for infertility treatments while there are children in need of love and care in the world. What is their problem? Sure, “natural” may be nice but if you cannot then please focus on the needs of children not on the egoistic desire to reproduce your DNA.