Eugenics & Contraception, part 1

I wanted to write about the history of contraception. I quickly realized this cannot be divorced from a discussion of eugenics. The two are tragically linked in modern world history, an uncomfortable reality for a pro-choice feminist. Abortion and contraception rights opponents invoke this history in a cynical ploy to end all reproductive choice. Reproductive rights supporters often brush away this history with appeals to “it was a different time.”

While I think there is little profit in educating my ideological opponents on the complex history of contraception both wanted and unwanted, I do think white and abled feminists in particular need to acknowledge and sit with this truth. The science, laws, and public will in support of contraception are linked with the science, laws, and public will in support of eugenics, and always have been. 

Nearly 200 years ago in 1922, Francis Galton was born. The brilliant and bigoted half-cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton was a polymath who influenced many modern sciences. In the “Progressive Era” of US history (1890-1920s or end of Wild West through jazz era) he was consumed with means of classifying humans, from fingerprints to IQ to race. Galton’s fascination led him to create two new disciplines, psychometrics or the measuring of minds, and eugenics or the science of good genes. 

Prior to the Progressive Era, birth control in the United States was outlawed, thanks to Comstock laws put in place by a meddlesome Postmaster General. Sending diaphragms or condoms, or even educational pamphlets, through the mail became a serious crime. Advertisements for herbal solutions to promote “regularity” in menstruation declined. In the UK and much of Protestant Europe, condoms and “womb veils” (diaphragms) were cheap and easily available. 

Sir Francis Galton proposed contraception and sterilization as a way of preventing “undesirable” births, particularly disabled children. He believed that white people of Anglo-Saxon, Nordic or Germanic blood were naturally superior: less disabled, less criminal, less prone to poverty and vice, more intelligent, more godly, more human. He also believed poverty and criminality were hereditary traits caused by inferior genes. 

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