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Friday, May 14, 2004

Birth control and eugenics

I'm reading an interesting book by Andrea Tone called Devices and Desires, a History of Contraceptives in America right now. I've gotten to the point where Margaret Sanger really started to be successful in her campaign to start birth control clinics. Of course, the problem of birth control as a eugenics program rears its ugly head at this point.
I have been told many times in the past that my support for widespread contraception is misguided, that I have been duped into a larger eugenics program that I'm not aware of. Margaret Sanger's racism is often trotted out as support in these arguments. But pointing out the racism of past birth control advocates is not, in itself, an argument that birth control is eugenics.
The truth of the matter is that many, if not most, birth control advocates get into it because they are feminists, and believe in female empowerment through birth control. It's a simple argument, that since women are the ones who get pregnant that they should be able to exert as much control over that as possible. It's a private decision, and no one else's business. The feminist argument is pro-freedom. But it is damn near impossible to sell female empowerment in and of itself. Eugenics is the subterfuge that has worked, and repeatedly. That was the compromise that Sanger made. After years of agitating for sexual freedom and reproductive choice for women and getting nowhere, she changed tactics. She aligned herself with doctors and argued that doctors should be able to have the authority to prescribe or not prescribe birth control. As long as women were still under social control of doctors, birth control became more palatable.
This is not to say that Sanger wasn't racist. She was, as were most white people at the time. But eugenics was a subterfuge, whether you like it or not.
Ducking the implications of female empowerment and finding a way to use conservative concerns to argue for birth control rights has always been the strategy to increase access and it still is. In the past, people were convinced of the necessity of birth control from their own racism and sexism. But the reality that followed was that women chose or didn't choose birth control mostly for their own personal reasons.
The same openness to using conservative arguments to achieve the ends of progressive birth control movements is still around, particularly in the area of birth control rights for teenage girls. That's right, I said rights. You rarely hear that word when it comes to teenage girls. Liberals generally agree with conservatives that teenage girls shouldn't have babies and then it becomes an argument of the best way to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies. You rarely hear anyone argue that teenage girls have rights as a sexual beings to have as much information about their bodies and their options as everybody else. But of course they do.
We have accepted that adult women of all races have a right to know what their options are so that they can make a decision. And many of us even have grudgingly learned to respect those choices, or at least keep our opinions to ourselves. Certainly the law shouldn't put limits on number of children or compel women to have any that they don't want.
But as long as we have a legal structure that accepts that female sexuality should be under control, at least some control, the argument is always going to be liberals arguing for reducing control and conservatives arguing for increasing control. And those of us who think that rejecting control outright will be considered hopeless radicals.


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