Conference: “Gender and contraception: what kind of (r)evolutions?”
December 18th-19th, 2017, Paris, France
Organized by the Contraception & Genre junior lab (Cité du Genre, HALL USPC)
Fifty years ago, on December 19th, 1967, the French parliament adopted the Neuwirth Law legalizing contraception. During the same decade in France and in many other parts of the world, the use of new medical methods of birth control – such as the pill or intra-uterine devices – gradually increased. Usually perceived as a revolution, specifically regarding women’s self-determination of their bodies, this shift opened the path for major changes in how sexuality and its procreative consequences are dealt with. It produced major changes in norms of sexuality, fertility and gender. However, these evolutions have not always resulted in liberation, as some fertility control technologies have been used by governments in coercive ways to act upon population growth not only in so-called “developing countries”, but also in marginal fringes of the population in so-called “developed countries”.
The aim of the conference on “Gender and contraception” is to question those “(r)evolutions”, by synthetizing existing research and offering new leads on birth control practices (including contraception and abortion) from a gender studies perspective, with special attention to other power relations (class, race, age, disability). We seek a discussion between different fields dealing with contraception (demography, sociology, history, anthropology, political sciences, epidemiology, etc.).
Birth control, defined as a set of contraceptive and abortive practices oriented towards the restriction of the number of births, is a field legally and materially defined by governments. Their role impacts the social meaning given to these practices. Public policies result from compromises and negotiations between different kinds of actors (such as government and representatives, experts, activists) and shape the possible ways in which sexuality and procreation may be dissociated. Material and legal access to fertility control methods has direct consequences on social trajectories – especially for women – and evolves in connection with political representations of procreative autonomy and equality between the sexes.
In the 1960s, a new actor emerged in the field of birth control: the medical profession, entitled as a gate-keeper after a long period of non-intervention in this field, began controlling access to contraceptive methods and defining new forms of expertise on the subject. The medicalization of contraception, stemming from the emergence of new medical technologies and shifts in national regulations, profoundly redefined practices of birth control. No longer relegated to the private sphere of couples’ intimacy, they became a decision to be discussed with health professionals. In that light, contraceptive and procreative decisions have to be understood in relation to medical contexts: prescribers’ representations and practices, fed by their professional culture and training, contribute to the definition of what is possible and desirable as a choice of contraceptives.
“What is the most suitable method?”, “How legitimate is abortion?”, “What is the best procreative timing?”, “Which gender should bear the weight of contraceptive responsibility?”… Those queries address social norms informed by doctors and governments, which people deal with throughout their lives. Individuals sometimes try to resist these norms, or to divert contraceptive methods from their original use – for instance by using oestroprogestagens to treat acne or period pains, and hormonal intrauterine devices or the pill to suppress menses. Public policies, mobilizations from activists, medicalization, and gender and social norms are the keys to understanding contraceptive practices. The accessibility of contraception and the social norms governing individual practices have a major impact on women’s and men’s sexualities, by allowing them to keep their procreative consequences under control.