By columnist Diana Pearson
In today’s capitalist world, one of the few free pleasures we have left to enjoy is sex. Sexual pleasure, of course, doesn’t come without risks. But, as long as we have reproductive freedom (effective birth control, sex education, and safe abortion), we can continue fucking happily until the world falls apart. On January 25, 2017, Trump re-implemented a Reagan-era gag order that prohibits foreign organizations that receive US family-planning funds from providing abortion counselling. This policy comes from a moral and religious standpoint, and will negatively impact already vulnerable populations. Reproductive rights should not be considered a luxury. But it has gotten swept up in the politics of gender and class—and needs to be understood as such.
Let’s take a moment to explore the socialist roots of reproductive freedom. In 1975, feminist Linda Gordon in Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, wrote that the birth control movement in the US happened in waves characterized by changing terms and social values: voluntary motherhood, birth control, and planned parenthood. Knowing our history of reproductive politics contributes to political empowerment.
Voluntary motherhood became popular from about 1870 onward. During this time, there was a general disapproval of contraception; to avoid becoming pregnant, women would go through long periods of abstinence. There was a trend toward smaller families, influenced by North American industrialization; families moving from rural to urban spaces had to think about housing, increased cost of food, precarious urban employment, and the uncertainties of newly developing American capitalism. Having only one or two kids made it easier for working-class families to stay healthy and, quite frankly, to survive.
Around 1910, there was a second wave characterized by the new term “birth control”. At this time, it was against the law in Canada and the US to share information about birth control and abortion, under the pretence that these practices were “immoral” and “obscene.” In the US, this was called the Comstock Law; in Canada, it was section 179 of the Criminal Code. Many birth control advocates, including Margaret Sanger, pushed back against these laws because of the suffering working-class women and families experienced in childbirth. Women and newborns often died; when they didn’t, their health was often poor due to large family size, low wages, and unsanitary conditions in cities. Without access to information about birth control and safe abortion, working-class women suffered the most. The fight was connected to socialist goals; as Linda Gordon said, “It stood not only for women’s autonomy, but for a revolutionizing of the society and the empowering of the powerless—the working class and the female sex primarily.”
From about the 1930s onward, planned parenthood became the popular term for birth control practices. The socialist aims of the birth control movement mellowed as contraceptives became a more common method to control family size.
A fourth wave emerged with the sexual liberation of the 1960s, made possible by new contraceptives, such as the pill and IUDs, which have continued to the present with innovations like Depo Provera, Nuva Ring, and Plan B.
The 1974 United Nations World Population Plan of Action recommends that all countries “respect and ensure… the right of persons to determine, in a free, informed and responsible manner, the number and spacing of their children”; they recommend sex education, access to safe abortion, and the right to make informed decisions of when and if to have children. The UN also specifically states that this right to informed decision-making about reproduction improves the quality of womens’ lives.
The Trump administration has begun a War on Sex. Thus, Mike Pence’s announcement at the recent pro-life march that “life is winning in America,” actually implies women are losing. This battle to keep reproductive rights requires us to remember the legal and social history of birth control here in North America. Canada has followed American policy decisions in this direction before, and the right to abortion here has fairly recently been won. Because women bear the physical responsibility of childbirth, our economic, political, and physical freedoms and equality depend on the maintenance of these rights.
One of Diana’s passions is to encourage sex-positivity and open, shameless conversations about sex and sexuality through her column, “Dirtyin’ The Nav.” Her future path includes completing a Masters in Gender Studies and Social Justice, and teaching pleasure-based sex education. She is a non-fiction writer and a musician. As a copy editor, she revels in making The Nav look pretty.