The Conservative Roots of Reproductive Rights

Roman Birke is a Research and Teaching Associate in Contemporary History at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena. His research focuses on the history of human rights, reproductive policies, and gender. In 2020, he published ‘Geburtenkontrolle als Menschenrecht. Die globale Diskussion über Überbevölkerung seit den 1940ern‘ (Wallstein). The book investigates the linkage between overpopulation discourse and human rights since the 1940s. It argues that in the 1950s and 1960s, claims that ‘overpopulation’ threatened to endanger human rights proved to be a key factor in the success of population control programs in the global south. 

In the 1960s, traditional norms about sexuality were challenged by what became known as the ‘sexual revolution’. In 1968, the United Nations adopted a resolution which, for the first time in the UN’s history, declared the use of contraceptives to be a human right. But, as this contribution argues, the new human right to contraception was not part of a discourse of sexual freedom but reinforced traditional family norms. 

‘Sexual revolution’

Historiographical accounts have convincingly questioned the term ‘sexual revolution’ as the transformation of sexual norms was less an event but rather a process. But, without a doubt, studies on sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s changed the public debates about sexual practices long considered taboo, including extra-marital sex and homosexuality. At the same time, feminist activists campaigned for the acknowledgment of female sexual desires and demanded a separation of sex and reproduction. At least in the ‘Western’ world, the development of new contraceptive technologies like the ‘pill’ and the IUD (Intrauterine device) have been key for advancing this agenda, despite the uneven access to contraceptives and women’s critique of bearing the sole responsibility for contraceptive choices and risks.

Contraception as a Human Right

During the contentious debates about sexual norms in the 1960s, the United Nations claimed that the use of contraceptives was a human right and urged governments to provide couples with the ‘means necessary to enable them to exercise their right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children’.[1] Many contemporary contributions like the Oxford Handbook of Reproductive Ethics claim that these UN documents were the cornerstone of what we understand as reproductive and sexual rights today which include the right to decide whether or not to have children, the right to sexual and reproductive health and being able to have a ‘satisfying and safe sex life’, independent of sexual preferences.[2] But, surprisingly, the UN-resolutions of the 1960s were not part of a discourse of sexual freedom. Rather, they understood contraception as a potential remedy to the anxieties of global overpopulation and emphasized traditional family norms.

The couple as rights-holder

Contrary to many human rights documents at the time, the resolutions declared the couple instead of the individual to be the bearer of a right to contraception. But, who, within the couple, had the power to decide on whether or not to use contraception? Many domestic legal and constitutional norms in the 1960s and beyond declared men to be the head of the family which made the individual exercise of rights dependent on the gendered power imbalances within the couple. This was not only a matter of legal theory. When, in 1984, a large number of activists gathered for the International Women’s Health Conference, speakers emphasized that many women in their respective countries cannot make contraceptive choices without the agreement of their male spouses. 

Protecting the family

The UN’s view on reproductive rights was strongly linked to how human rights documents conceptualized the family. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 16) and the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 23) both defined the family as ‘the natural and fundamental group unit of society’ and argued that it was ‘entitled to protection by society and the State.’ Many UN member countries emphasized that contraception should not question traditional roles of men and women within the family. In a series of meetings of the UN’s Third Committee in 1966 and 1967, the French and Iranian delegates argued that questioning these roles would introduce ‘elements of conflict into the marriage’ and threaten the ‘unity and harmony of the family’. The British delegate reasoned that equal opportunities should not be ‘divorced from a woman’s primary duty to her family’. Only the US-delegate argued that the responsibilities for family affairs including family planning ‘should be shared by both spouses’ and that calls to protect the harmony of the family were just ‘pretext for discriminatory practices against women’.[3]

Despite such a critique, traditional family norms remained at the forefront of global UN-programs that distributed contraceptives to men and women. While many organizations and activists involved in these efforts privately believed in the emancipatory potential of contraception, they focused on providing only married couples with contraceptives and emphasized traditional gender roles. Instead of showcasing alternative roles beyond traditional family norms, advertisements for contraception like the 1968 Disney film ‘Family Planning’ argued that using contraceptives to reduce the number of children would allow women to be more efficient in carrying out their domestic duties.  

Change

Despite their focus on maintaining traditional family norms, early reproductive rights declarations already contained an acknowledgement of individual desires to limit the number of children. Paradoxically, this position was not per se related to the discourses of the ‘sexual revolution’. Also, it was not primarily concerned with envisioning new roles for women beyond motherhood and duties to the family. Rather, limiting the number of children was part of a wider discourse of overpopulation and attempts to reduce population growth in the global south. But despite the original intentions, the human right to contraception became a slogan that was reappropriated by the women’s movement and activist-minded international lawyers who intended to change global gender relations. Already in 1975, the UN Mexico City Women’s conference formulated a strong rebuke to previous UN resolutions on contraception. Instead of declaring contraception a couple’s right, their resolution claimed that all individuals had such a right. They also emphasized that individuals did not only have a right to limit the number of their children. They also claimed a right of not having children at all. 

While UN human rights doctrine started to understand women’s rights as independent of their roles within the family, many contemporary debates about contraception and the family are reminiscent of the conservative origins of reproductive rights in the 1960s. Based on what Ivan Krastev described as ‘demographic anxiety’, many authoritarian governments envision a national awakening by the means of an increased birth rate of heterosexual couples, turning back decades of developments in the legal understanding of reproductive rights.[4]


Cite this article: Roman Birke, „The Conservative Roots of Reproductive Rights“, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 19/01/2021, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1580, (abgerufen am: Datum).


[1] United Nations: Declaration on Social Progress and Development, Proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 2542 (XXIV) of 11 December 1969.
[2] Leslie Francis, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Reproductive Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
[3] United Nations Official Records: Minutes of the Third Committee in 1966 and 1967 (Meetings 1444, 1445, 1469, 1475).
[4] Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, ‘Populisms in Eastern Europe: A Demographic Anxiety’, Le Débat No 204, no. 2 (2019): 161–69.