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.  


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,, (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.

Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) in Times of COVID-19

Annika Orich is Assistant Professor of German at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research centers on the intersection between science and art, debates on multiculturalism and migration, discourses on memory and identity, and questions about humor. Her book project on reproductive imaginations shows how reproductive processes in biology and the arts evoke similar anxieties in the German cultural realm. She has published on Germans’ changing attitudes toward their Nazi past and the function of comedy by immigrants in German identity debates, and her article “Archival Resistance: Reading the New Right” is forthcoming (German Politics and Society).

At the end of April 2020, the BioTexCom Center for Human Reproduction posted a four-minute video about babies in the Ukrainian companies’ care who were born via surrogacy and currently unable to be with their parents due to COVID-19 travel restrictions on its YouTube channel.[1] Sitting in a conference room while reading a prepared statement from a MacBook in his lap, BioTexCom’s lawyer addressed clients around the world who had abruptly been prevented from coming to Kiev to meet and pick up their children. Two seconds into the lawyer’s statement, the camera cuts to and pans across neatly arranged rows of swaddled newborns in hospital baby cots.[2]

The crying of these babies—which is used to drown out the voice of BioTexCom’s lawyer—ultimately alert viewers of the extent to which laws not only regulate the unification of families in times of COVID-19, but also facilitate the very existence of these children. In the Ukraine, commercial surrogacy for infertile heterosexual married couples is legal. In Germany, the Embryo Protection Act bans any form of surrogacy.

BioTexCom produced this video to assure parents of the well-being of their children, and to urge them to obtain travel exemptions. Yet the images of rows of babies waiting to meet their intended mothers and fathers for the first time caused a national and international debate on the ethics of surrogate motherhood and the (non-)regulation of the assisted reproductive technology (ART) market.[3]

„Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) in Times of COVID-19“ weiterlesen

‘I ought not be married as a coloured person’: Rassenmischehen and Categories of Difference in 1920s Southwest Africa

Lisa M. Todd is Associate Professor of History at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, an MA from Royal Holloway College, University of London, and a BA from the University of New Brunswick.  Todd’s first monograph, Sexual Treason in Germany during the First World War, appeared in 2017 with Palgrave-Macmillan. Her current project, “Racial Citizenship: Miscegenation, Scientific Authority, and the Creation of Intimate ‘Others’ in Modern Germany, 1880-1950,” examines the anthropological interest in “mixed race” sexual relationships, from the German colonial period, to the end of the Third Reich. 

Background: Post-Genocidal Mixed Marriage Regulations

In 1905, amidst the genocidal violence that accompanied the German-Herero and German-Nama Wars, colonial administrators in German Southwest Africa (SWA, present-day Namibia) introduced a ban on ‘civil marriages between whites and ‘natives.’ Two years later they nullified all so-called mixed marriages that had taken place before 1905. In 1908, a German Imperial Ordinance was published conferring on governors the power to make laws concerning the marriage of Indigenous peoples in Protectorates. In May 1912 the German Reichstag passed a controversial resolution ‘to ensure the validity of marriages between whites and natives in all German colonies’ and to determine the rights of illegitimate children, and in April 1914, the Governor of German Southwest Africa issued a decree allowing for the registration of marriages between Europeans and ‘natives’. The inconsistency of these legal decisions, over the course of only nine years, resulted in trauma to the families involved, but also an uneven implementation of the processes of sexual and racial segregation that accompanied the German occupation of Namibia.[1]

A lively historiography has developed around early twentieth century Rassenmischehen in the colonial sphere, as scholars seek to evaluate how the racialization of space compounded hierarchies of power in settler societies. Sexual ‘race-mixing,’ or miscegenation, presented obstacles to these power structures. White settlers increasingly saw biracial persons as cases in urgent need of categorization: would these people, with the ‘white blood in their veins’ be useful in future European domination, or did their ‘black blood’ mark them as future threats to white supremacy in occupied lands?  Uncertainty about the intersections of race, sexuality, and the law continued past German occupation, and were further complicated when South African authorities introduced their own anti-miscegenation legislation after 1919. The following example illustrates this point.

„‘I ought not be married as a coloured person’: Rassenmischehen and Categories of Difference in 1920s Southwest Africa“ weiterlesen

„Weggelaufene“ Ehefrauen vor der Scharia

Scheidungsproblematiken im habsburgischen Bosnien-Herzegowina

Ninja Bumann ist Universitätsassistentin (PraeDoc) am Institut für Osteuropäische Geschichte der Universität Wien. Sie forscht im Rahmen ihrer Dissertation zu Ehen und Geschlechterbeziehungen sowie deren Aushandlung an Schariagerichten im habsburgischen Bosnien-Herzegowina.

Mit der Okkupation der osmanischen Provinzen Bosnien und Herzegowina durch Österreich-Ungarn im Jahr 1878 kamen erstmals Muslim*innen unter habsburgische Herrschaft. Sie stellten ein Drittel der Bevölkerung Bosnien-Herzegowinas.[1] Dies führte dazu, dass die hiesigen Schariagerichte in die neu errichtete österreichisch-ungarische Verwaltung integriert wurden. Diese Gerichte, die nach islamischen Vorschriften Recht sprachen, waren für die Regelung von Ehe-, Familien- und Erbangelegenheiten von Muslim*innen zuständig. Die Akten dieser Schariagerichte bieten Historiker*innen heute eine Masse an Informationen, welche über Ehe- und Familienbeziehungen Auskunft geben und gleichzeitig ebenso die Komplexität des Verhältnisses zwischen der habsburgischen Herrschaft und der lokalen muslimischen Bevölkerung aufzeigen. Als Beispiel, um diese Aspekte darzustellen, bieten sich die Gerichtsfälle zu Frauen an, die ihren Ehemann gegen dessen Willen verlassen haben. 

Ein Gesuch an den bosnischen Gouverneur

Im Dezember 1900 wurde dem gemeinsamen k.u.k. Finanzminister und Gouverneur von Bosnien-Herzegowina, Benjámin Kállay, ein von zahlreichen muslimischen Notabeln aus ganz Bosnien-Herzegowina unterzeichnetes Gesuch überreicht, in dem unter anderem gefordert wurde, dass die Schariagerichte eine Vollstreckungskompetenz erhalten sollten. Mit dieser Kompetenz ausgestattet sollten Schariarichter ihre Urteile unter Androhung von Geld- oder Haftstrafen aussprechen können, die dann von den Landesbehörden umgesetzt werden sollten. Diese Forderung wurde damit begründet, dass Ehefrauen ihre Ehemänner häufig gegen dessen Willen und ohne eine gerichtliche Auflösung der Ehe verließen. Dieses Verhalten sei aber gegen die „religiösen Institutionen“ und zerstöre „das Fundament des islamischen Ehe- und Familienlebens“.[2]

„„Weggelaufene“ Ehefrauen vor der Scharia“ weiterlesen

Ja, Nein, Vielleicht, oder doch vielleicht nicht? … Trans* im Recht der Europäischen Union

Berit Ebert hat an der Rheinisch-Westfälischen Technischen Hochschule Aachen sowie an der Universität Wien studiert und wurde 2012 mit einer Arbeit zur gleichstellungspolitischen Rechtsprechung des Gerichtshofes der Europäischen Union promoviert. Als Head of Programs & Development leitet sie derzeit das Programm der American Academy in Berlin. In ihrem gegenwärtigen Buchprojekt Wie Europa Zeus bändigte: Transnationalität im Gleichstellungsrecht der Europäischen Union untersucht sie den Einfluss einzelner Kläger*nnen auf die entsprechende Rechtsentwicklung.

In den 1990er-Jahren erreichten den Gerichtshof der Europäischen Union (EuGH) eine Reihe von Vorabentscheidungsverfahren im Bereich Trans*. Sie bauten auf dem europäische Gleichstellungsrecht auf, avancierten es, legten gleichzeitig aber auch seine Grenzen und ambivalenten Charakter offen. 

Die Ursprünge des europäischen Gleichstellungsrechts datieren auf die Gründung der Europäischen Wirtschaftsgemeinschaft (EWG) im Jahre 1957 sowie auf das dort verankerte Lohngleichheitsgebot in Artikel 119 EWG[1]. Diese war Grundlage für neues Sekundärrecht[2],  maßgeblich die Gleichbehandlungsrichtlinie sowie die Entgeltgleichheitsrichtlinie der 1970er Jahre,[3] und für Entscheidungen des Europäischen Gerichtshofes. Betroffen waren vor allem Fragen der gleichen Bezahlung, der Arbeitsbedingungen und des Sozialrechts, beispielsweise hinsichtlich der Altersversorgung. 

Die Entscheidungen des Gerichtshofes der Europäischen Union

Es kam das Jahr 1995 und damit der Fall P gegen S Cornwall City Council.[4] P. war beim Cornwall City Council in führender Position tätig, teilte der/dem Arbeitgeber*in mit, dass er eine Geschlechtsanpassung plane und wurde kurz darauf entlassen. Lag eine Diskriminierung vor? Nein, auf keinen Fall, so meinte das beklagte Cornwall City Council. Ein Trans* Mann würde ebenso diskriminiert werden wie eine Trans* Frau. Gleichbehandlung sei folglich gegeben. Der EuGH sah dies indes anders und stellte eine Diskriminierung fest: Die neue Identität (Frau) werde im Vergleich zur ursprünglichen Identität (Mann) benachteiligt.  

„Ja, Nein, Vielleicht, oder doch vielleicht nicht? … Trans* im Recht der Europäischen Union“ weiterlesen

Männlichkeit und Ehe nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg

Dieser Text ist im Rahmen des Seminars „Männlichkeit(en)” (im WiSe 2019/20, bei Ulrike Schaper, FU Berlin) unter der Zusammenarbeit von Tom-Aaron Aschke, Maria Ganten, Charlotte Lünstroth und Daniel Woyciechowski entstanden. Maria Ganten hat ihn für ihn für diesen Blog aufarbeitet. Sie studiert Geschichte und Englisch an der Freien Universität und arbeitet als studentische Mitarbeiterin im Projekt „Homosexuellenbewegung und Rechtsordnung in der BRD (1949–2002)“.

Einige Historiker*innen befassten sich vor dem Hintergrund der sich etablierenden Geschlechtergeschichte innerhalb der Neuen Kulturgeschichte mit den Folgen von Kriegsversehrtheit für Gesellschaften und Individuen.[1] Daraus entwickelte sich unter anderem die Frage, wie sich die Geschlechterordnung in Folge des Ersten Weltkriegs veränderte.[2] Nils Löffelbein beschreibt beispielsweise die oft optisch stark sichtbare und körperlich einschränkende Kriegsversehrtheit vieler heimkehrender Soldaten als einen Bruch mit bestehenden Männlichkeitsbildern. Teil dieser Bilder war eine maskulin-heroische Härte nach Innen und Außen, die Männlichkeit auszeichnete.[3] Brüche mit diesen Erwartungen werden besonders im Verhältnis zu anderen Geschlechteridentitäten und Rollenerwartungen sichtbar, insbesondere dann, wenn die Positionen miteinander verschränkt oder voneinander abhängig sind. Anhand der Ehe und den damit einhergehenden Rechten und Pflichten können Brüche entsprechend besonders gut erkennbar werden.  

„Männlichkeit und Ehe nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg“ weiterlesen