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The Right to Know? The Politics of Information about Contraception in France (1950s–80s)

  • Bibia Pavard (a1)

Abstract

In 1920 in France, a law was passed prohibiting abortion, the sale of contraceptives and ‘anti-conception propaganda’. While contraception was legalised in 1967 and abortion in 1975, ‘anti-natalist propaganda’ remained forbidden. This article takes seriously the aim of the French state to prevent the circulation of information for demographic reasons. Drawing from government archives, social movement archives and media coverage, the article focuses on the way the propaganda ban contributed to shaping the public debate on contraception as well as lastingly impacting the ability of the state to communicate on the subject. It first shows how birth control activists challenged the legal interdiction against communicating about contraception (1956–67) without questioning the natalist obligation. It then shows how, after 1968, communication on contraception became a power struggle carried out by various actors (sexologists and feminist and leftist activists) and how the dissemination of information about contraception was thought of as a way to challenge moral and social values. Finally, the article describes the change of state communication policies in the mid-1970s, leading to the first national campaign on contraception launched in 1981, which defined information as a task that women should take on.

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Copyright

Corresponding author

*Email address for correspondence: bibia.pavard@u-paris2.fr

Footnotes

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I would like to thank Caroline Rusterholz and Jesse Olszynko-Gryn for building a stimulating international network of researchers and for the brio with which they supervised  the special issue.

Footnotes

References

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1. Janine Mossuz-Lavau, Les lois de l’amour, les politiques de la sexualité en France de 1950 à nos jours[The Laws of Love, Sexual Politics in France from 1950 to the Present] (Paris: Payot, 2002); Bibia Pavard Si je veux, quand je veux. Contraception et avortement dans la société française 1956–79 [If I Want It, When I Want It. Contraception and Abortion in French Society 1956–79] (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2012).

2. For a comparative perspective on the circulation of information about reproduction see the Bulletin of History of Medicine, ‘Communicating Reproduction’, 89 (2015) and Kate Fisher, Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain, 1918–60 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

3. Fabrice Cahen, Gouverner les mœurs. La lutte contre l’avortement en France, 1890–1950[Governing Vice. The Struggle against Abortion in France] (Paris: INED Editions, 2016).

4. Elinor Accampo ‘The Gendered Nature of Contraception in France: Neo-Malthusianism, 1900–20’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 34(2003), 235–62 and Anne Cova, Féminisme et néo-malthusianisme sous la III $^{e}$ République «La liberté de la maternité» [Feminism and Néo-Mathusianism during the Third Republic: ‘The Free Maternity’] (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2011).

5. Francis Sanseigne, ‘Le Planning Familial face à la loi (1956–67): entre arrangement et transformation’ [French Family Planning and Law (1956–67): Between Compromise and Transformation], Nouvelles questions féministes, 29 (2010), 16–31.

6. Anne Revillard, ‘Stating Family Values and Women’s Rights: Familialism and Feminism within the French Republic’, French Politics, 5 (2007), 210–28, 211.

7. Bibia Pavard, ‘Une “guerre de 20 ans”: les luttes du planning familial dans L’Expresset Le Nouvel Observateur (1955–75)’ [A 20-year war: the family planning battle in L’Express and Le Nouvel Observateur], in Christine Bard and Janine Mossuz-Lavau (eds), Le planning familial. Histoire et mémoire [Family Planning. History and Memory] (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2006), 119–26.

8. Marie–Andrée Weill-Hallé, Le«Planning» familial (Paris: Maloine, 1959).

9. ‘Du Birth Controlau Planning Familial (1955–60): un transfert militant?’ [From Birth Control to Family Planning in France (1956–60): An Advocacy Transfer], Histoire@Politique. Politique, culture, société, 18 (2012), https://www.cairn.info/revue-histoire-politique-2012-3-page-162.htm.

10. The analysis of the gender organization of the French Family Planning Movement in the 1960s draws from the archives of the association (D0401–D0405; D0804) and seven interviews with former members as well as testimonies published in Bard and Mossuz-Lavau (eds), op. cit. (note 7) and Collectif, D’une Révolte à une lutte: 25 ans d’histoire du Planning Familial [From Rebellion to Struggle: 25 Years of Family Planning] (Paris: Tierce, 1982).

11. Paul-André Rosental, L’intelligence démographique. Sciences et politiques des populations en France, 1930–60[Demographic Intelligence. Population Sciences and Policies in France, 1930–60] (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2003), 236 (personal translation).

12. The analysis of the debate in Parliament is based on Journal officiel de la République françaiseand an interview with Lucien Neuwirth (4 April 2006); see also Mossuz-Lavau, op. cit. (note 1).

13. ‘Mais nous-mêmes, mes chers collègues, ne faisons-nous pas une propagande effrénée et sans pudeur, mieux que ne saurait le faire la meilleure maison de publicité ? Il est regrettable qu’un tel projet ne puisse être discuté à huis clos, comme aux assises quand il s’agit d’affaires de mœurs’, Jean Coumaros, Journal Officiel de la République française, Assemblée nationale, 1 July 1967, 2569.

14. Arlette Gautier, ‘Les politiques familiales et démographiques dans les départements français d’Outre-mer depuis 1946’ [Family and Demographic Policies in the French Overseas Departments since 1946], Cahiers des sciences humaines, 24 (1988), 389–402; Françoise Vergès, Le ventre des femmes. Capitalisme, racialisation, féminisme[Women’s Womb. Capitalism, Race and Feminism] (Paris: Albin Michel, 2017).

15. Sylvie Chaperon, ‘Kinsey: les sexualités féminines et masculines en débat’ [Kinsey: Debating Feminine and Masculine Sexualities], Le Mouvement Social, 198 (2002), 97.

16. Catherine Valabrègue, La Condition étudiante[The Student Condition] (Paris: Payot, 1970), 8, 39.

17. Anne-Claire Rebreyend, Intimités amoureuses, France (1920–75)[Intimate Love, France (1920–75)] (Toulouse: Presses du Mirail, 2008), 314.

18. Pierre Simon, Jean Gondonneau, Lucien Mironer and Anne-Marie Dourlen-Rollier, Rapport sur le comportement sexuel des Français (Paris: René Julliard et Pierre Charron, 1972) .

19. Henri Leridon, ‘La Seconde révolution contraceptive: la régulation des naissances en France, 1950–85’ [The Second Contraceptive Revolution: Birth Control in France, 1950–85], Population, 42, 2 (1985), 359–67.

20. “‘Pills that fail”: interview with “an eminent gynecologist” whose name is not given $\ldots$ ’, Marie Claire (October 1971), 230.

21. Anonymous, ‘Contraception’, Le Torchon Brûle, 1 (1971), no date, no page.

22. Kate Fisher shows in her study about Great Britain that ‘being innocent was presented as a crucial aspect of female identity, particularly among the working classes’: textitop. cit. (note 2), 66.

23. Anonymous, supplement of Torchon Brûle, 5 (1973), no date, no page.

24. See Ilana Löwy,‘Le féminisme a-t-il changé la recherche biomédicale? Le Women’s Health Movement et les transformations de la médecine aux États-Unis’ [Has Feminism Modified Biomedical Research? The Women’s Health Movement and Changes in Medicine in the US], Travail, genre et sociétés, 14 (2005), 103 and Lucile Ruault, ‘La circulation transnationale du self-help féministe: acte 2 des luttes pour l’avortement libre ?’ [The Transnational Circulation of Feminist Self-Help: The Second Act in the Fight for Abortion Rights?], Critique internationale, 70 (2016), 37–54.

25. Elizabeth Watkins, On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950–70 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

26. MLAC Charter, Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, DOS MLAC.

27. On the abortion reform see Pavard, op. cit. (note 1).

28. Lucile Ruault, ‘Le spéculum, la canule et le miroir. Les MLAC et mobilisations de santé des femmes, entre appropriation féministe et propriété médicale de l’avortement (France, 1972–84). [Speculum, Cannula and Mirror. The MLACs and Women’s Health Mobilizations, between Feminist Appropriation and Medical Property of Abortion (France, 1972–84)] (unpublished PhD thesis: University of Lille, 2017).

29. French National Archives, Direction générale de la Santé, 19850019, art. 18, Centre d’information sur le contrôle des naissances, la maternité et la vie sexuelle (Information Centre on Birth Control, Motherhood and Sexual Life.

30. French National Archives, Direction générale de la Santé, 19850019, art. 19, press release, 10 February 1976.

31. Assises of the national committee for the regulation of births on 1 October 1977 under the presidency of Prof Soutoul in the presence of Dr Lefebvre-Paul, technical adviser representing Mrs S. Veil, Minister of Health.

32. Letter from Marie-Andrée Lagroua Weill-Hallé and J.-H. Soutoul to the Minister of Health, 7 April 1980.

33. On Yvette Roudy’s public action, see Françoise Thébaud, ‘Promouvoir les droits des femmes: ambitions, difficultés et résultats’ [Promoting women’s rights: ambitions, challenges and results] in Serge Berstein, Pierre Milza and J.-L. Bianco (eds), Les années Mitterrand: les années du changement (1981–1984) (Paris: Perrin, 2001), Jane Jenson and Mariette Sineau, Mitterrand et les Françaises, un rendez-vous manqué [Mitterrand and French Women: A Missed Appointment] (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1995) and Anne Revillard, La cause des femmes dans l’État. Une comparaison France-Québec [The Cause of Women in the State. A Comparison between France and Quebec] (Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 2016).

34. On the history of state communication in France, see ‘L’État communicant’, Quaderni, 33, 1997; on state feminist symbolic action, see Amy G. Mazur, Gender Bias and the State. Symbolic Reform at Work in the Fifth Republic France (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995) and Revillard, op. cit. (note 31).

35. French Television Archives, INA (Audiovisual National Institute), Television News, 1pm, TF1 (Channel 1) 17 November 1981.

36. French Family Planning Movement Archives, Contraception campaign, B 0153 CONT, Doc no 10440 and B 0131 CONT, Doc no 22544.

37. Summary of letters received by the Ministry: French National Archives, Ministry of Women’s Rights, 19910616/24.

38. Cécile Ventola, ‘Prescrire un contraceptif: le rôle de l’institution médicale dans la construction de catégories sexuées’ [Prescribing Contraception: The Role of Medicalisation in Gendering Birth Control], Genre, sexualité & société, 12 (2014). http://journals.openedition.org/gss/3215.

39. Nathalie Bajos and Michèle Ferrand, ‘L’avortement à l’âge de raison’ [Abortion in the Age of Reason], Mouvements, 17 (2001), 99–105, 102.

I would like to thank Caroline Rusterholz and Jesse Olszynko-Gryn for building a stimulating international network of researchers and for the brio with which they supervised  the special issue.

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