Mother’s and father’s days are no longer the only ones on our calendar, as World Contraception Day now marks the 26th of September, and vending machines are no longer only for snacks, but also for condoms. How have contraceptives come to be such a common notion in everyday life? Marie Stopes, an early 20th century UCL alumni can be thanked for one of the first steps towards this transformation. Being a strong advocate of women’s rights and promoting better access to contraceptives and family planning help, she founded the first British birth-control clinic, with her husband, in 1921.
Marie Stopes was born in 1880 in Edinburgh, and was educated at University College London, where she got a Doctor of Science degree, and then obtained a PhD at the University of Munich. She was also sometimes lecturer at both of these universities. She thereafter became the first female science faculty member of Manchester University. Stopes’ clinic was the first permanent birth-control clinic, and offered services such as appointments with doctors, advice on birth control and indications on how to use the cervical cap. Although it was only set up for married women, and aimed towards family planning, it was a huge step forward for liberating taboos about sex, and more broadly for women’s rights in general.
Today, most developed countries offer different forms of contraceptives for free, such as in the UK and France, or partial subsidies, such as in the US. Nonetheless, even some Western countries offer limited free access to contraception, often due to religious morals. Spain and Ireland, for instance, do not give contraceptives for free, both being
catholic. Hence, with the exception of some regions, contraception is overall encouraged in most developing countries. It is seen for many in present days as a given right. The contraceptive pill was introduced in the UK in 1961, and has since then been one of the main forms of contraception. This has largely transformed people’s approach to sexuality.
Although many changes have been made since Marie Stopes’ clinic, both in science and in people’s mentalities, it seems that this is not necessarily the case all over the world. Many women in developing countries struggle to access contraceptives, due to poverty and moral acceptations. While it is extremely important, not only for women’s emancipation, but also for alleviating poverty due to high fertility rates, it is still not tackled properly in many developing regions. Based on the understanding that family planning is a human right, the United Nations aims to improve access to women’s contraception, with the “Every Woman Every Child” movement since 2010. Its goal is to increase the number of women using contraceptives by 120 million in the world’s 69 poorest countries by 2020. This type of action is encouraging, as many women all over the world still do not have control over their own body nor the sexual freedom, which is essential for gender equality. Indeed, as many women do not have access to any form of birth control, they are subject to undesired pregnancies and health implications, such as maternal and child deaths. It is estimated that 47% of pregnancies in Rwanda are undesired, which reveals the tremendous void of sexual control, in great part due to unprotected sexual intercourses. Unwanted pregnancies also mean that many women will opt for abortion, which conditions are far from ideal. Lack of contraceptives hence not only implies that women do not have control over their own body and lives, but also that it may lead to harmful situations for women’s health, and to death.
By implementing the first permanent birth-control clinic, Marie Stopes led the way to affirming the human right for women to control their body. The development of contraceptives has forged the worldwide understanding of family planning, and has ended the silence about sexuality. Although this is the case in most parts of the world, the path towards total safety and control through contraception is still in the process of being built, as many developing countries do not have access to contraception and family planning rights.