restricted access The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1997 (review)
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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.2 (2000) 368-369

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Book Review

The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1997

Angus McLaren and Arlene Tigar McLaren. The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1997. 2d ed. Canadian Social History Series. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997. 209 pp. Tables, graphs. $19.95 (paperbound).

In the late 1960s, the future Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, declared that "the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation" (p. 9). The remark came as Canada's Criminal Code was being amended to remove sections pertaining to the dissemination of birth control information and devices; these sections had been in effect since 1892. Taking their title from this oft-cited assertion, Angus and Arlene McLaren make it clear that the "state," together with many other individuals and institutions--be they political, religious, or philanthropic--has long permitted itself to invade the realm of reproduction.

The husband and wife coauthors make an interesting team: he is well known for his work on the history of contraception, reproduction, and eugenics; she is a feminist sociologist. Originally published in 1986, their book was quickly acclaimed by Canadian social historians. It was unjustly overlooked, however, by American journals of medical history, including this Bulletin, and it is difficult to understand why. Perhaps studies on Canada were perceived to be local (and therefore irrelevant).

The work brings together testimony from a host of differing sources: statistics on birthrates and abortion; letters written by anxious Canadians to birth control advocates in other nations, such as Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes; statements on the ambivalent attitudes of various elements on the political Left. The McLarens did not wish to write "a triumphant story of enlightened propagandists beating back the forces of ignorance" (pp. 9-10); instead, they produced a [End Page 368] nuanced examination of the vested interests of both advocates and opponents. The short book works effectively in teaching: each chapter is a model of succinct writing that tells its tale quickly and ends with concise conclusions.

Citing figures that reveal declining birthrates, the authors show that Canadians, like the citizens of other industrialized nations, have limited family size for well over a century. They argue that the forces that caused them to do so are as much social, economic, and political as they are medical. Home methods to prevent conception or induce abortion are described via the citation of personal letters. A chapter is devoted to the underappreciated rubber tycoon, A. R. Kaufman, whose program of information and supplies of jelly, applicators, and condoms led to the 1936 arrest and trial of his nurse, Dorothea Palmer. Motivated by eugenicist plans for the future of the working classes, Kaufman may have welcomed if not provoked the trial as a form of publicity; he fired Palmer after her acquittal. The Catholic province of Quebec also poses an interesting case: long famous for its large families and for seeming to "resist" birth control advocacy, Quebec saw its birthrate drop from the highest in the nation around 1920 to the lowest by 1971. The most rapid fall occurred before the advent of the pill and in the face of two papal encyclicals against artificial contraception; somewhat surprisingly, Canadian clerics were opposed to the papal edicts and seemed to tolerate information on contraception.

An affordable paperback, this "second edition" is actually a reprint with one additional chapter to bring the story from 1980 up to 1997. Unfortunately, more recent publications--including work on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Arnup, Backhouse, Mitchinson, and Strange--could only be listed (p. 199), rather than cited in the relevant portions of the book. In the additional chapter, "Back to the Future," the authors do an excellent job of covering landmark cases inspired by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), including the striking down of the Canadian abortion law (1988) and...