Access Denied: Contraceptive History

I was fortunate enough to view the “largest retrospection on contraception ever assembled.” The traveling History of Contraception stopped at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. While the collection was certainly unique (who keeps their used contraceptive devices?), a lack of cultural context was desperately missing. Cheerfully stating, “you will see the creativity and ingenuity employed in the absence of today’s knowledge and readily available, safe and effective products.” Readily available, safe and effective? Last time I checked, the lack of safe, inexpensive and most importantly, reliable birth control was novel science fiction lost in the bureaucracy of moral values.

Sponsored by Janssen-Ortho, Inc. (a Canadian pharmaceutical company whose parent company is Johnson and Johnson) the exhibit displays various methods of contraceptives – from the candy wrapper as condom to the exotic dried weasel testicle. The journey from torturous, often deadly concoctions (lead and mercury), to our modern day miracle, the pill, summed up centuries of women’s attempts to control their own fertility, their bodies, and their lives.

Most noticeable was the lack: the lack of politics, the lack of abortive methods, and the lack of women’s voices. I know it takes two to tango but the burden of reproduction essentially falls on the woman. Nearly every device displayed related to suppressing women’s fertility, yet their agency was delegated to the masculine science that “improved” with each generation’s knowledge. The desperation that many of the devices exhumed was quickly passed over to continue the tidy progression of history.

Considering the climate of today’s cultural “values,” I was honored to have seen the display. It is rare to witness such items in a public setting (for free too!). Knowing that women have always employed ingenious methods and desperate desires to manipulate their fertility was both empowering and a little depressing.

Here’s to our eggs surviving the next century!

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