The Birth Control Handbook: The Underground Student Publication That Let Women Take Control of Their Bodies (1968)


Cen­tral to Michel Foucault’s the­o­ry of “gov­ern­men­tal­i­ty” is what he calls “biopow­er,” an “explo­sion of numer­ous and diverse tech­niques for achiev­ing the sub­ju­ga­tions of bod­ies and the con­trol of pop­u­la­tions.” Where debates over abor­tion and con­tra­cep­tion gen­er­al­ly coa­lesce around ques­tions of reli­gion and rights, the French the­o­rist of pow­er saw these issues as part of the bio-polit­i­cal strug­gle between “gov­ern­ing the self” and “gov­ern­ing oth­ers.”

Those who resist repres­sive biopow­er seize on the for­mer def­i­n­i­tion of gov­ern­ment. Take a very point­ed exam­ple of both restric­tive gov­ern­ment biopow­er and cre­ative resis­tance to the same: the 1968 Birth Con­trol Hand­book you see here, print­ed ille­gal­ly by under­grad­u­ate stu­dents at Montreal’s McGill Uni­ver­si­ty. At the time of this text’s cre­ation, notes Atlas Obscu­ra, “under Canada’s Crim­i­nal Code, the dis­sem­i­na­tion, sale, and adver­tise­ment of birth con­trol meth­ods were all ille­gal, and abor­tion was pun­ish­able by life impris­on­ment.”

Despite fac­ing the pos­si­ble con­se­quences of up to two years in prison, the McGill Stu­dent Soci­ety “sold mil­lions of copies” of The Birth Con­trol Hand­book, writes Aman­da Edg­ley, “in Cana­da and inter­na­tion­al­ly.” Maya Koropat­nit­sky describes the tremen­dous social impact of the hand­book:

Stu­dents at McGill as well as oth­er Que­bec cam­pus­es snapped up the first run of 17,000 copies. Due to its major suc­cess, the com­mit­tee came out with a sec­ond issue of the hand­book in 1969. This hand­book is seen to be a major play­er in women’s lib­er­a­tion because it gave young women the knowl­edge and the abil­i­ty to con­trol repro­duc­tive func­tions.  

The hand­book fur­ther­more “mobi­lized women into form­ing meet­ings and groups to talk about con­scious­ness-rais­ing issues.” This infor­mal edu­ca­tion was invalu­able for mil­lions of women, who were “des­per­ate for this infor­ma­tion,” writes author Lau­ra Kaplan, “so starved for infor­ma­tion. You want­ed it, in as much detail as you could get it, as graph­ic as it could be made.”


What the Cana­di­an, and U.S., gov­ern­ments saw as sex­u­al­ly explic­it will look to us like stan­dard biol­o­gy text­book illus­tra­tions, mun­dane charts and graphs, ordi­nary pic­tures of the birth expe­ri­ence, and taste­ful, rather tame nude pho­tos. Orig­i­nal authors Allan Fein­gold and Don­na Cher­ni­ak “pored through books in the med­ical library,” Atlas Obscu­ra writes, “and con­sult­ed med­ical advi­sors, com­pil­ing detailed infor­ma­tion on top­ics like sex­u­al inter­course, men­stru­al cycles, sur­gi­cal abor­tion tech­niques (accom­pa­nied by prices and sta­tis­tics), and how, exact­ly, to con­tact abor­tion providers.”

Illus­trat­ing anoth­er Fou­cauldian insight into the rela­tion­ship between knowl­edge and pow­er, not only were birth con­trol meth­ods under the strict con­trol of most­ly male doc­tors (and only avail­able with per­mis­sion from a hus­band), but even basic infor­ma­tion on repro­duc­tion and birth con­trol was dif­fi­cult for most women to access. “To have all the infor­ma­tion on the var­i­ous meth­ods of birth con­trol in one place,” says Kaplan, “with pros and cons and what you need­ed to know about them, was a rev­e­la­tion.” Cher­ni­ak lat­er remem­bered, “We joked that after the Bible, we were prob­a­bly one of the most wide­ly dis­trib­uted pub­li­ca­tions in Cana­da.”


Both edi­tions of the hand­book addressed the con­tro­ver­sial top­ic of abor­tion, cit­ing the Cana­di­an crim­i­nal code along the way. “Con­cerned with the prob­lem of ille­gal abor­tion,” writes Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottowa pro­fes­sor Christa­belle Seth­na, “the coun­cil man­dat­ed the pub­li­ca­tion” of the hand­book, which also “con­tained edi­to­r­i­al com­men­tary that took West­ern pop­u­la­tion-con­trol experts to task for their racism and that sup­port­ed women’s repro­duc­tive rights as a func­tion of women’s lib­er­a­tion.” Seth­na sit­u­ates The Birth Con­trol Hand­book with­in a much larg­er Cana­di­an move­ment, just “one of the ways,” writes Edge­ley, “Cana­di­ans took con­trol over their own bod­ies.” Its cre­ators saw it as a means of chang­ing the world. “Those were the years,” Cher­ni­ak says, “in which you thought you could do any­thing.”


Two years after the first print run of The Birth Con­trol Hand­book, the ur-text of fem­i­nist bio-pol­i­tics, Our Bod­ies, Our­selves, was pub­lished by the Boston Women’s Health Book Col­lec­tive. This book “became its own wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed women’s health text,” Atlas Obscu­ra writes, “trans­lat­ed into 29 lan­guages.” But while Our Bod­ies, Our­selves remains famous for its key role in spread­ing much-need­ed infor­ma­tion about repro­duc­tive health, “its Cana­di­an coun­ter­part has been most­ly for­got­ten.” The Birth Con­trol Hand­book gave mil­lions of women the infor­ma­tion they need­ed to gov­ern their own lives. Redis­cov­er the com­plete text of the first, 1968 edi­tion and sec­ond, 1969 edi­tion at the Inter­net Archive, where you can see a scan, read tran­scribed full text, and down­load PDF, Kin­dle, and oth­er for­mats.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load All 239 Issues of Land­mark UK Fem­i­nist Mag­a­zine Spare Rib Free Online

Simone de Beau­voir Explains “Why I’m a Fem­i­nist” in a Rare TV Inter­view (1975)

The Sto­ry Of Men­stru­a­tion: Watch Walt Disney’s Sex Ed Film from 1946

Watch Fam­i­ly Plan­ning, Walt Disney’s 1967 Sex Ed Pro­duc­tion, Star­ring Don­ald Duck

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Bill W. says:

    Hmm. So that’s how fem­i­nists lost their dig­ni­ty and self-respect!

  • agender says:

    Won­der­ful, that this is pre­served — and the info giv­en to lat­er gen­er­a­tions.
    When we began with women´ s move­ment end of 1960s, we did not know that there have been at least 3 of such move­ments before.

  • rendarch says:

    wow nice i was exact­ing after here this.

  • Geoff Peters says:

    At Burn­a­by South High School, in 1971, the stu­dent coun­cil got copies of the HANDBOOK from SFU Stu­dent Soci­ety, and despite attempts by the school Admin­is­tra­tion to pre­vent it, gave out copies to all the Grade 11 and 12 stu­dents. I was the Coun­cil Pres­i­dent at the time.

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