In this extract Rowena Arshad describes similarities between the reproductive control of working-class women in Glasgow and in India.
Controlling women’s bodies in the UK and worldwide
In developing countries in the post-war period, contraception and abortion were sometimes used as a way of controlling underprivileged populations or using them as medical guinea pigs. As the feminist movement in Britain developed, black women were instrumental in drawing attention to how women across the world experienced inequality and lack of control over their bodies in different ways. In The Heart of the Race: Black women's lives in Britain (London: Virago Press,1985), Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe wrote:
Black women had to point out that they had ‘always been given abortions more readily than white women and are indeed often encouraged to have terminations we didn’t ask for. It’s for this reason, too, that when the women’s movement demanded ‘free, safe, and available contraception for all women’, we had to remind them that for Black women this often means being used as guinea-pigs in mass birth control programmes, or as objects of ‘research’ when new forms of birth control need to be tested.
What is Depo-Provera?
Depo-Provera is a contraceptive that is administered through injection every three months. It releases the hormone progesterone, which prevents ovulation, meaning that there is no egg to be fertilised during sex and therefore no pregnancy should occur. Nowadays Depo-Provera is licensed and used by many women as an effective contraceptive. However, it was often tested on minority ethnic women, who were not warned of the potential risks and side effects.
You can find out more about Depo-Provera as well as other forms of contraception on the Family Planning Association website.
It was a central view of women activists in the 1970s that women were not given sufficient information about reproductive options to make informed choices about either having children or looking after their health. Rowena Arshad remembers the issue of Depo-Provera provoking sympathies across borders and races. In the early 1980s she worked with working-class white women in Scotland who realised that they, as well as women in India, had been the subject of commercial experiments with Depo-Provera. Stella Dadzie, however, comments that white women could focus on reproductive and sexual rights to the detriment of other economic or political rights that concerned black women in the UK and around the world.
Why do you think the state might have an interest in controlling the reproductive capacity of women? You might consider reading the dystopian novels by Zoë Fairbairns and Margaret Atwood about extreme state hijacking of the reproductive process, Benefits (1979) and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
You can find out more in Changing Cultures and the Arts.
Oral contraceptives photograph © Getty Images
Depo-Provera photograph © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images