#EmergencyContraception Past, Present, and Future

Rutgers University Press book exhibit at 2012 American Association for the History of Medicine annual meeting

via RH Reality Check and my book pictured at left. Actually, the title of the RHRC post has the name of a specific emergency contraceptive product and shows a video produced by NARAL ProChoice NY for their Champions of Choice 2012 awards luncheon. The organization, “honored the visionaries behind Plan B. From Sharon Camp, who pioneered this emergency contraceptive product and even founded a pharmaceutical company to bring it to market, to Teva Women’s Health, which not only stands behind the current product but has pushed the FDA to increase access by making it available over-the-counter for all ages.”

This is an excellent video but because it celebrates a particular product it has its limits.  First, it’s not true that no pharmaceutical company was interested in creating an emergency contraceptive for the U.S. market — Roderick Mackenzie created the now defunct company Gynetics specifically for that purpose and got the no longer produced drug Preven approved by FDA first.  Second, the story is framed rather narrowly by the ongoing culture wars over contraception and reproductive rights — e.g. in the repeated use of the phrase “politics trumping science.”  Although important, this framework ignores the ways in which the public shapes what “counts” as scientific knowledge. It also overlooks the specific historical circumstances that lead to the production of new knowledge, especially when this involves a politically controversial health topic such as birth control. Most importantly, this claim treats “the public” as though it were a homogenous entity, ignoring the multiple constituencies who have contributed to reproductive health policy in the United States and the ways in which their positions have changed over time.

Okay, now that I’ve addressed the past and the present (sort of), what about the future?  Well, historians aren’t in that business but I’ll offer some thoughts based on my book’s conclusions. Since the early 1990s, emergency contraception has served as a bridge issue that brought together former adversaries, including feminist health organizations, population and family planning
people, and groups representing women of color who were the main targets of attempts to control the so-called “population crisis” in the United States. In order to bring more radical groups onboard, mainstream population organizations and reproductive health professionals had to overcome much bad faith generated by sexism in the medical profession and the often coercive policies of the population movement during the first half of the twentieth century. A narrow focus on purely technological solutions to
the complex social problem of pregnancy prevention tends to dissolve this fragile alliance. Therefore, as experts and activists develop policies on making new contraceptive options available to all women; it is imperative that the language of rights
and reproductive choice continue to remain at the forefront of these deliberations.

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