BY: JESSICA BEUKER
In 1968, The Birth Control Handbook surfaced, printed by students at McGill University and making waves across North America. At this time all forms of contraception, including information and education on the topic, were illegal.
For as far back as we can imagine, teens have been having sex. But in the late 1960s they were also looking for more information on sex. These questions and curiosities were about things such as contraception, abortion and everything in between. So, with proper education basically non-existent at the point, a group of students from Montreal, Canada banded together – and violated the law – to publish a book providing critical information about sexual health.
According to Atlas Obscura, this information was almost impossible to find elsewhere, which meant that requests began pouring in from across Canada and the U.S., and the handbook was being distributed by the hundreds of thousands.
The handbook was printed on newsprint in black and white and through 12 editions. In 1968, the distribution, sale and advertisement of birth control methods were illegal under the criminal code, and abortion was punishable by life imprisonment. To acquire birth control pills in Canada, a woman needed a doctor’s prescription and a husband, since contraceptives were seen only as a part of family planning.
It wasn’t until 1972 that birth control was opened up to all women regardless of marital status. It was around this time that a sexual revolution was beginning. People wanted freedom over their sexual choices, but also safe health.
So in 1967, 19-year-old Vice President of the McGill Students’ Council, Peter Foster, influenced by the New Left movement, proposed a campus birth control clinic and student seminar on sex education. The proposal passed, even though it was technically still illegal, and the handbook was published.
The handbook was self-funded by McGill students, with students from a dozen or so other universities chipping in. To gather content students spent hours dissecting books from the medical library and consulting medical advisors. They gathered detailed information on a range of topics including sexual intercourse, menstrual cycles, surgical abortion techniques (including prices and statistics), and illustrations. According to Atlas Obscura, the McGill Daily reported that the handbook hoped to “bridge the gap between high school hygiene courses and street corner advisory sessions.”
The first batch of 17,000 copies was picked up almost instantly, as local students were eager to get their hands on it. But as news about the book spread, requests started rolling in from people wanting to order the book – the largest demand coming from the U.S. By 1974, only six years after the idea came to be, the team had distributed over three million handbooks.
The handbook was especially interesting because it contained not only useful information, but also the politics of the information. The book was used to highlight how race and economics affected women’s access to sexual health resources. It also addressed overpopulation and women’s liberation.
The Birth Control Handbook was a huge development and step forward at this time. It put crucial information into the hands of the people who need it most. Today however, these issues are far from over. Many places in the U.S. still offer abstinence-only sex education. In Canada, Ontario’s sex education programming was only updated last year – the first time since 1998. While abortion today is legal in Canada, it is not necessarily accessible, and it’s even worse in the U.S. where clinics are closing at an extremely rapid rate. Just recently, Oklahoma has been pushing for a bill that would make abortion equivalent to first-degree murder if it became a law. It’s been nearly half a century since the illegal Birth Control Handbook made waves, and it’s as if we’re moving backwards in some ways.
Often times the things that receive the most resistance – abortion, access to proper birth control methods, extensive sex education programming – are also the same things that will prevent concerns such as unplanned pregnancies and STDs from happening in the first place. If the Birth Control Handbook taught us anything, it’s that this type of information is not only in high demand, but it’s also crucial to sexual health.