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Manitoba History: Review: Angus McLaren and Arlene Tigar McLaren, The Bedroom and the State - The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1980

by David Neufeld
Canadian Parks Service

Manitoba History, Number 17, Spring 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

The Bedroom and The State — The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1980. Angus McLaren and Arlene Tigar McLaren. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1986. 186 pp. ISBN 0-7710-5532-3.

This volume in the Canadian Social History Series presents a summary historical view of the attitudes that have shaped contemporary views of birth control and abortion in Canada. In the first of three parts the authors introduce the contraceptive and abortion practices of the nineteenth century and the changing social view of the practices. The second part describes the socialist and feminist responses to limitations on reproductive rights tying them with aspects of the social gospel in the first part of the twentieth century. In the final part the work of Ontario eugenist A. R. Kaufman, financier of a major birth control movement for the working class, and the manifestation of the traditional Ontario Protestant/Quebec Catholic rivalry in birth rates puts a distinctly Canadian caste upon the book.

The book is carefully written with an almost dispassion-ate objectivity. The authors’ desire to present both a history of Canadian reproductive policies and “an intimate portrayal of the reproductive decision-making of ordinary men and women” (p. 10) distinguishes the book from earlier thesis driven tracts such as Linda Gordon’s feminist work, Women’s Body, Women’s Rights (1976). The book presents the views of several major political and social groups that attempted to use reproductive rights or limitations to further their other goals. Notably absent, and perhaps worth a separate volume, is the use of reproductive technologies among other policies in managing the northern peoples of Canada. It is striking that in the late 1940s, when it was illegal even to distribute information on birth control in the south, senior government officials in the north felt that the native “problem,” “call[s] for some form of birth control.”

McLaren and McLaren’s book provides a helpful social and historical context for discussion of the birth control and abortion issue today. While steering clear of the more difficult ground of personal beliefs it demands an examination of the motives behind those beliefs, especially as presented by organized groups.

Page revised: 4 November 2012

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