Query: Status and Legality of Birth Control in India in 1925

The Margaret Sanger Papers
Last updated
Feb. 10, 2011, 12:28 p.m. (view history)

What was the status of birth control in 1925? Was it legal, accepted, and what were the arguments for and against it at the time?

[154] Debates over birth control among women physicians started ca. 1921, with articles in the Journal of the Association of Medical Women in India, which was mainly comprised of articles by Western women doctors who worked in India.

[158] 1921--Margaret Balfour a woman physician who worked in the Punjab from 1892-1924 objected to birth control's dysgenic effects among the middle class, saying that women didn't want to go to the trouble and expense of children, while the poor who do not have the means to have large families continues to do so. Laments the laziness/greed of the middle class, who have the "best stock" but are not doing their duty. She did lend support to limited birth control [159] as long as it was under the  control of "biomedically trained personnel who would selectively make this information available to their clients/patients. Only medical conditions could justify providing the information to women patients, and she stressed that it certainly should not be passed along to a married women who wanted to avoid pregnancy."

[152] Biomedical Community -- Many physicians were "outright hostile" to the idea that doctors and nurses would provide contraceptive advice and devices to their patients.  This was part of a complex and messy medical practice at the time, not at all united on what it thought was important. Reasons why they opposed birth control include: the dsygenic effect it would have on the country's population; the fact that the smarter person can see the benefit and adopt it, while the less intelligent does not see, or is not exposed to the ideas and this means that the least successful elements of the population will increase while the most favored will decline. [153]  Methods were another point of contention-as many opposed using artificial means of contraception. These thought that sex was only for procreation so that you ought not to indulge if you did not want children. Also claim that using artificial methods led towards depravity.  Some claimed that separating sex from progeny would harm women psychologically, they might have nervous disorders and it would lead to social chaos. Another physician called BC a harbinger of "modern civilization" and that in the U.S. it had made women so emancipated that they were unwilling to go through the work of pregnancy and childrearing. [154] Also thought that with the power in her own hands, women would turn to vice. Wanted to enforce their views of sexuality as male-driven, with passive females.

Colonial government [117] Fair to say that the British colonial state lacked consensus on BC in India. They did not "actively promote the dissemination of contraceptive information nor did they seek to hinder it in ways that the Comstock Laws and Canadian laws did in North America." There was no consistent policy directive. Instead they dragged their feet, ignoring moments when they could have made some definitive policy, little archival materials remain.  The colonial government generated the statistics that drove the birth control movement, [118] but while the state wanted to control the population, "the state remained cautious and hesitant to institute policies or invest in any schemes that would control and police Indian bodies, especially as reproductive bodies in the twentieth century."

Indian middle class women [91] Indian middle-class women began following BC a few years after their men; the delay might have been caused by the organization of their women's groups, WIA and AIWC, which took some time.  Argues that women might not have felt confidant enough in the early stages of their organizing to tackle controversial subject like BC. Even in the 1930s, the AIWC defeated the first movement to endorse BC because they were not sure they wanted to call it a woman's issue. [92] Annie Besant, who headed the WIA, had been a birth control advocate in England, but in 1891 converted to Theosophy and vowed that self-control was the only acceptable means of contraception. Sex divorced from reproduction was self-indulgence. She frowned on sex, thought it indulgent, degenerative, intellectually exhausting, culturally deleterious. Some in the WIA, including Margaret Cousins, wanted to debate the issues in the early 1930s.  Rameshwari Nehru opposed any propagation of birth control, adopting a strict Gandhian stance, seeing the use of artificial devices as [93] leading to licentiousness. She accepted Gandhi's idea of self control and brachmacharya; only concession she would make was the rhythm method. Other AIWC women opposed on religious and moral grounds, No consensus among middle-class women on birth control up til the end of the 1930s.  [94] Despite the fact that Sanger claimed that the women who opposed her in 1936 were all single, Christian women of Anglo descent, there were few divisions between the middle class women based on politics or religious differences.  Women were not organized by religious lines, and while some claimed it was against her religion, until later, ca. 1939.

Indian middle class women did also support BC. Few Indian women would directly confront Gandhi like Sanger and Stopes did. Indian women who did, like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya suffered for crossing the Gandhi/National Congress line. She was denied admission to the Working Committee of the INC because of her support for BC, according to Margaret Cousins. Muthulakshmi Reddi, a doctor, was ambivalent in response to BC. She opposed "indiscriminate" propaganda or allowing information to be broadcast to the "ignorant lay public" but instead through medical profession. [95] Didn't think that fertility management should be in the hands of physicians.  Those who did support it usually did so on health grounds, sometimes using politicization of patriarchal marriage as another reason to use birth control methods.  [97] Middle class women also employed eugenic logic to bolster support for BC. like the US it gave the women "respectable vocabulary with which to address the issue in public." Unlike the men, though the women usually "stressed the benefits of sexual well-being that the use of contraceptives would ensure."