Birth Control for the Masses: Experimenting Contraceptive Technologies in Asia, 1950s to 1960s

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 3:10 PM
Michigan State Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci, Brown University
The 1960s marked a breakthrough in the development of “modern” and “scientific” methods of contraception, namely the intra-uterine device (IUD) and the pill. The perceived threat of overpopulation in Asia provided major impetus for research, testing, and mass application of these contraceptive technologies advanced by U.S. medical professionals, scholars, and policy makers. While much of the scholarship on global population control focuses on the action programs in India, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Korea in the 1960s, my paper sheds light to the birth control experiments in Japan since the 1950s. The birth control programs of the southern U.S. informed Japanese population control policies; Japanese successes at reducing birth rates in turn provided justifications for U.S. leaders to test new contraceptive technologies in racialized communities both at home and abroad. This paper thus demonstrates how two crucial aspects of the sexual revolution—the development of contraceptive technologies and discussions about female reproduction—were deeply linked to the United States’ domestic and international racial politics in the postwar decades.

The paper highlights the birth control activities led by a Japanese public health official, Yoshio Koya. Koya’s experiments, designed and financed by U.S. politicians, proved that non-Westerners in agricultural areas could reduce birth rates even without elevating their standard of living. The American confidence in technological superiority, combined with their racial prejudice against Asians, dictated the direction of later population control projects as they focused on developing contraceptives suitable for the “masses,” ones that obviated the need for self-determination and self-control. Advances in reproductive technologies, which brought sexual autonomy and freedom to many women, simultaneously deprived other women, often women of color, of their reproductive choices and health.

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