The Planning of Birth and the Birth of Planning: Medicalized Birth Control as Population Control in India, 1919–52

Friday, January 6, 2017: 2:10 PM
Room 403 (Colorado Convention Center)
Rahul S. Nair, Antioch College
When independent India adopted family planning in 1951 her medical community, charged with the responsibility of implementing it, had little formal training in birth control. This lacuna in medical knowledge had its roots in the ambivalent attitudes towards birth control prevalent in the medical and public health community during the inter-war period under British colonial rule.  Birth control advocacy had emerged primarily from middle class Indians with a diverse, complementary and sometimes contradictory set of agendas including eugenics, women’s reproductive health, social reform, economic development and food availability. Birth control served as an important and common solution to their particular agendas and they were keen to enlist the support of the medical community to its cause. Even though medical men and women often shared some or many of these concerns, gaining the endorsement of the medical establishment proved elusive. The attitudes of various sections in the medical community revealed aspects of ambiguity, inconsistency and even opposition to birth control, while also demonstrating interesting divisions within but also unexpected support across gender and racial lines. Despite the inability of the medical community to coalesce around a consensus on the issue, birth control advocates forged ahead with building up public support and gaining the support of important political constituencies including Indian nationalists.  In this paper I argue that the history of birth control in India is one in which its medicalization took place in the public and legislative spheres well in advance of the medical discipline, with the medical community being led rather than leading the process whereby birth control became ‘disciplined’ within the domain of medical knowledge.