Angus McLaren and Arlene Tigar McLaren, The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1997, Second Edition. Toronto: Oxford, 1997, 209 pp., $19.95 paper.

McLaren and McLaren assert that ‘The lowering of the birth rate was arguably the most important social shift to occur in Canada in this century,” and provide what they refer to as “the first book-length analysis of this phenomenon,” focussing mainly on English speaking, Protestant urban Canada (p.9). This history tells us much about shifting relations between women and men, and between social classes as it uncovers power struggles, both private and public, over fertility. Physicians, priests, feminists, eugenicists, politicians and labour leaders are all actors here, shaping the policies and practices that attempt to determine women’s possibilities and outcomes. Throughout this ferment, women themselves continued to look to one another for knowledge about how to control their own fertility, both for their own well-being, and for the well-being of the children that they already had to care for.

I read the first edition of The Bedroom and the State when I was a doctoral student and pro-choice/reproductive rights activist, during the politically charged 1980's. My enthusiasm for the book has not diminished in the intervening years. The Bedroom and the State addresses an extremely important and much neglected piece of Canadian social history, and although more modest in scope it provides an excellent companion piece to Linda Gordon’s pioneering US study, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth Control in America (Middlesex: Penguin, 1977). This much needed second edition of the book picks up where the earlier edition left off, covering the intensive struggles over abortion that have occurred since 1980, and placing abortion within the context of broader reproductive technologies and rights debates. The updated material is in the book's final chapter and conclusion; otherwise it remains identical to the first edition.

The book does an effective job of unpacking anti-choice rhetoric. It reminds us that Canada is now the only country in the western world without a law prohibiting abortion, and it all too briefly addresses feminist efforts to bring this about. This is a story which begs a more detailed accounting, perhaps by those who were directly involved in the struggle. However, McLaren and McLaren are clearly well informed about the analysis presented by feminists, particularly socialist feminists, who played such an important role in the defeat of the abortion law and in articulating the limitations of a focus on choice, where a broader reproductive rights strategy is needed. Those who are interested in current debates about abortion, reproductive rights and reproductive technologies will find these last chapters a good general overview, reminding us of the social, legal and political terrain on which current social policy was forged. Mostly, however, they will appreciate the historical context for current debates that McLaren and McLaren provide.

After I had begun to write this review a woman of my acquaintance confided in me that, as a desperate teenager in the 1970's, she had tried to self-induce an abortion with a piece of surgical tubing and a bent coat hanger. She was lucky to survive. McLaren and McLaren’s work reminds us once again that, if women lack access to safe, legal abortion, then they will resort to whatever means are available and necessary to end an unwanted pregnancy.

Deborah Brock
Department of Sociology
Trent University

October 1998
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