The Birth Control Handbook and the Montreal Health Press

The Birth Control Handbook was first published in Montreal in 1968 as an initiative of the McGill Students’ Society.  Concerned about backstreet abortions and the lack of access to contraception, the Council members struck a Birth Control Committee that produced the Handbook. Printed on newsprint for mass distribution and frequently updated, it was packed with information about condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, oral contraceptives and abortion. The illustrations—photographs and medical drawings—complemented the social message. The initial publication of the Handbook contravened the Criminal Code; it was only in 1969 that the Liberal government passed an Omnibus Bill legalizing birth control and decriminalizing abortion. However, access to legal abortion was restrictive and concerns about existing contraceptive methods remained.

Demand for the Handbook exploded on university campuses all over the United States and Canada.  Handbooks were sold at cost price and institutions were asked to give them outfree of charge; many universities included them in their student registration packages. Distributed in the millions, the Handbook was extremely popular among student organization, women’s liberation groups and health professionals. As their funding became more difficult, these institutions and groups were permitted to charge a minimal fee to maintain  its availability.

Unique to the Handbook was its editorial commentary. Early on, it insisted that contraception played a major role in advancing women’s liberation because a woman’s control over her body was essential to her sexual and reproductive liberty. In later editions, it took the American-based population control movement to task, suggesting that fear of a population explosion in the developing world was racist and led to the promotion of forced sterilization of the poor and the testing of contraceptives on minority women. The real culprits were capitalism and unequal distribution of resources. Over time, as the political climate became more conservative in the United States, and restrictions were imposed on birth control and abortion information and services, the Handbook itself was banned on some American campuses.

The 1969 abortion law in Canada also came under attack in the editorial commentary; abortion services were inadequate, particularly for poor, minority and rural women. Another important element of the Handbook was the message that, for contraception to be effective, negotiating sexual relationships was as critical as understanding the contraceptive methods themselves. A French adaptation published in the early 1970s was as popular as the English version, coinciding with profound demographic, religious, political and social changes in Québec. In the French adaption, the editorial commentary spoke directly to the decline in the birth rate of Québecois and the role of birth control in a progressive Québec.

Alan Feingold, one of the original Birth Control Committee members, and then Donna Cherniak, another student at McGill, worked together on the later editions. The two established an abortion referral service in Montreal, and when both went on to medical school in Ontario, they hired Shirley Pettifer Gardiner to manage the distribution of the Handbook and then founded the Montreal Health Press/Les Presses de la santé de Montréal (MHP)in 1972. Marilyn Bicher and Janet Torge next came on board, followed by Judith Lermer Crawley and Miryam Gerson. Subsequent publications produced by the growing MHP team addressed other pressing health and social issues:  sexually transmitted diseases, sexual assault and menopause. Each was published in English and French, designed for mass distribution and united by a progressive, feminist thematic approach. Over 15 million copies of the handbooks were circulated; the last edition of the Birth Control Handbook was released in 2000. The Montreal Health Press closed afterwards once existing inventory was exhausted.

The Montreal Health Press made a distinctive and critical contribution to public education on important sexual and reproductive health issues with an analysis that remains pertinent today.

Submitted by:
Marilyn Bicher
Donna Cherniak
Judith Lermer Crawley
Shirley Pettifer
Christabelle Sethna

The Montreal Health Press functioned as much as possible as a collective. Editorial positions and visual presentation in particular were group decisions. Donna Cherniak became lead author for the Birth Control and STD handbooks and joined Miryam Gerson on the Menopause Handbook. Marilyn Bicher and Shirley Pettifer wrote the Sexual Assault Handbook; they were joined by Janet Torge. Judith Lermer Crawley coordinated photography and with Shirley Pettifer acted as text editor for all publications. Michel Hébert created the anatomical illustrations.

For further information see: Sethna, C. (2006). “The Evolution of the Birth Control Handbook: From student peer education manual to feminist self-empowerment text, 1968-1975.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine 23/1: 89-118. http://www.cbmh.ca/index.php/cbmh/article/view/1294

The Illegal Birth Control Handbook That Spread Across College Campuses in 1968: A group of Canadian teenagers wrote the first popular text on contraception.
http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-illegal-birth-control-handbook-that-spread-across-college-campuses-in-1968