family planning

family planning
   Nature in every sphere of life is prodigal of reproductive capacity. Overpopulation in the animal and vegetable kingdoms is prevented by such factors as climate and shortages of food and water. Since human beings as a species are, however, remarkably adept in controlling their environment and organizing supplies of necessities, the population threatens to increase to danger point unless means are taken to limit excess reproductive capacities. These basic principles were stated by, for example, Thomas Malthus in his Essay on Population of 1798. In nineteenth-century Britain, however, material prosperity following industrialization and colonial expansion fostered a huge expansion in population, with improving public health countering the effects of industrial pollution and epidemics in slums. Though large families survived, they generally did so in comparative poverty. Eugenicist policies of trying to control the reproduction of the handicapped in order to obviate what they feared as racial degeneration were not taken up, but in the course of the twentieth century contraceptive practices, spreading from the bourgeoisie to the working classes, have become virtually universal, except among certain religious groups such as Roman Catholics, who are taught that these practices are sinful.
   With these exceptions, prejudices that saw contraception as unmentionable and tainted with immorality have been overcome. The first steps were popularizing the notion of ‘family planning’, making contraception an element in ‘responsible parenthood’, on the grounds that the whole family, especially the mother, would benefit from limiting the number of children per couple and spacing pregnancies. Another stage was connected with the marked increase in female employment from the mid-twentieth century. Gradually, too, the opinion has spread that although sexual intercourse is natural and enjoyable, there is no reason why it should be inevitably and inexorably linked with procreation. The UK government has unobtru-sively moved from a neutral attitude to willing assistance for those who want it. Contraception is usually by barrier methods (the vaginal pessary and the sheath or condom, the use of which has been officially encouraged to prevent the spread of AIDs), by inter-uterine device (IUD, or ‘coil’), or by hormone pill. Surgical methods (male vasectomy and female sterilization), typically though not exclusively employed by older people who decide their families are ‘complete’, are more widely promoted in less developed countries alongside other forms of contraception, in efforts to avoid potentially devastating population explosions.
   See also: Abortion Acts; childbirth
   Further reading
    Szarewski, A., and Guillbeaud, J. (1998) Contraception: A User’s Handbook, 2nd edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
   CHRISTOPHER SMITH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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