Contraceptive Diplomacy

Pedro Iacobelli

Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci’s book examines the links between the birth control movement in the United States and Japan by coupling Margaret Sanger’s activism with her Japanese counterpart, Ishimoto Shizue (later known as Katō Shizue). In addition, it provides a transnational account of the birth control movement from its fledging years until Sanger’s death. In a historically linear description, the author attempts to situate Sanger’s political trajectory within the broader “intellectual trends and movements that transcended national borders” (p. 4), and she argues that international politics and transnational networks helped “advance birth control ideas and technology when laws and social barriers in the domestic context frustrated the efforts of activists” (p. 3).

The book is divided in six chapters that together present well-articulated arguments on the transpacific politics of reproduction that “decenter the Euro-American viewpoint in cultural and intellectual histories” (p. 6). Chapters One to Three deal with the prewar movement, Chapter Four with Japan under the US occupation and Chapters Five and Six with the birth control movement in Japan and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. The strengths in the book under review are its detailed examination of some of the most relevant discussions about the place and value that birth control topics had in prewar Japan. For example, the debate in socialist and liberal circles about women’s new roles in society and politics in the early 20th century, and the political battle between the proletarian feminists who considered birth control a ‘bourgeois-led’ (p. 49) neo-Malthusian solution to social issues and liberals who emphasized birth control advocacy as a “eugenic measure to improve national fitness” (p. 48). Also, Takeuchi-Demirci’s explanation of the political complexities surrounding the birth control movement at the time of growing confrontations between the American and Japanese empires is well-articulated and convincing. Indeed, the book underlines two sets of tensions: the challenge of making a transnational movement during a time of imperial competition, and the co-existence of the birth control movement with eugenics. The author provides a closer look at the global birth control movement by focusing on these two advocates and provides a cogent description of their friendship and activism. The book under review is a contribution to our understanding of Sanger and Ishimoto’s maneuvers to advance their agenda within various groups of population control advocates.

The book, however, lacks a critical perspective on the intellectual history behind the ideological challenges that the birth control movement faced; the author does not even describe the arguments against it. In fact, only the ideological discussion within the movement is partially addressed (chapters three and five). The rich disagreements between what is now called the pro-choice movement and its antithesis, the pro-life, is effaced, instead giving the impression that Sanger and the eugenicists were fighting against the ‘white Western men’ or ‘American Catholics’ (for example, in pp. 118–119); the two straw men used to avoid further discussion on the disagreeing ideas behind contraception, abortion, and reproduction politics in general. Moreover, Margaret Sanger’s embrace of eugenics is whitewashed by inferring her engagement with notorious eugenicists as a matter of strategic positioning “[Sanger and Ishimoto] shifted their sails according to the social tides and political winds of the time, soliciting support from those [eugenic supporters] with political and financial influence” (p. 4). Sanger – the author informs us – used eugenicists as a means to pursue her real convictions and final goal, empowering women. However, Sanger did consider eugenics and birth control two faces of the same coin, for, as she wrote, “there has never been any birth control movement that did not lay stress on the eugenic side of it”.[1] Her early commitment to eugenics was based on the conviction that a better population could be engineered. For example, Sanger suggested that parents should be required to apply for babies as immigrants applied for visas.[2] In this sense, the book could have benefited from a more critical appraisal of the links and overlapping of the eugenics movement and the birth control movement. Not only, as the author correctly points out, as one that sought to control race (which fits to the author’s transpacific views), but also a convergence around considerations on class (eugenicists’ use of technology to curve down the percentage of poor people in the Unites States and overseas).

Ultimately the book deals, against what it initially promised, with the “feminist mission to give women across the world the tools and knowledge to decide their reproductive fate” (p. 5); and in so doing oversimplifies and does not do justice to the full complexities of the reproductive politics which it promised to review. Along this line, the book’s title is misleading since the manuscript is about one specific aspect (i.e. the relationship between Sanger and Shizue) of the diplomatic and ideological discussion on reproduction politics in Japan and the United States and not so much about the broader conceptual and political dimensions of it. While the book is rich in American and Japanese sources, this reviewer (an occupational hazard) wished for a different type of book, closer to what the title suggests. One that would bring a critical engagement with the scholarship that presents different views than the author’s own. For example, in terms of the global birth control movement, Takeuchi-Demirci pays lip service to Matthew Connelly’s masterpiece Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Harvard University Press, 2008; a book that documents the coercive nature of an array of institutions and countries, including M. Sanger’s birth control foundation, to ‘control’ populations) but does not engage at any level with Connelly’s ideas.[3]

Also, the work is uncritical with Thomas Malthus's reception in Japan. The author does not acknowledge that in Japan there was strong opposition to Neo-Malthusian thought; for it failed to recognise the role of the economic agents in creating wealth (and poverty) or the technological capacities of society to improve the agricultural production.[4] Moreover, in the introduction, the author depicts Malthus’s ideas (and that of his followers) without mentioning that Malthus himself changed his views on population several times. He wrote: “on the whole, therefore, though our future prospects respecting the mitigation of the evils arising from the principle of population may not be so bright as we could wish, yet they are far from being entirely disheartening …”.[5] Finally, the regional and local discussion of the birth control movement in Japan (before and after the war) deserves a place in this volume. The book did not consider the recent feminist scholarship in Japan, such as the work of Megumi Yanagiwara, Miho Ogino, and Yukio Ishii.[6] This literature could have kindled a more nuanced analysis of the ideological confrontation that Sanger’s movement faced at the time than the one depicted in the book. In any case, beyond the pro-birth control straitjacket, there is important information and insights in the book regarding Sanger’s and Ishimoto’s personal relationship, the tension between both empires and the general discussion within the prewar socialist groups in Japan and the United States.

[1] Cited in Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008, 53.
[2] Ibid., 63.
[3] Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception; Also, the book could have benefited from a critical reading of Pierre Desrochess and Christine Hoffbauer, The post-war intellectual roots of the population bomb. Fairfield Osborn’s ‘Our Plundered Planet’ and William Vogt’s ‘Road to Survival’ in retrospective, The Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development 1(3), 2009: 73–98.
[4] See A. M. Carr-Saunders, Fallacies about overpopulation, Foreign Affairs 9(4), 1931: 646-656.
[5] Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 6th ed., London: J. Murray, 1826, see Book IV, Chapter XIV.
[6] Miho Ogino 荻野美穂, 'Kazoku Keikaku' e no michi: Kindai Nihon no seishoku o meguru seiji (「家族計画」への道: 近代日本の生殖のめぐる政治), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2008, 16-20. Also see Akira Iriye, The failure of economic expansion: 1918 -1931, in Bernard S. Silberman and H. D. Harootunian (eds) Japan in Crisis: Essays on Taishō Democracy, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974, 250; Yukio Ishii, Sanji chōsetsu undō no gensetsu nitsuite (産児調節運動の言説について), Journal of Musashi Sociological Society, no. 3, 2001: 70–72. Megumi Yanagiwara, Kegai no feminizumu (化外のフェミニズム), Tokyo: Domesu, 2018.