Conference Agenda

6D: Reproductive Medicine and (Loss of) Faith
Thursday, 09/Sept/2021:
10:45am - 12:00pm

Session Chair: Dr. Anne Hanley, Birkbeck, U of London


„The beginning of a human being at the moment of conception is not a question of personal beliefs, but a fact.” The relationship between faith/religion and medicine/science in the discourses on reproductive rights in Ireland and Poland

Zok, Michael

German Historical Institute Warsaw, Poland

Recently, discourses on (female) reproductive rights are once again a main topic of widespread debates between politicians and parties as well as parts of debates in society. The current developments in the Republic of Ireland and Argentina resulting in a liberalisation of the legislation on the one hand and the demonstrations against a more restrictive interpretation of the law on abortion in Poland emblematise the observable differences. Despite the fact that all three countries (as well as others) are characterised by sociologists of religion as “mainly” or “homogeneously Catholic” and the (former) influential position of the Church on society, the juridical circumstances have changed enormously in recent years.

The paper will concentrate on the two European countries mentioned above and will analyse the discourses on (female) reproductive rights in the Republic of Ireland and Poland with special regard to the question of permissibility of abortions. Since the current legislations are the results of long-term developments and discussions, the paper will concentrate on the decades from the 1970s to the 1990s and show continuities and fractions.

As highlighted in the citation in the paper’s title, it were especially pro-life-activists who used scientific arguments to underline their position in these debates and to neglect that their doing was motivated (solely) by their religious beliefs. The paper will therefore analyse the discursive strategies of main actors involved in the debates in a broader context and pay special attention to the complicated relations between “science” and “religion/faith”.

Against the obscurantist views from the past. Introducing legal abortion to Czechoslovakia as a means of improving women’s health and their right to decide

Liskova, Katerina

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

In the mid-1950s, abortion was almost uniformly legalized across the Eastern Bloc. Czechoslovakia was no exception, and the law of 1957 made it possible for women to terminate their pregnancies for ‘social’ reasons. In a country with relatively weak religious norms, proponents of the law still pressed against the ‘obscurantist views from the past’ and hailed abortion rights to improve reproductive health and grant women a crucial right and thus strengthen their emancipation.

Based on expert writings and archives of the ministry of health, I analyze the debates that preceded this law’s introduction and follow the first years of its implementation. I trace the field of population expertise as it reemerged and consolidated in the second half of the 1950s around women’s fertility. I highlight the crucial role medical doctors, demographers, and other experts played in shaping women’s access to abortion, formulating and continually evaluating these policies’ real-world impact. I show how a new symbolic framework for the socialist family – including the roles of women and men – was developed, alongside an institutional infrastructure designed to ensure the material preconditions to uphold it. On the case of abortion access, I also detail how this new socialist framework was eclipsed, as early as the beginning of the 1960s, by more traditional approaches to women and childbearing.

This paper fits the ‘Technologies of human reproduction and religious norms’ stream of the conference.

‘A post-Christian age in an increasingly Pagan society’: The attitudes and influence of the Church of Scotland towards contraceptive access in post-"Sexual Revolution" Scotland, c. 1968 – 1974

Hay, Kristin Fairns

University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom

In 1961, the first oral contraceptive drug arrived on the NHS. Heralded as ‘virtually 100% effective’, the pill was the first reliable, female-controlled contraceptive available in Britain. By 1964, 480,000 women were on the pill and oral contraceptives were established as a pivotal harbinger of the "Sexual Revolution" - during which attitudes towards sex, sexuality and chastity were forever eroded (Cook, 2004).

The Sexual Revolution was also exemplified by a notable decline in religious practices throughout the 1960s and 1970s in Britain, as the Church exerted a weakened influence on British society and culture (Brown, 2001). With the pill effectively separating sex from marriage and for the purposes of procreation - coupled with changes in divorce laws and the rise of unmarried co-habitation - the permissive changes that took place throughout the 1960s signified a move towards a more secularised society in Britain. However, in the context of mainland Britain, Scotland was among the most hostile towards universal access to birth control, and religion continued to play a significant role in shaping the discourse surrounding contraceptive use. This makes the Scottish experience distinctive within the broader historiography.

This paper will examine the attitudes and influence of the Church of Scotland towards contraceptive access in the post-Sexual Revolution period. Using oral history, coupled with archival research, this paper will outline how the Church responded to increasing access to the pill in the late-1960s, and the ways in which religious values continued to dictate and regulate Scottish morality and public health policy throughout the 1970s.