The fpa: changing opinions on contraception

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By | From the Collections

Contraception is a risky business. Where the conception of life is concerned, no one method of family planning is flawless and thus education is key. The fpa is a charity provides information and education so that people can make informed decisions about their own reproductive and sexual health.

A selection of fpa leaflets.

The archive of the fpa and predecessor organisations (covering the years 1907-2013) is held at the Wellcome Library. In their earliest days, the fpa fought to combat the stigma around contraception and to make trustworthy, affordable contraceptives available to everyone. The sale of contraceptives had never in fact been illegal in the UK (as was the case in the US and Ireland) but was limited to those with the knowledge and money to go about procuring them.

The 1911 census may illustrate this as doctors come in as one of the groups with the smallest families. Yet it seems that many medical men saw themselves as guardians of feminine virtue and were unwilling to share their knowledge. Contraceptives remained associated with prostitution and dissipation and to make them freely available, at least in the eyes of the medical establishment and the Church, was to undermine public morality.

Yet pressure from groups such as the fpa meant that opinions gradually changed. Some advocated family planning as a means of poverty prevention, others as a means of alleviating the suffering of women. World War I also massively transformed attitudes towards sexual health for a number of reasons, such as concern over infant and maternal mortality and a war-time preoccupation with venereal disease.

Marie Stopes opened her first clinic in 1921, through which she hoped to take the distribution of contraceptives away from the hands of unscrupulous merchants and to provide information and reliable products. But it was not until in 1967 that the government passed the National Health Service (Family Planning) Act, which enabled local health authorities in England and Wales to give contraceptive advice, supplies and appliances freely on the NHS.

Marie Stopes’ first family planning clinic moved from its initial location in Holloway to this building near Tottenham Court Road in London in 1925. Image credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons.

While this was essentially the fulfilment of the fpa’s aim, it left them in an unusual position. The earlier segments of the fpa archive focus on their campaigning and the fight to make contraception respectable and widely available. After 1967 we see a shift towards education and the provision of information.

The latest accrual to the fpa archive, which has recently been catalogued, charts this transition. The papers of the Medical department (SA/FPA/C/F) show their preoccupation with ensuring that contraceptive products were 100% sound (and therefore suitable for upright consumers). This was achieved through stringent testing of the multitude of products which began to flood the market in the 1950s.

The fpa approved list of contraceptives. Wellcome Library reference: SA/ 960.FPA/C/G/3/24 Box 960.

However, the transfer of the regulation of contraceptive products to government agencies in the 1970s meant that this function was rendered superfluous. They continued to publish the fpa’s list of approved contraceptives through the Publications department (whose papers can be found at SA/FPA/C/G) and the Medical department ceased to exist.

The new focus of the fpa meant the Education and Information departments (SA/FPA/C/D and SA/FPA/C/E respectively) played a much more important role from the late 70s. The Education department provided training and consultancy in the form of courses and, working with the Publications department, produced an enormous number of leaflets, booklets and various other items that chart the changing attitudes to various methods of family planning.

Sex education comic produced by the FPA (subsequently translated into German.

They also produced audiovisual guides to sex education such as ‘Danny’s Big Night‘ and ‘Rhymes and Reasons, both of which are being digitised by the Library and will be available online.

The Information department supplemented this activity by acting as quality control on the leaflets produced, but, as their name might suggest, their main role was the provision of accurate and unbiased information on family planning. This they achieved by means of an enquiry service and a library and information service.

A Planned Parenthood comic, an example of grey literature donated to the Library by the fpa.

In 2013, the FPA donated its collection of grey literature from other organisations to the Wellcome Library. It is a rich and diverse accumulation of approximately 650 leaflets, comics, booklets etc, many of which are unique or rare in the UK. Together they form a wide-ranging collection on many aspects of reproductive and sexual health covering the period 1969 to 2011.

Peter Judge

Peter Judge is a Consultant Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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One Response to The fpa: changing opinions on contraception
  • Kirsten Elliott


    Thanks for this article – I used the fpa archive for research on Scottish birth control clinics and it was such a fascinating resource. I think it’s so important that the work birth control pioneers did, in terms of providing services for women in need and challenging social attitudes, is recognised and acknowledged.

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