(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Gold IUD and Uterus, UCL Pathology Collections, 1945-1988.
At first glance, the intrauterine device (IUD) within a disembodied uterus on display just seems like a standard medical specimen. However, LDUCPC-SOHO P.6's story reveals eugenics’ insidious mark on feminism and contraception. It is emblematic of how eugenic ideology was and is used to transform contraception, an essential component of female liberation, into a means of oppression. Recent headlines detailing forced sterilization of California's inmates (Naftulin, 2020) and IUDs forced upon Uighur women in China(Javed, 2021) show how eugenic-based contraceptive policies still strip marginalized women of their bodily autonomy.
Eugenics, a widespread social movement developed in the late twentieth century, peddled the rhetoric that society could be "improved" through selective reproduction (Wilson, 2019). Eugenicists like UCL’s own Francis Galton, identified "bad" heredity as the root of all societal ills. To achieve a "healthy" society, they sought to eliminate "undesirable" populations, namely economically disenfranchised, non-white, differently-abled, and neurodivergent people (Renwick, 2016, p. 847). By the 1920s, eugenicists actively supported contraception, targeting the female body and female fertility as a primary means of limiting "undesirable" populations (Klausen and Bashford, 2012, p.102; Renwick, 2016, p.847). Consequently, all female bodies became subject to external control and punishment. Eugenicists sought to sterilize divergent sexual relationships and "undesirable" women. Even "desirable" women were regulated as eugenicists argued that it was their "duty" to reproduce for racial and national purity (Baker, 2001; Klausen and Bashford, 2012, p.109).
Prominent early feminists allied with these eugenicists. Marie Stopes, whose name was recently removed from a London women's clinic because of her eugenic entanglements, opened London's first birth control clinic in 1921. A eugenicist herself, she corresponded with Adolf Hitler and believed in the creation of a master race (Anonymous, 2020). While clinics like Stopes' promoted feminisms' tenet of bodily autonomy, by incorporating eugenic rhetoric about sterilising "undesirables," they made clear that their feminism was not universal (Henry et al. 2017, p.25). This link to eugenics ultimately enabled eugenicists to reduce female agency within developing healthcare systems. To validate coercive or compulsory contraceptive policies, eugenicists devised biologically essentialist models, constructing women as more irrational, unstable, and in need of external regulation than men. Insinuating these pseudo-scientific constructs into healthcare influenced healthcare professionals to see women as incapable of making decisions about or even understanding contraception (Baker, 2001, p.1313).
The need for female consent in treating their own bodies was thus eroded, which ultimately progressed to involuntary sterilization. By actively supporting this classist, racist, and ableist ideology, feminists like Marie Stopes contributed to the patriarchal oppression of women everywhere. This collaboration resulted in widely run eugenics campaigns masquerading as contraception campaigns, culminating in "undesirable" women being stripped of bodily autonomy in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa.
However, the intersection of contraception and eugenics is not limited to historic regimes. Modern IUDs are particularly linked to eugenic-informed practices. The notoriously deadly Dalkon Shield IUD is a primary example of the dangerous intersection of contraception and eugenics. Eugenic constructs of the irrational woman undermined complaints of pain and infection, leading to prolonged use of this IUD that was quickly proven dangerous. Undesirable forms of reproduction—extra-marital, interracial, and non-white—rendered female bodies punishable and expendable in the quest for societal advancement (Baker, 2001). Even after the Dalkon Shield was recognised as unsafe and taken off the American market in 1974, it was promoted by the US government in Indonesia. Contraceptive programs exploited economically vulnerable Indonesian women, offering financial incentives in exchange for IUD insertion (Baker, 2001, p.1304 & 1308). This recent coercive campaign, guided by the idea that non-white, poor women should not reproduce, effectively eliminated these women’s ability to refuse this deadly IUD.
Such eugenic attitudes exist in healthcare today, albeit more subtly. IUDs require physician insertion, monitoring, and removal. This intervention necessitates divestment of bodily autonomy, leaving vulnerable populations open to reproductive surveillance and diminished agency. Troublingly, American healthcare providers—consciously or not—are more likely to recommend IUDs to low-income Black and Latinx women than low-income white women (Gomez et al. 2018, p.191). Concurrently, widespread stereotypes like "Welfare Queens"—black, inner-city women, who only have children to reap government benefits—and "anchor babies"—children of Latinx immigrant women whose sole purpose is to grant mothers American citizenship—reflect the normalization of long-held eugenic fears and mobilize regulatory bias (Hayden Foster, 2017).
UCL’s LDUCPC-SOHO P.6 is emblematic of the ways in which eugenics impacts female bodily autonomy (all discussion of LDUCPC-SOHO P.6 is from Henry et al. 2017). Comprised of a gold wishbone stem pessary IUD within a uterus, nothing was recorded about the woman from which it came. It was not until 2017 that UCL Master’s students determined that LDUCPC-SOHO P.6 was collected between 1945-1988. Beyond that, nothing is known about the woman. Presumably used as a teaching tool within Soho Women’s Hospital’s pathology collection, LDUCPC-SOHO P.6 was probably collected without her consent (accordingly, she is not referred to herein as a donor), as it was common for physicians to select human specimens at their discretion. This woman’s body was further trivialized when LDUCPC-SOHO P.6 was stored in a safe to protect the gold IUD, reducing LDUCPC-SOHO P.6’s worth to its IUD’s monetary value. This woman’s identity, voice, and wishes were considered nonessential to the physician who literally pathologized her body, and to all later observers, conservators, and collectors. She came second to her uterus.
The startling casualness with which a woman’s life and agency was removed from her own body should shock us. It is a reminder that while contraception is beneficial and empowering to many women throughout the world, when a woman’s value is reduced to her genetic worth, contraception becomes a means to strip women of agency. Where eugenic belief and contraceptive practice intersect, all people with uteruses risk becoming LDUCPC-SOHO P.6—nameless, voiceless specimens useful only for their fecundity, instead of people valued for the entirety of their self and allowed freedom of choice.
By Sarah Guzman
BBC News. 2020. Abortion provider changes name over Marie Stopes eugenics link. BBC News. 17 November. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54970977.
Baker, Lisa. 2001. Control and the Dalkon Shield.Violence Against Women 7(11): 1303–1317. DOI: 10.1177/10778010122183874
Foster, Carly. 2017. Anchor Babies and Welfare Queens: An Essay on Political Rhetoric, Gendered Racism, and Marginalization. Women, Gender, and Families of Color 5(1): 50-72. DOI: 10.5406/womgenfamcol.5.1.0050
Henry, Alexis., Howard, Laura., Keddie, Hannah., Lacourse, Nicole., and Loukota, Esme. 2017. Research Project: Uterus specimen with gold intrauterine wishbone stem pessary. Internal UCL Report [Unpublished].
Javed, Saman. 2021. Uighurs In China Forced To Undergo 80 Sterilisations A Day, Claims Exiled Gynaecologist. Unilad UK. 16 April. Available at: https://www.unilad.co.uk/news/uighurs-in-china-forced-to-undergo-80-sterilisations-a-day-claims-exiled-gynaecologist/
Klausen, Susanne., and Bashford, Alison. 2012. Fertility Control: Eugenics, Neo-Malthusianism, and Feminism, in Bashford, Alison. and Levine, Philippa. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Online. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195373141.013.0006
Gomez, Anu., Mann, Emily., and Torres, Vanessa. 2018. 'It would have control over me instead of me having control': intrauterine devices and the meaning of reproductive freedom. Critical Public Health 28(2): 190-200.
Naftulin, Julia. 2020. Inside the hidden campaign to forcibly sterilize thousands of inmates in California women's prisons. Business Insider India. 25 November. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.in/science/health/news/inside-the-hidden-campaign-to-forcibly-sterilize-thousands-of-inmates-in-california-womens-prisons/articleshow/79399080.cms
Renwick, Chris. 2016. Eugenics, population research and social mobility studies in early and mid-twentieth-century Britain. The Historical Journal 59 (3): 845-867. DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X1500028X
Wilson, Philip. 2019. Eugenics. Encyclopedia Britannica. 4 June. Available at:https://www.britannica.com/science/eugenics-genetics
LDUAC-UCL1330ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Ceramic head, “Caricature female head, tinted pink, with red lips”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
Francis Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883; it is derived from the Greek words εὐ, meaning good, and γενής....
LDUAC-2008/32ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Greater Zimbabwe Pot, Institute of Archaeology Collections, late 20th century.
Among the ancient collections in UCL’s Institute of Archaeology lies this contemporary object, a ceramic bowl from Zimbabwe....