Communicating Contraception

Shelly Makleff, Senior Evaluation Officer - Institutional Data

Manon Parry’s engrossing book, Broadcasting Birth Control: Mass Media and Family Planning, takes readers through the arguments early sexual and reproductive health advocates had when deciding what would be the best messaging to gain popular support for the use of contraception in America. Using Planned Parenthood’s archives as a key source, Parry explains that movement's leaders moved away from feminist arguments and instead explained the benefits of contraception in medical and economic terms. Only after decades of promoting family planning did the messages begin to incorporate feminist themes like women’s rights, sexual pleasure, and empowerment.

Parry describes Planned Parenthood’s early approach as “cautious.” They avoided “emotion, graphic imagery, references to sexuality, and humor,” even when opponents successfully used these techniques in films like The Silent Scream and with misleading portrayals of fetal development. Parry laments the fact that Planned Parenthood took “a particularly timid approach” with its messaging in the early days of the movement.

Family planning moved closer to US foreign policy interests with the perceived threat of population explosion during the post–World War II era. At this time, Parry writes, Planned Parenthood’s domestic messages were being aired on the radio by the US Department of State. Funding from USAID supported the development and dissemination of media by international organizations in order to promote contraceptive use across the globe. When their messages came under scrutiny from feminists and conservatives alike, a gradual shift was made to relying on grassroots media strategies and incorporated messages about female empowerment.

Coming into the present day, Parry uses Mexico as a case study and highlights Miguel Sabido’s use of the telenovela for the purposes of entertainment and education. Telenovelas, which focus on family life and relationships, incorporated messages about family planning along with the long-avoided topic of sex. Groups that promote abstinence-only restrictions on sexuality education sparked reluctance among media outlets to portray issues like abortion and contraception in a positive light. Collaborations between media and health professionals have contributed to the inclusion of more positive and accurate sexual and reproductive health themes today.

Parry's ends by addresses the possible implications of emerging communications tools, like the Internet and social media. She points to the recent firestorm prompted by Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s withdrawal of funds from Planned Parenthood as an example of how powerful a well-managed, digital campaign can be in shaping public opinion. She also points out that the use of individual testimonies, particularly to combat the stigma of health issues like abortion and HIV, is a growing media strategy.

Broadcasting Birth Control illustrates how communications that have been employed throughout the history of contraception have elicited both controversy and polarizing debates among advocates, and that these reactions should be expected when new media strategies are employed. I'm hopeful that individuals and advocates will continue to use new media to voice their support of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and that they will work alongside organizations in doing so to bring more messages on empowerment, rights, sexuality, and pleasure into the public eye.


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