Fighting Fertility: Depo-Provera, South Africa, and the British Anti-Apartheid Movement.

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post from Kate Law, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Chichester, explores the work done by the British Anti-Apartheid Movement against the use of Depo-Provera in South Africa.

In September 2013, I spent a week in Rhodes House Library, at the University of Oxford. Although I should have been finishing off research for another project, I found myself putting in an archival request to see the materials marked “Files on women’s issues, 1979-1993”, from the papers of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). 21 files appeared.

It was the files on women’s health and, in particular, the material marked “Depo-Provera contraceptive, 1979-1986” that intrigued me the most. As I learned, in 1987, apartheid South Africa was forced to resign from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), due to its widespread and racialised distribution of Depo-Provera; the controversial contraceptive injection.[1]


Birth control injection (Depo-Provera). Courtesy of Wikimedia commons, produced by Ciell

The pariah state’s expulsion from the IPPF was in part due to the efforts of the women’s section of the AAM, whose anti Depo-Provera campaign focused on the racialised distribution of the shot, whilst also advancing an anti-capitalist, feminist critique of its use. As their literature proclaimed: ‘Depo-Provera is the ideal drug to appease the frustration of medical professionals who are dealing with women who will not toe the line and will not do what is considered by the doctors to be in their own best interests’.[2] In addition, the AAM argued that the use of the shot in South Africa, and indeed other countries in the so-called “Third World” could only be understood as a highly politicised act, which attempted to reduce population numbers. As Matthew Connelly has argued, attempts to control population numbers in the “Third-World” were meant to ‘jump-start’ national self reliance thereby ‘making people modern in a single generation’.[3] At the heart of the history of Depo-Provera, the AAM argued, ‘is the totally racist way in which it has been developed, tested and is now being used all over the world. Millions of injections have been given to women who are told nothing about its side effects and risks.’[4] Going further, they argued that the widespread use of Depo-Provera revealed the collision of ‘racist bigotry and commercial greed…[which are] dressed up in scientific jargon and high-flown talk of principles and humanitarianism’.[5]


The AAM were unequivocal in their criticisms: ‘there is a big difference between women demanding birth control and being compelled to accept population control’.[6] Going further, and indeed at the most basic level, the campaign argued that many women were given Depo-Provera without their consent. Those who were given the shot, they argued, fell victim to an asymmetrical power relationship between medical professional and patient. Whether because of outright racism or parochial and paternal views of African “culture”, Depo-Provera was ‘considered ideal for rural women because of what one member of the Family Planning Association of South Africa called “obvious reasons,” presumably meaning that African women were perceived as too irresponsible to be left in charge of controlling their fertility and reproductive labour’.[7]


I presented aspects of this research in the summer at the African Studies Association (UK) conference. The ever-generous Rebecca Hodes, in commenting on my paper, asked me to think about challenging the orthodoxy in the literature which sees state sponsored contraception as a solely negative experience for its recipients. From her work in the Mzantsi Wakho project, she has found that Depo-Provera was, and indeed remains a much-valued form of contraception. As this project moves forward then, the challenge is to write a story, and uncover a history, that examines the balance between what Johanna Schoen has termed ‘choice and coercion’ regarding women’s access to contraception. One thing is for sure; it is vital that the project is grounded in the experiences of women who used Depo-Provera. I hope then, that this short blog post can provoke some debate into the idea of “choice and coercion”, in “the Global South” so we can further understand the myriad interactions between racialised and gendered ideologies in South Africa and beyond.


Dr Kate Law, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Chichester.


[1] Originally developed in the early 1960s as a treatment for endometrial cancer, clinicians noted that prolonged exposure to Depo-Provera also caused infertility, with further experiments beginning in 1964 in an attempt to market the drug as a contraceptive. Depo-Provera is administered via injection, usually into the arm.

[2] MSS AAM 351 Pamphlet, n.d. ‘A report by the campaign against Depo-Provera’, pp.22-23.

[3] Matthew Connelly, Fatal Mis-Conceptions: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge, Massachussets: Belknap Harvard, 2008) p. 154.

[4] MSS AAM 351 ‘A report by the campaign against Depo-Provera’, pp.28-29.

[5] Ibid., pp. 32-33.

[6]Ibid.,, pp. 38-39.

[7] Susanne Klausen, Abortion Under Apartheid (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 200.


One thought on “Fighting Fertility: Depo-Provera, South Africa, and the British Anti-Apartheid Movement.

  1. Pingback: Nursing Clio Sunday Morning Medicine

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