Contraception during Spain’s Dictatorship

By Natacha Maurin - History and Modern Languages Graduate @ St Catharine’s, Cambridge


 

During the years 1939-1975, Spain was under the rule of military dictator Francisco Franco. Through his leadership a return to traditional family values was encouraged. Women bore much of this burden, while divorce and the right to vote had been allowed under the previous government, these were quickly removed. Instead, the regime published propaganda such the Guía de la buena esposa (The guide to being a good wife) or “Teresa, revista para todas las mujeres” a magazine run by the women’s section of the Falangists. Such publications promoted ideas of women that painted them as existing primarily in a separate sphere to men while encouraging their roles as mothers and subservient wives above all. As such, it is not surprising that contraception and abortion were illegal under Franco, even after the wide-adoption of the pill in the 1960s in countries like the USA and Spain’s neighbour France. However, women found ways to access contraception in order to promote their own family planning.


The Legislation Behind the Ban on Contraception


Laws on contraception can be found prior to the creation of the pill in 1960 by American scientist Frank Colton. The “Ley de 24 de enero de 1941 para la protección de la natalidad contra el aborto y la propaganda anticoncepcionista” set the precedent for contraception and abortion within the Franco state. Not only was it illegal to sell contraception but it was also illegal to use it.


After the creation of the pill, debates surrounding contraception flared up again. The Franco regime took directive from the 1968 Humanae Vitae, the official statement of the Catholic Church on renewed questions on contraception. The Church proclaimed that the only acceptable method of contraception under Catholicism was “natural rhythms” (tracking the menstrual cycle to predict ovulation).


Contraception Under Franco


However, the wording of the Humanae Vitae in fact gave some leeway for medical professionals and those looking for contraception. The text stated “the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” Therefore, contraception was allowed if these means were therapeutic. This allowed the pill to be administered in certain cases.


When doctors (mainly women) created special outpatient clinics in the 1970s to deal with women’s health, they put this rhetoric to action. These clinics were clandestine, they existed only because they did not reveal their true reasons for operation. In clinics such as those attached to Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona, doctors who were often young women who had been trained abroad, would teach other women about the benefits of contraception. Often these clinics would target women who had just given birth to offer them an option out of repeated pregnancies. These clinics were not frequent but Teresa Ortiz Gómez and Agata Ignaciuk found that these hospitals spread throughout Spain offered the precursor the feminist movement which would help to decriminalise contraception.


The Post-Franco Years


Feminist and activist work on such topics really began after the death of Franco in 1975. Following the dictator’s passing, Spain entered the era called the transition, in which the country moved towards a new form of government. It was a moment in which Spain’s path towards democracy was not yet guaranteed. During the transition, feminist groups begun to emerge such the Family Planning Commission or the CPF. This group worked hard to bring family planning to the attention of leaders and to have it put on the agendas of those creating the new Spain. Much like medical activists of the late 1960s, they also set up clinics such as Centro De Mujeres Federico Rubio in Madrid in 1976. However, these clinics went further offering women feminist and self-exploration training as well as contraception. Other groups such as the Democratic Movement of Women (MDM) also worked to bring such women’s rights issues to the forefront of politician’s minds. In 1978, contraception would be decriminalised.


Although it was difficult for women to access contraception, it was not impossible nor unheard of. Through the work of medical activists women were able to access contraception and family planning prior to the fall of the regime. By creating a basis for pro-contraception activism, these doctors laid the foundations for the movements that would prioritise women’s reproductive rights in the transition period. Through diligent and dangerous work, these activists ensured that despite the restrictions of such regimes, women could benefit from the help of contraception.


Further Reading:


Allen, Ann Taylor. 2005. Feminism and motherhood in Western Europe, 1890-1970 the maternal dilemma, (New York : Palgrave Macmillan ; Baingstoke : Palgrave [distributor])


Ignaciuk, Agata. and Ortiz-Gómez, Teresa., 2018. ‘The fight for family planning in Spain during late Francoism and the transition to democracy, 1965–1979.’ Journal of Women's History, 30(2): 38-62


Ignaciuk, Agata., Ortiz-Gómez, Teresa, Rodriguez-Ocaña, Esteban. (2014) ‘Doctors, women and circulation of knowledge on oral contraceptives in Spain: 1960s-1970s’ in Gendered drugs and medicine: historical and socio-cultural perspectives ed. By Teresa Ortiz-Gómez, Maríá Jesús (London: Routledge) pp.133-148


Kalbian, Aline. 2014. Sex, violence and justice contraception and the Catholic Church, (Washington, District of Columbia: Georgetown University Press)

Reeser, Victoria. 2019. ‘Exploring Female Identity in Francoist Spain’ Penn History Review 26(1): 74-101