Children by Choice?

The Entanglements of the American Planned Parenthood Federation and the West German Pro Familia e.V.

Claudia Roesch

In 1952, the American Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger helped set up Pro Familia, the West German association for family planning, by connecting activists from Hamburg, Berlin, and Kassel to form a union modeled on the U.S. organization. Planned Parenthood supported Pro Familia financially and activists exchanged ideas and scientific knowledge about contraception despite differences in their goals. While Sanger and Planned Parenthood wanted to regulate population growth world-wide, West German activists were more concerned with curbing illegal abortion rates. Originally, Pro Familia was a small lobbyist organization of doctors – some of whom had been active eugenicists in the Weimar Republic and Nazi era – who sought to promote contraceptives among married women. In the 1960s, it collaborated with the West German federal government to promote sex education in schools and supported abortion law reform in the 1970s. As younger and more progressive staff were hired, Pro Familia became the most important organization providing crisis pregnancy counselling and sex education for teenagers. Likewise, Planned Parenthood now stands at the forefront of defending women’s reproductive rights in the U.S. 

This project examines the history of family planning by studying the entanglements of Planned Parenthood and Pro Familia from a history of knowledge perspective. It looks at how scientific knowledge, concepts of “Wunschkinder” (wanted children), and reproductive choice were transported both directions across the Atlantic. In particular, the project focuses on how activists conceptualized family planning as a result of decision-making, and asks which different cultures of decision-making were underlying the strategies and campaigns. By approaching family planning from the perspective of decision-making, it uncovers underlying values of rationality, individuality, collectivism, expertise, or religious morality. 

First, this project examines how Planned Parenthood advertised the idea that family is something to actively plan for and translated the concept to a postwar West Germany. Then it discusses the introduction of oral contraceptives and controversies about legal sterilization in both organizations in the 1960s. Third, it will focus on abortion reform in the 1970s, bringing together different discursive strains in the transnational controversy on the abortion pill RU 486 in the late 1980s. Accordingly, it will trace instances of knowledge exchange and transformations of decision-making concepts from 1942 to 1993.