In the early to mid-21st century, the U.S. government passed sweeping legislation prohibiting the sale and use of contraceptives and reproductive health products in the United States. What seemed to many as a set of extreme, fringe attitudes slowly gained mainstream acceptance as limitations on contraceptives and reproductive health products began appearing in the form of state and municipal bans. Eventually “The Ban”—as it’s become collectively known—was ratified into federal law. Use of all contraceptive, prophylactic and reproductive health care products and services were criminalized.
One of the immediate consequences of people being denied access to regulated and sanctioned options was an increase in the use of homemade reproductive health products. Often, these products were ineffective—even potentially lethal—unlike previous products and practices that had been scientifically proven to be safe and effective.
In the years following The Ban, New York City artists Ellie Sachs and Matt Starr began archiving these prohibited objects and researching banned services as evidence of an era in which people in the U.S. had a broader set of sexual and reproductive health rights. Artifacts from their collection, which are on display in this exhibition, are some of the only known remaining examples.
Their research calls attention to how reproductive health care products served many functions beyond pregnancy prevention and protection from sexually transmitted diseases. Contraceptives were used to help manage medical conditions, and allowed people the opportunity to effectively plan when, or if, to have children. Both examples have been shown to have a positive impact on people’s access to education and employment, leading to a better quality of life overall.
Sachs and Starr would like to thank the Center for Pre-Ban Studies, who helped make this exhibition possible.