"We Owe A Debt to Local Birth-Control Pioneers"

by Jeffrey Shallit

Before I moved to Kitchener in 1990, I purchased a pair of Sorel boots. Warm and waterproof, they were ideal for slogging through a New Hampshire winter. Little did I realize that I would soon be living just a 5-minute walk from the factory where they were made, the Kaufman Rubber Company at King and Victoria.

I also didn't know what an instrumental role A. R. Kaufman played in the fight for women's rights in Canada. It's a fascinating story.

So much has changed in the last seventy years that it's hard for many people to picture what life was like for women in Kaufman's day. Today, condoms and other contraceptives are available in every drugstore, but in the 1930's it was actually a criminal offence to distribute birth control devices or information.

Outside Canada, the situation was slowly changing. In the United States, Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood, while overseas, Marie Stopes opened the UK's first family planning clinic. Although both these pioneers preferred to distribute contraceptives through clinics, the clinics reached relatively few women. Many women were too shy to attend them, and the devices they dispensed were not easy to fit and somewhat difficult to use.

In Canada, however, contraception was still a taboo subject in the 1930's. This was due in part, of course, to religious opposition to birth control -- particularly that of the Catholic Church in Quebec. But another reason was the silence of physicians, who believed that respectable doctors shouldn't be involved in such a questionable area.

Into this vacuum stepped A. R. Kaufman, a Kitchener industrialist and chair of Kaufman Rubber. After laying off workers during the Depression, Kaufman became alarmed at the poverty of his former employees. He found that the worst conditions were associated with large families, and decided that widely available birth control would improve the situation.

Kaufman rejected the clinic model, which he regarded as inefficient, and instead sent nurses directly to homes to furnish women with condoms and contraceptive jelly. In 25 years, from 1935 to 1960, his Parents Information Bureau helped about 200,000 Canadian women take charge of their fertility.

It's easy to criticize Kaufman's motives, which, like Sanger's, were grounded in part on eugenics and a belief that the lower classes were outreproducing the middle and upper classes. But there's no denying that Kaufman's down-to-earth approach was far more successful in reaching women than the more utopian methods advocated by the Canadian left. Further, Kaufman's image as a respectable industrialist helped him garner the support of Canadian doctors.

Another local connection is to the Dorothea Palmer trial of 1937. Palmer was one of Kaufman's nurses, arrested in Eastview, Ontario (now Vanier) for distributing birth-control devices.

Palmer was eventually acquitted under the "public good" clause of the Criminal Code, and the publicity surrounding the trial resulted in greater public support for the birth-control movement in Canada. The Palmer papers, as well as records of the Parents Information Bureau, are archived at the University of Waterloo.

Of course, the fight for reproductive rights didn't end with Kaufman and Palmer. As recently as 1961, a Toronto pharmacist named Harold Fine was jailed for selling condoms. The statute outlawing birth-control devices was only repealed in 1969 under Trudeau.

Now, each time I pass the Kaufman building on King Street, I think about Dorothea Palmer and A. R. Kaufman who together contributed to a Canada where, in Trudeau's pithy aphorism, the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.