Attempts by humans to control their own fertility have included abstinence, contraception, induced abortion, surgery such as vasectomy or hysterectomy, and infanticide. "Birth control" is a term coined in 1914, and at that time it meant voluntary control of conception by mechanical or chemical means, or by both. Today, hormonal, barrier and natural birth-control methods are also recognized as techniques of contraception.
Before WWI, a few Canadians advocated birth control as a health measure, but organized groups to foster it did not appear until the 1920s. Like groups in Britain and the US, they argued that every child should be wanted and nurtured. Birth control could free women from debilitating annual pregnancies and reduce the incidence of illegal abortion. It could improve marital relations, maternal and child health, and family welfare. Canadian advocates did not, however, make the claim that it was the panacea of social problems caused by poverty.
Under the 1892 Criminal Code, birth control was obscene, "tending to corrupt morals." Unless an accused could prove that its advocacy had been "for the public good," he or she was liable to serve a 2-year jail sentence. Contraception was opposed by pronatalist business, religious, and political interest groups. Their attacks on the "birth controllers" were frequent and often defamatory.
Nevertheless, by the 1920s, international research in human sexuality was creating interest in Canada, the 1892 law was being questioned, and family size among those in higher socioeconomic brackets was shrinking. Informed couples could limit their fertility by "under-the-counter" purchases of commercially made contraceptives, or with materials for homemade methods. High fertility persisted among the less educated poor, however, and the birth controllers urged that contraception should be free for all who wanted it.
Politicians quoted the law to evade the issue, but scattered groups of determined volunteers made referrals to a few courageous physicians or provided information themselves to married women. The first advocacy organization in Canada was formed in Vancouver in 1923, and the first birth-control clinic was started in Hamilton in 1932.
From 1930 onwards a birth-control program for low-income women was also provided by a philanthropist, A.R. Kaufman of Kitchener, Ontario. From his Parents' Information Bureau (PIB), clients could obtain simple contraceptives by mail order and could get referrals to selected physicians for diaphragms and for contraceptive sterilization.
When one of the PIB field workers, Dorothea Palmer, was arrested in 1936 in a predominantly French-speaking, low-income suburb of Ottawa, Kaufman's lawyers won her acquittal, arguing that her work was not for profit but "for the public good." The PIB was soon helping 25 000 clients a year. The landmark verdict reassured other advocacy groups, but until the 1960s they were unable to match the popularity of Kaufman's program.