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The contraceptive pill represented a watershed in women’s reproductive agency, and serves as a reminder of the vital part that humanists have played (and continue to play) in efforts for reproductive rights. For over a century before the creation and introduction of the contraceptive pill, freethinkers and humanists had been at the forefront of campaigns for the provision of birth control. Famously, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant had been at the centre of controversy for their decision to publish Charles Knowlton’s pamphlet The Fruits of Philosophy in 1877, when they were arrested and charged for breaching the Obscene Publications Act. Their example is perhaps the best known, but was only one of scores of 19th century efforts to make information about birth control methods more widely available. During the 20th century, humanists were again prominent in campaigns to take a more rational, humane attitude to sex and sexuality, with groups like the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, the World League for Sexual Reform, and the Workers’ Birth Control Group all spearheaded by humanists. Like their 19th century counterparts, humanist activists during the 20th century challenged, and rejected, religious doctrines governing sexuality and moral codes, and championed the right to govern family size and enjoy greater sexual freedom.

Gregory Pincus, the American who developed the first effective contraceptive pill during the 1950s, was himself a humanist. In the UK, the pill became available on the NHS (for married women) in 1961, and to all in 1967. Today, humanists continue a long tradition of working for sexual and reproductive rights. Humanists UK advocates for high-quality, comprehensive relationships and sex education, as well as for widely and freely available forms of contraception, allowing for informed reproductive choices.

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