Imagine with me, for a moment, the setting: The year is 1969. The Canadian Prime Minister is about to have an affair with Barbra Streisand; hair is long and flowing and is also a musical; and, one day in May, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality are all legalized at the exact same time. (Surprise! ‘Summer of 69’ actually could be about the year.)
The journey to get this point, where folks could procure both birth control and (some) abortions without legal consequences, indirectly involved a Royal Commission on the Status of Women. For those unfamiliar with Canadian political history, let me explain a Royal Commission: basically, every time there’s an issue the incumbent government doesn’t really want to deal with, they hire independent researchers (who aren’t paid very well and so never get anything done on time) under the Queen’s authority (who doesn’t even go here, who gets anything done when their boss is out of town) to take a year (read: several years) to look into things, basically so they can delay the issue until the next guy gets into office. Lester B. Pearson enacted this strategy in 1967, and by the time Pierre Trudeau pirouetted his way into office in 1968, there was already enough research done to show that women were gonna start some shit if something wasn’t done about their rights.
For example: four days before Pierre Trudeau took office in 1968, a woman named Norma Ellen Verwey (pictured left) proposed to the Royal Commission that since men insisted on being in charge of everything, instead of legalizing contraception for women, why don’t men take charge like they do with everything else and just all get vasectomies?
Boy howdy, did the men ever get scared.
The Commission itself, admittedly handled mostly by women who might’ve also seen this as a good idea, took her suggestion surprisingly well. Since her assertion was that vasectomies are reversible, there probably didn’t seem much wrong with her idea. The main comment from them at the time actually had nothing to do with the logistics behind compulsory vasectomies, but instead was that vasectomy was mostly being suggested over a male birth control pill because it’s much harder to forget about a vasectomy than it is to forget to take a pill.
The media, on the other hand, had a field day. A few newspapers in particular seemed to get a real panic brewing. The Toronto Star published an article right after Norma made her suggestion titled, “Sterilize ‘unready’ males at 16, woman doctor urges.” It was on the front page, so it probably caused a riot somewhere. Meanwhile, the Ottawa Citizen didn’t bother to contain the sentiment to Norma – instead, all women “wanted men sterilized,” which was probably accidentally a more accurate statement than intended. Most strikingly, in Montreal, La Presse published Norma’s photo with the caption, “Men Beware!” The accompanying headline said that all men were going to be sterilized.
Yes. All. Men.
(Vancouver Sun, April 18 1968)
I would love to be able to tell you that Norma Verwey, MD, had a completely serious plan to solve the problem of birth control and that this plan actually was compulsory vasectomies. She would have had support; some guy called Ken Huband, who was actually a civil servant, approached the Commission six months later and said he thought that compulsory vasectomies were a great idea. However, he also thought that people should be able to marry themselves to whomever they wanted, wherever they wanted — “on a beach, at a party or in a church, I don’t care.” Probably this thing about marrying yourself to people at parties made everyone realize that he was not the best guy to be giving advice, so the newspaper coverage just called him “courageous” and then described how colourful his outfit was.
(From this ‘courageous’ descriptor, I, a historian and therefore an expert, surmise that a man stating his views about contraception to a room full of women has always been a very dangerous thing to do, and strongly advise that men should not do that thing in order to avoid certain peril, possibly unless they are wearing a really pretty outfit.)
Still, the point stands that more than one person in 1968 suggested compulsory vasectomies in order to solve the birth control problem, and Norma started it, and if the colourful courage man hadn’t fucked it all up by talking about party marriages she might’ve changed this nation’s history and there might’ve been vasectomy centres on street corners now.
The thing is that the media was wrong about a few things – actually, most things – and Norma Verwey, as it turns out, was just a tremendous prankster.
First of all, Norma Verwey did not have a medical degree. She had a doctorate; she was, as she explicitly stated both aloud and in writing, a sociologist. Accordingly, this entire thing was a massive social experiment to see just how mad people would get when she suggested that men be the ones to have an invasive procedure to control family sizes.
No – I know what you’re thinking. I doubted it at first, too. Couldn’t she have been serious about this? Some of us might be a little bit serious about this now. Fortunately she wrote a book in 1991 called Radio Call-Ins and Covert Politics that was mostly unrelated, but thanks to the subject of covert politics she managed to sneak in a couple pages about her time trolling the nation about vasectomies.
Listen – I think it’s pretty clear that Norma was at least partially serious. I personally want to believe that Norma was sitting at home at her typewriter positively crying with mirth as she thought of all the shit she was about to start. She acknowledges that this plan was mostly to generate media attention for herself just to see how many radio shows she could get herself on – also a worthy goal – but she also characterizes the vasectomy idea as “an extremely anti-male suggestion,” and if that’s not an acknowledgement of her true motives then I don’t know what is.
This theory that she was partially serious is supported by her statement that she “wished to ‘smoke out’ medical opinion on the question of vasectomy reversal. Male doctors had always been very reluctant to suggest vasectomy,” she writes, “and even more reluctant to admit that it was reversible.” So basically what I am reading here is that she wanted to find out if her vasectomy plan was actually viable, and therefore completely considered this idea to be a potentially reasonable solution to the problem of birth control as she knew it.
Everything, according to Norma, went exactly as she’d hoped. After being called onto talk show after talk show – “as expected, the moderators who contacted me were either impolite, chauvinistic and sarcastic, or patronising and full of good-humoured male upmanship,” she writes – she eventually got more than one medical doctor to call in, amidst the vulgar phone calls and personal attacks aplenty, to admit that, even in 1968, vasectomies had 60-70% reversibility. Some men phoned in to admit they’d had a vasectomy, and that they were happier for it, while others phoned in to express a wish to get a vasectomy; and soon, the conversation about vasectomies began to change.
By the end of it, she says, no matter what else you wanted to say about it, “No listener in the Vancouver area, male or female, could claim that they had never heard of reversible vasectomy.”
So please, never forget, if you are Canadian or even if you are not, this courageous woman who almost single-handedly changed the landscape of the Canadian birth control story with what began as a social experiment. She endured a great deal of ridicule in order to give this gift to us; the threatening phone calls did not end, though she received several in her support as well, and she was a topic in the papers for years to come.
In the end, one sociologist – who referred good-naturedly to the positive outcome of the experiment as the fact that women were now able to convince their husbands that his “tiny tubes were more easily cut” than any invasive procedure she might have to endure to stop the damn babies already – simultaneously pranked the men of the nation and gave women a new set of ideas to work with when considering whether or not to get her tubes tied, all a year before contraception and abortion were even made legal.
I think we all know that the vasectomy suggestion directly caused the legalization of birth control for women with the sheer amount of fear it generated in the hearts, minds, and ballsacks of the nation’s leaders, so I won’t bother to prove the connection here. But I do hope from now on, if you’re ever having trouble convincing someone – you know, legislators, your best friend’s horrible boyfriend, the queen – that birth control should be both free and absolutely everywhere, consider pulling a Norma and arguing for compulsory vasectomies instead. You never know; you might trigger the nation’s next big push for more comprehensive birth control.
Leigha Ariana is stubbornly chipping away at her thesis in women’s history, and sometimes writes television meta on Tumblr.