The Swedish abortion pill: Examining controversial research spaces and practices

PhD-project: Morag Ramsey

In my dissertation I examine the development of medical abortion in Sweden. Beginning in the 1960s and lasting until the early 1980s, Swedish researchers experimented with chemically inducing abortion. There were two main groups of researchers and two different chemical compounds tested in human clinical trials: F6103 and prostaglandins F2alpha. The goal, from the researchers perspective, was to develop a new abortion technology. This technology was envisioned as a chemical abortion method that would simplify the procedure and improve abortion access throughout the country.

It was not a simple, single vision, just as it was not a simple, single journey. Multitudes of meanings produced by different groups and individuals attached themselves to the idea of a new medical abortion method and the research attracted attention from Swedish and international press. During the time of the research’s development and practice, abortion was hardly an uncontested or stable issue. The legal framework for abortion was under scrutiny and facing adjustments, legal access to abortion was not uniform throughout the country, and Swedish women were traveling abroad for abortions, while foreigners were looking to Sweden for the same service. In scientific circles the advancement of abortion technologies could also mean the loss of scientific material: foetuses. There was no uniform reaction to abortion, even within the medical community, but nonetheless there were people hoping to develop an abortion pill.

The aim of this study is to better understand the intricacies and practices that contribute to the creation of research spaces for controversial subjects. In order to do so I follow networks connected to the development of medical abortion technologies. These networks include physicians, researchers, clinical trial participants, government officials, lawyers, and employees of philanthropic associations. In these networks I look at the practices connected to developing medical abortion. This includes closely examining clinical trials, applications, letters, legal motions, newspaper interviews, and official collaborative agreements. I hope to better understand the practices involved in developing medical abortion and the consequences of these practices. This in turn will hopefully contribute to discussions about controversial research spaces and how different scientific domains emerge.

Publications and presentations:

• “Making space for an abortion pill,” paper presentation, National STS Days, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden, August 30–31, 2018.

• “Creating a space for abortion pills: Examining negotiation and collaboration,” Remaking reproduction: The global politics of reproductive technologies, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK, June 27–29, 2018.

• “Value making practices in abortion pill research,” 7th STS Italia conference, University of Padova, Padova, Italy, June 14–16, 2018.

• “Creating a family planning niche: Examining Sweden's position in international family planning in the post war period”, paper presentation, European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, Universitas Medicinae Et Pharmaciae Carolus Davila, Bucharest, Romania, August 30- September 2, 2017.

• “Planning the postcolonial population: Scandinavian aid administrations, family planning and women's rights in the developing countries”, roundtable, 29th Congress of Nordic Historians, Aalborg Congress and Culture Centre, Aalborg, Denmark, August 15-18, 2017.