A couple weeks ago marked the 40th anniversary of the birth control pill — and in those 40 years it rivals (and probably beats) the computer as the single most important technological innovation of the last four decades. I was born well after the introduction of the Pill, and to me cheap, reliable contraceptives seem as natural and commonplace as long distance phone calls or routine air travel, which were revolutionary in their own right.
The funny thing about the Pill, though, is that ideologues throughout the political spectrum tend to hate it. The conservative version of the Pill is pretty straightforward — the Pill severed the link between sex and procreation and caused massive, largely negative, social upheaval. Writing for Frontpage.Com, for example, Chris Weinkopf (A Bitter Pill) laments that,
By effectively thwarting women’s reproductive systems, the Pill and the revolution it enabled granted sexual partners the confidence that one-night stands would not become lifetime obligations. Not surprisingly, women now complain that most men think of them as little more than sexual objects, and are unwilling to “commit.”
…by completely divorcing sex from the possibility of procreation, the Pill degraded the marital act from an expression of unconditional love, rooted in an openness to new life, to an exercise in physical and emotional gratification. This devaluation has no doubt contributed to the national rise in adultery — which experts estimates now affects at least half of all marriages — and the national divorce rate, which has more than doubled since 1960.
Weinkopf also blames the Pill for contributing to the problem of many children growing up fatherless, and complains that not only has the Pill not made a dent in the abortion rate, but that the Pill in fact is abortion. Some oral contraceptives work by inhibiting the ability of fertilized eggs from implanting on the wall of the uterus — and Weinkopf and others think interfering even with a fertilized egg at all is tantamount to murder (even though fertilized eggs often fail to implant due to any number of reasons without the Pill). Weinkopf posits some sort of active effort by “feminists [who have] succeeded for four decades in concealing from the American public … that it can cause abortions.” Perhaps there are some women who don’t know how the Pill works, though they could just read the package insert that comes with every prescription, but more likely even people concerned about the ethics of abortion don’t necessarily consider a handful of un-implanted cells to be a person.
Don’t think it’s just conservatives, though, who dislike the Pill. Radical feminists such as Mary Daly argue that the Pill is literally a poison designed by male scientists to benefit the patriarchy and make it easier to control women. In fact there is a strain of radical feminism that sees pretty much all scientific research into reproduction as a patriarchal attempt to further seize control of women.
One of the things Daly and others cite is the debate over whether or not the Pill contributes to an increased risk of some form of cancers and other side effects. While most of these risks are overblown by a media interested in hyping tales of disaster, no technology is risk free (witness the small number of men who have died because they ignored the warnings accompanying Viagra, which also causes a number of well-documented problems in certain men).
The fear of lawsuits, however, is one of the reasons that there have been so few new contraceptive drugs in the intervening years. In fact, one of the few new products that was put on the market — Norplant — immediately became the subject of a large number of lawsuits which have yet to be resolved.
It is not surprising that the Pill should have so many detractors — the Pill increased the amount of freedom that women and men had in sexual matters. As in any other area of life, freedom carries with it a great deal of responsibility and inevitably some people act irresponsibly. Yes, to some extent people have chosen to trivialize their marriage vows (though others have left bad marriages for good reasons) and too many men don’t take their responsibilities seriously.
On the other hand, the Pill also allows married couples to easily defer having children until they are older, wiser and better off financially. It allows people from turning one reckless night into a lifelong mistake.
Weinkopf, and I imagine many conservatives, finds it hard to believe Gloria Feldt’s claim that “the Pill has enabled women to take charge of … their lives,” but his real problem is that he doesn’t approve of how women (and men) have freely chosen to live their lives in the post-Pill era. In this view, he’s not all that different from the radical feminists.