Free for what? Women's choices in the era of the pill

Carolyn Moynihan
June 1, 2018
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

"The little pill that gave women freedom." That's the way The Conversation bills a clutch of articles marking nearly six decades of what the birth control boffins call "effective" contraception. With the release of the pill from 1957 onwards, women "celebrated the new control they had over their fertility," writes Bryony McNeill, a lecturer in reproductive physiology at Deakin University, in "A short history of the pill".

Actually, women already had a basic control over their fertility - probably as much as the pill has given them considering that abortion has underwritten this technology almost from day one - only, the control they had was moral, not technical. By and large, they set the terms for sex: marriage, and co-responsibility for the children.

Chemical contraception plus abortion has certainly controlled the number of children the average woman has, but what kind of freedom has it given her? Given current trends, here's a list of 10 things Ms Millennial is free to do with her sterilised body:

1. Enter the cheap sex market. That is, hook up, date or cohabit with a series of men who are only interested in sex, while she spends ten to twenty years looking for someone who is really interested in her.

2. Suffer sexual harassment at college and work from men who think that, since women now have bodies like men (can't get pregnant), they also have the same mechanical attitude to sex. She may even be free for a relationship with an abuser like Eric Schneiderman.

3. Put up with the side-effects of ingesting completely unnecessary synthetic hormones: weight gain, headaches, depression, loss of libido - to say nothing of more serious effects.

4. Get pregnant anyway because she was careless about her contraception, or it just did not work this time (which happens) - and "have to" have an abortion.

5. Not get an abortion and become a solo mother, reducing further her chances of marrying, though not of being exploited by boyfriends.

6. Get a sexually transmitted infection that will not go away. If she missed out on the HPV vaccine it may mean she is "free" to develop cervical cancer.

7. Increase her risk of breast cancer -- by an average of 20 percent, according to a recent study reported in the New York Times.

8. Listen to her biological clock ticking relentlessly while Mr Right fails to show up. Or find out, too late, that her fertility has a different time frame than his.

9. Cohabit with a man who does not love her enough to marry her. If lucky, eventually marry him; if not (more likely) then break up. Perhaps several times. The consequences of this freedom extend, of course, to any children they have.

10. Decide it's time for a baby, married or not, only to find she is infertile. She is then free to pay a fortune for IVF or, in some countries, to wait on a public list. Or remain childless.

Pill advocates can no doubt come up with a list of wonderful things that women have achieved with the help of the pill - higher education, independent incomes, amazing careers, a lasting marriage, one or two carefully reared children… But this is much truer of the college educated than those down the social scale, and even among the most educated there are women struggling with some of these issues.

If this is freedom, it seems a very dubious exchange for the life of the average woman of the pre-pill era - the one stereotyped as chained to the kitchen sink and wondering, according to Betty Friedan, "Is this all?" There are many 30-year-olds today who, considering their health and happiness, could ask the same question.