“Waking Up from the Pill”

salonA lengthy article appeared recently in New York Magazine entitled “Waking Up from the Pill”. Of the various retrospectives on the birth control pill that have appeared in the mainstream media this year — the 50th anniversary of the Pill’s introduction in 1960 — this one, despite several shortcomings, is notable for its in-depth discussion of its often ignored negative side effects.

A Different Sort of Birthday Party

The writer, Vanessa Grigoriadis, begins with an almost mocking description of a 50th birthday party held this fall at a swanky Manhattan hotel, complete with an “enormous cake, with lettering that spells out ONE SMALL PILL. ONE GIANT LEAP FOR WOMANKIND. ONE MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN HISTORY.”

She quotes Kelli Conlin, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, who declares to her fellow partygoers, “Today, we operate on a simple premise—that every little girl should be able to grow up to be anything she wants, and she can only do so if she has the ability to chart her own reproductive destiny.”

Grigoriadis goes on to recount a story shared by the event’s M.C., Cybill Shepherd, about when she started to have sex as a teenager:

“One day, my mom took me to my family doctor. He wrote something on a prescription pad and said, ‘Take one of these every day, and all your periods will be regular.’ ” She laughs heartily. “What a thrill! He didn’t even tell me it was birth control.”

Is it just me, or is there something terribly wrong about a doctor writing a birth control prescription for a teenage girl without even telling her it was birth control?

From “Safe Sex” to “Safer Sex” to “Damage Control”

A few years ago I attended an abstinence speakers’ workshop and heard a talk by Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician and author of Your Kids at Risk: How Teen Sex Threatens Our Sons and Daughters. At one time, as a matter of course she had prescribed birth control to her teenage patients when they requested it.

But then when her patients came back several months later, she witnessed the effects (things like STDs, but even more so, depression and other emotional effects) on them once they became sexually active.

Dr. Meeker has noted how our culture (and with it, the medical profession) has gone from once talking about “safe sex”, to “safer sex”, and is now in “damage control” mode.

This is, of course, due to the tired old assumption that kids are “going to do it anyway”, and that there is exactly nothing parents (or other authority figures like teachers, clergymen, physicians, etc.) can do to stop them. Sure, they know that some of them will end up pregnant or get an STD, but the very best that can be hoped for is to minimize the risk. And so, like the doctor Cybill Shepherd went to as a teenager, many are content to shrug their shoulders and throw birth control at them.

Infertility: “The Pill’s Primary Side Effect”

Grigoriadis spends a great deal of time explaining the connection between the Pill and skyrocketing rates of infertility:

The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women’s lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened). Until the past couple of decades, even most die-hard feminists were still married at 25 and pregnant by 28, so they never had to deal with fertility problems, since a tiny percentage of women experience problems conceiving before the age of 28. Now many New York women have shifted their attempts at conception back about ten years. And the experience of trying to get pregnant at that age amounts to a new stage in women’s lives, a kind of second adolescence. For many, this passage into childbearing—a Gail Sheehy–esque one, with its own secrets and rituals—is as fraught a time as the one before was carefree.

Suddenly, one anxiety—Am I pregnant?—is replaced by another: Can I get pregnant? … The Pill didn’t create the field of infertility medicine, but it turned it into an enormous industry. Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect.

This is, of course, an inconvenient truth that the major “pro-choice” organizations don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole:

And ironically, this most basic of women’s issues is one that traditional feminism has a very hard time processing—the notion that this freedom might have a cost is thought to be so dangerous it shouldn’t be mentioned. Earlier this decade, there was an outcry when the American Society for Reproductive Medicine commissioned an ad campaign on New York City buses featuring a baby bottle fashioned as an upside-down hourglass (around the same time, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist, made headlines with a suggestion that women would be better off having their kids in their twenties and entering the workforce a half-dozen or so years later). The National Organization for Women called the city bus ads a “scare campaign.” NOW’s president even wrote an editorial claiming that “women are, once again, made to feel anxious about their bodies and guilty about their choices.”

The Pill and Population Control

Grigoriadis also notes in her article a dirty little secret about the Pill that’s all too often overlooked — especially by today’s biggest proponents thereof:

The whole point of the Pill from the beginning has been population control. Even though America was consuming more than 50 percent of the world’s resources in the late fifties (with 6 percent of the world’s population), eugenicist fears of the developing world’s excessive procreation ran rampant during the Cold War.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but call to mind these words on the subject of putative problem of “overpopulation” written by Malcolm Muggeridge:

To me, this is a fantasy. You see, when I was young, people used to say the poor had too many children. Or, at the time of the famine in Ireland, they would say that the Irish had too many children. We were taking the food from Ireland, and the Irish were starving, and we said they were starving because they had too many children. Now, we who are sated, who have to adopt the most extravagant and ridiculous devices to consume what we produce, while watching whole, vast populations getting hungrier and hungrier, overcome our feelings of guilt by persuading ourselves that these others are too numerous, have too many children. They ask for bread and we give them contraceptives! In future history books it will be said, and it will be a very ignoble entry, that just at the moment in our history when we, through our scientific and technical ingenuity, could produce virtually as much food as we wanted to, just when we were opening up and exploring the universe, we set up a great whimpering and wailing, and said there were too many people in the world. It’s pitiful.

Quite so. And we have the Pill to thank for it.

What Does the Future Hold?

After pointing out the increasing number of babies born following IVF and cryogenic egg freezing, Grigoriadis offers a Brave New World-esque glimpse into what the future could hold:

That may be the world to which many are heading—even more medicalized and technologized, where all women freeze their eggs and submit to assisted reproductive technologies, and with it, more complicated choices and questions that bioethecists love to hash over. Even Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the Pill (before he became a Stanford professor, playwright, and sci-fi novelist), has suggested that all forms of birth control will eventually become obsolete and the Pill “will end up in a museum.” In his imaginings, girls and boys will deposit their eggs and sperm in a reproductive bank to be frozen at 20 or so and then get sterilized. They’ll want to do this because genetic diagnoses of embryos will become increasingly sophisticated, and no one will want to risk having a child with birth defects, let alone a child of an unpreferred gender or one predisposed to a hairy back. When these people want to have children, either one or six, at 30 or 60 years old, they’ll make a withdrawal from the bank.

In light of this horrifying dystopian vision, recall the masthead that twice appeared in 1921 on Margaret Sanger’s magazine, Birth Control ReviewBirth Control: To Create a Race of Thoroughbreds.

As Catholic writer Mark Shea has often pointed out, there are Two Phases of History:

  1. What could it hurt?
  2. How could we have known?

Don’t you wish that years ago there was someone, somewhere, who could have predicted — contra what everyone else in the world seemed to be saying at the time — that widespread acceptance of the Pill (and other forms of birth control generally) would lead to such terrible consequences?

Oh, wait — there was.

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