As we approach the 50th anniversary of the FDA’s approval of the birth control pill for contraceptive use, we’re seeing little in the way of celebration. On the contrary, the June 23 anniversary is inspiring a great deal of reflection on the negative impact of these chemical compounds, known collectively as “the pill.”
Think for a moment about the significance of that name: “the pill.” I can think of no other invention whose impact is so great as to dominate an entire category in this way. Despite all that the automobile has done to transform society, we do not call it “the machine.”
There can be no doubt that the pill has had a profound impact on society. But until now, there were few voices suggesting that impact might be negative, especially in the mainstream media.
The Pill’s Impact on Sex Drive
For decades, critics of the pill have been saying that it decreases some women’s libidos—their interest in sex. This month’s Time magazine reports on a new study out of Germany supporting that claim. Author Catherine Elton writes:
[R]esearchers found that women who used a hormonal method of birth control—mostly oral contraceptives—had lower levels of sexual desire and arousal than women who used nonhormonal methods like condoms or no contraception at all…
[T]he analysis of the data showed that the association between lower libido and hormonal contraceptives was independent of other variables, such as stress or relationship status, that are commonly known to contribute to low sex drive.
Kim Wallen, an Emory University professor critical of the study, offers a bizarre solution to the libido problem, which she says may have more to do with the fact that women on the pill are more likely be in long-term relationships: “We know that long-term relationships increase the risk of female sexual dysfunction—a condition easily treated with a new partner, which is many times more effective than any drug or hormone.” Even radical feminists are horrified by Wallen’s proposal.
She Hates the Pill
A personal account of the libido-killing effects of the pill is offered by Glamour editor Geraldine Sealey in a piece at Salon.com entitled “Why I hate the pill: The birth control revolution brought freedom to countless women. It brought misery to me.”
As my colleague John Jansen pointed out in a post earlier this week, Sealey lists a whole host of problems with the birth control pill and related steroidal contraceptives, and demands that our society squarely face the shortcomings of the pill. The worst of these, for her, was the impact on her sex drive:
Although a libido-destroying pill does wonders to lower your pregnancy risk, it’s also done a number on my relationships, self-esteem and emotional well-being … Eventually, my libido dissipated so that just the thought of sex repulsed me, which left me confused, depressed and cut off from myself and my partner.
The very pill which is supposed to make it possible for women to enjoy sex is depriving many women of the capacity to enjoy sex.
Former Sex Symbol Speaks Out
The negative societal impact of the pill is considered from an unexpected corner in a piece at CNN.com by former “sex symbol” Rachel Welch. In a piece entitled “It’s sex o’clock in America,” Welch writes about finding herself pregnant at 19, early in her first marriage.
She and her then-husband had two beloved children together, but she says things would have been very different had she become pregnant after the pill had been introduced and radically altered society’s attitudes towards sex:
It was far from ideal, but my children didn’t impede my progress. They grounded me in reality and forced me into an early maturity. I should add that having two babies didn’t destroy my figure.
But if I’d had a different attitude about sex, conception and responsibility, things would have been very different.
While Welch doesn’t say so explicitly, her comments suggest a whole mentality about sex that makes women more likely to choose abortion.
What Welch does say is that contraception—and the pill in particular—has weakened marriage, increased infidelity and made women (and men) more likely to make irresponsible sexual choices. She concludes:
Seriously, folks, if an aging sex symbol like me starts waving the red flag of caution over how low moral standards have plummeted, you know it’s gotta be pretty bad. In fact, it’s precisely because of the sexy image I’ve had that it’s important for me to speak up and say: Come on girls! Time to pull up our socks! We’re capable of so much better.
The Pill and the Sexual Revolution
The impact of the pill on sexual mores is further explored by Stuart Koehl in First Things‘ On the Square blog. Koehl argues that saying the pill “caused” the sexual revolution is too simplistic, but that it’s impact cannot be exaggerated:
Many of the behaviors predisposed by the pill were already common, albeit covert, features of American life once the pill became available. The pill added fuel to a smoldering fire; it didn’t start the blaze, but it certainly accelerated it and ensured its spread.
Koehl insists that the full impact of the pill is not even yet fully understood, but should be:
So as we mark the anniversary of the pill, we should spend more time trying to understand the social forces that caused us to react to the pill as we did, allowing us to discard a long-standing moral consensus, leaving only sexual chaos and uncertainty.
Economist: Pill Costs Outweigh Benefits for Women
Some of that deeper understanding of the pill’s societal effects Koehl calls for is offered by another article (subscription required) from First Things by economist Timothy Reichert. In “Bitter Pill: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Contraception,” Reichert discusses how contraception—and especially the pill—split what was once a single “mating market” into a “sex market” and a “marriage market.”
The “bargaining position” of women, her argues, is weakened in both of these markets. For a variety of factors, including women’s shorter reproductive window, more women will tend to populate the marriage market, and more men the sex market. And while women will be correspondingly scarcer in the sex market, all the advantage goes to young women.
Reichert’s argument is too detailed to adequately summarized here, but he examines how these “market” forces lead to more widespread divorce (so women can opt out of the disadvantageous matches they have to settle for), weaker families (since women’s contribution to the family has shifted from non-monetary to monetary capital) and abortion (to safeguard women’s investments in this new two-market scenario).
In short, women (and, by implication, children) would be better off had there been no separation of the mating market into separate sex and marriage markets. Contraceptive technology sets up a prisoner’s dilemma, under which all women have an incentive to use contraception and enter the sex market in their early adult years. . . [T]his shifts welfare away from women and towards men in the marriage market, and also intertemporally shifts women’s welfare from their later, childbearing years towards their earlier, nonchildbearing years.
Reichert sees little likelihood that this situation will change, given the forces at play. But he sees cause for hope if the Catholic Church—the one contemporary institution opposed to contraception—works harder to establish an authentic feminism that offers women reasons to opt out of the contraception regime.
The Future of Birth Control
I’ve been following the contraception issue for 13 years, ever since taking a class in Natural Family Planning that prompted me to reconsider contraception’s influence on my marriage. My wife and I ultimately abandoned contraception and embraced the Catholic faith that I had rejected years before. But we saw little sign that the larger culture was willing to revisit the conventional wisdom that the pill is an unqualified blessing for mankind.
So I’m encouraged by all the bad press the pill is getting on its 50th anniversary. It’s hard to see how the situation is likely to change in the near future, but at least our society is finally beginning to have a more balanced, honest conversation about the impact of contraception.
And I see an inkling of hope in Geraldine Sealey’s otherwise dismal Salon.com piece. She says that she’d “like to try the Fertility Awareness Method”—Natural Family Planning (NFP).
NFP will never replace the birth control pill and other contraceptives. The two stand in opposition. NFP depends on the exercise of self-control in harmony with the natural reproductive cycles of the body, while contraception promises to liberate couples from having to exercise self-control by circumventing that same natural reproductive function.
But if more people like Sealey will approach NFP with an open mind, their eyes may be opened to the true nature of contraception, and the culture of NFP may begin to supplant the culture of contraception.