Even if it is laid on a little thick, there’s no question that these women are right: The Pill changed the world. These days, women’s twenties are as free and fabulous as they can be, a time of boundless freedom and experimentation, of easily trying on and discarding identities, careers, partners. The Pill, which is the most popular form of contraception in the U.S., is still the symbol of that freedom. As a young woman, you feel chic throwing that light plastic pack of dainty pills into your handbag, its retro pastel-colored wheel design or neat snap-to-close box sandwiched between lipstick and cell phone, keys and compact. It’s easy to believe the assurances of the guests at the Pierre gala that the Pill holds the answers to empowerment and career success, to say nothing of sexual liberation—the ability to have sex in the same way that guys always have, without guilt, fear, or strings attached. The Pill is part of what makes one a modern woman, conferring adulthood and cool with the swipe of a doctor’s pen. “I started taking the Pill when I was a freshman in college, before I even was having sex,” says Sahara, 33. “Everyone else was doing it, so I wanted to do it, too.”
The Pill is so ingrained in our culture today that girls go on it in college, even high school, and stay on it for five, ten, fifteen, even twenty years. It’s not at all out of the ordinary for a woman to be on the Pill from ages 18 to 35, her prime childbearing years. While it is remarkably safe, almost like taking a vitamin, that’s a long time to turn one’s body into an efficient little non-procreative machine. The Pill (and other hormonal methods of birth control, like the patch and the ring) basically tricks your body into thinking it’s pregnant. The medicine takes control of your reproductive processes, pulsing progesterone and estrogen to suppress ovulation. On the Pill, every woman’s cycle is exactly the same, at 28 days, even though that is rarely the case in nature, where the majority of periods occur every 26 to 32 days but can take up to 40 or even 50 days. This is a nice effect, but it’s not real. And there’s a cost to this illusion, one that the women at the Pierre weren’t discussing.
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 days of gobbling down the Pill and running out to CVS at 3 a.m. for a pregnancy test recede in the distance, replaced by a new set of obsessions. 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.
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.”