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Waking Up From the Pill

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The Pill should be defended from attacks. An absurd fight is beginning on Capitol Hill to try to boot it from the category of “preventative care” in the health-care bill—“as though the Pill isn’t the very definition of preventative care,” says Vanessa Cullins, vice-president for medical affairs at Planned Parenthood, drily. In its intimacy, the Pill and its consequences are hard to talk about in public: The publicist for the Pierre gala confesses that she’s never had a harder time booking celebrities for an event than this one, and the stars that do attend, like AnnaLynne McCord, of the CW’s 90210, can be heard wondering what they should say on the red carpet. “Should I be honest about this?” McCord whispers to her publicist before confessing publicly that she went, alone, to Planned Parenthood for birth-control pills against her family’s wishes at age 17. “I don’t want any of my fans to go through what I had to go through,” says McCord, blinking rapidly. “So tweet me, guys, if you want to talk.”

But there’s also no reason not to talk about the more complex changes long-term use of the Pill has wrought, instead of finger-pointing over compromising women’s choices. After all, these days, there’s not as much pressure to procreate as one may imagine. Most mothers, who were at least tangentially part of feminism’s early waves, know better than to stress women out about when they’re having children, even if an aunt puts her foot in her mouth from time to time. And, of course, bosses would rather women were around all the time, thumbing their BlackBerrys in the off-hours. “There’s a strain of feminist thought that’s still trapped in the mind-set that the male patriarchy wants women pregnant and has been withholding things like abortion and contraception from them because of it,” says Liza Mundy, author of Everything Conceivable, a comprehensive book about fertility treatments in America. “To me, that’s a laughably simplistic view of the world.”

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. According to Andrea Tone’s fascinating history of contraception in America, Devices and Desires, Cold War–era birth-control proponents used the terms family planning, birth control, and population control interchangeably. Women’s rights weren’t the primary impetus to approve the Pill, but they were part of the package, too, of course. “The Pill symbolized the redemption of science,” writes Tone, “showing it capable of developing a technology to stabilize a world order that it simultaneously threatened to destroy.”

The Pill wasn’t the world’s first attempt at contraception. Egyptians fashioned vaginal suppositories for themselves out of crocodile dung and gum, West Africans used plugs of crushed root, and Greeks in classical times coated their cervices with olive oil. Casanova even wore condoms made of animal intestines, though he reported that he was revolted by “shut[ting] myself up in a piece of dead skin to prove I am perfectly alive.” Some women even relied on the rhythm method, though they had the science wrong: For years, the medical community thought ovulation occurred during menstruation. It wasn’t until the twenties that everyone realized that women are fertile in the middle of their cycle, not at the end.

In nineteenth-century America, home-brewed abortifacients made from pennyroyal were eventually replaced by an amazing array of contraceptives made from Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization technology, like mass-produced condoms, IUDs, and “womb veils,” as diaphragms were called at the time. But this freedom was not to last for long. By the 1870s, in the midst of the burgeoning social-purity movement, the delivery of contraception through the mail was abolished, and there were crackdowns on prostitution, gambling, and alcohol, enforced by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, backed by powerful New Yorkers like J. Pierpont Morgan and Samuel Colgate. These laws remained in force from 1873 till 1918, during which time women relied primarily on a black market of diaphragms and cervical caps. Then in the fifties, Sanger recruited a scientists at work on infertility problems to help her achieve her dream, the Pill.

When the Pill was finally approved in 1960, American women embraced it immediately. In the sixties, the high doses of estrogen in the original pills may have been responsible for a disturbing spate of blood clots and the size of many women’s bosoms—the sale of C-cup bras increased 50 percent during the decade, as many Joans and Peggys popped their medicine—but these days, there are few blood clots with most pills and rare side effects with the “mini-Pill,” made only of progesterone. It’s unfortunate that the Pill doesn’t protect against STDs, but as a matter of medicine, it’s a triumph, with very few serious drawbacks.


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