The Pill at 40: Time to take stock

This article was published in the spring of 2000 in several newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Detroit Free Press, the Toledo Blade and the Louisville Courier-Journal. It elicited strong reactions both in favor and against, and led to invitations for radio interviews. I recall a memorable interview on Philadephia's NPR station during which I discussed contraception with Judy Norsigian, the nationally known feminist and women's health activist.

This week, the Alan Guttmacher Institute devotes the spring issue of Family Planning Perspectives to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the oral contraceptive pill. The world today is very different from the one we knew four decades ago. According to Princeton University historian Lawrence Stone, “the scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent that I know of and seems unique. There has been nothing like it in the past 2000 years, and probably longer”. To what extent can these changes be attributed to the pill?

In 1960, oral contraceptives were first marketed to American women. For the first time ever, women were handed a biological “on-off switch” to control their fertility. Hailed by some as the last, long-awaited step on the inexorable march toward full possession of women’s reproductive rights, the prospect of asserting near complete control over baby-making came as a shock to most at the time. Social engineers pushing the pill understood that they would need to push slowly, to chip away at moral sensibilities, before the practice of contraception could take root and flourish. They first approached married women, offering them a private, reliable way to space their babies. Back then, to prescribe the pill to unmarried women would be nothing short of an invitation to “immoral behavior”. It didn’t take long for traditional sensibilities to dull. By the end of 1970’s oral contraception passed from being an intensely personal, at times distasteful practice, to a popular, liberating expression of new-found freedoms, and in some circles nothing less than a civic duty.

At last, men and women could mate without the looming risk of unwanted children. In 1960, for the first time ever, sex and its perks were effectively disengaged from procreation. Like pressing the clutch on a car, the pistons were firing, but the car was going nowhere. What we sadly overlooked was the damaging logic inherent to contraceptive practice, the “mentality” that acceptance of contraception gradually imposed on our society: if sex without babies is now possible and even preferable, why not sex without marriage? Why not babies without sex for that matter? Thanks to the pill, sex could be promoted as pure recreation, so why not try any and all varieties? After 40 years, it’s time to take stock of the effects of the pill on our society.

Contraception corrupts authentic human sexuality, damaging family life at its root. Sex is meant to be an intimate dialogue; a full, uncompromising, uninhibited exchange between a man and woman. A tie that truly binds. With their dialogue, the couple help to create a new “word”, a new “idea” never before expressed: a new human life. Contraception makes sex a monologue. The only word uttered is a monotone, a resounding “me”. Contraceptive sex is monotonous because nothing truly new and exciting emerges from it. When new life is squeezed out of sex, the source of its vitality and meaning withers and dies. Sex becomes mechanical, and quickly ages.

By accepting the practice of contraceptive sex as a legitimate expression of our humanity, the language of contraception gradually seeps into and undermines every aspect of family life. The spouses gradually begin to view themselves as accomplices trying to balance competing interests, rather than equal partners bound together by love for life. Almost imperceptibly, their relationship becomes an affirmation of the “me” not of the “us”, and the arrival of new human life ends up subordinated to convenience. A child is no longer seen as a gift valued for his or her own sake, but as a “thing”, a product retained or discarded on a whim. The contraceptive mindset inclines us to view children like any other commodity: “I’ll get one when I can afford it”.

Most of us might find it difficult to recognize this attitude explicitly in our own lives, yet who could deny that it has become the predominant attitude in our society? Overwhelming statistical data point to a devaluation of family life on every front. The United States leads the world in rates of divorce and abortion, in teenage pregnancy and unwed motherhood, fatherless families and adolescent suicide. Just last week, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that births to single mothers accounted for one third of the 3.9 million births of 1998. It would seem that the only persons “liberated” by the pill were men, freed from the responsibility of children and fatherhood. Their partners learned the hard way that sex without babies means sex without commitment, and sex without commitment is no fun. American families should open their eyes and recognize that the promise of contraception has not been fulfilled. After 40 years it is clear that enduring family values have very little to do with family planning.

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