Happy Anniversary to the gift that keeps on giving. Why yes, if you haven’t noticed the plethora of build up in the media recently, the birth control pill will be celebrating its 50th anniversary of FDA approval next month. And, although I know you are tempted to buy it a little something special to thank it for the many decades of helping us prevent pregnancy, regulate our cycles, or clear up our skin, really, you don’t have to. Just your appreciation is gift enough.
Fifty years is a very, very long time. Time Magazine tries to boil down the entire five decades or trials and triumphs into a six page feature that attempts to hit the highlights of the tumultuous decades-long affair.
Maybe it’s the nature of icons to be both worshipped and stoned, laden with symbolic value beyond their proportions. Because the Pill arrived at a moment of epochal social change, it became a handy explanation for the inexplicable. The 1950s felt so safe and smug, the ’60s so raw and raucous, the revolutions stacked one on top of another, in race relations, gender roles, generational conflict, the clash of church and state — so many values and vanities tossed on the bonfire, and no one had a concordance to explain why it was all happening at once. Thus did Woodstock, caked in muddy legend, become much more than a concert, and leaders become martyrs, and the pill become the Pill, the means by which women untied their aprons, scooped up their ambitions and marched eagerly into the new age.
That age has seen changes in social behavior that continue to accelerate. In 1960 the typical American woman had 3.6 children; by 1980 the number had dropped below 2. For the first time, more women identified themselves as workers than as homemakers. “There is a straight line between the Pill and the changes in family structure we now see,” says National Organization for Women (NOW) president Terry O’Neill, “with 22% of women earning more than their husbands. In 1970, 70% of women with children under 6 were at home; 30% worked. Now that’s roughly reversed.”
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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But it’s been a long half century, and like all relationships, it’s had it’s ups and downs. For all of the empowerment it did bring women, it still didn’t live up to the overhyped expectations of some, who expected everything up to and including world peace.
In 1954, John Rock, the doctor who was leading the research on the pill, expressed the breathless excitement shared by many of his colleagues: An oral contraceptive, he said, “would be the greatest aid ever discovered to the happiness and security of individual families — indeed, to mankind” because “the greatest menace to world peace and decent standards of life today is not atomic energy but sexual energy.”
At an international medical conference in Bombay a few years after F.D.A. approval, another doctor unfurled a rolled package of birth control pills into the packed auditorium and announced that the pill would solve India’s problems of hunger and poverty by leveling off its population. As it turned out, the pill had little effect on India’s or any other developing country’s population — because most women lacked access to medical clinics that could provide them with prescriptions and follow-up exams.
It may not be as all-encompassing as world peace, but the pill did provide women with an opportunity to be actively in charge of their sex lives, and become advocates for their own health and autonomy as well.
When the FDA explicitly approved the pill for pregnancy prevention in 1960, women demanded prescriptions—a surprise to doctors, who normally told their patients what to take, rather than the other way around. Within two years of its approval, more than a million American women were taking the pill every day. By 1964 the pill was the most popular contraceptive in the country, used by more than 6.5 million women.
The pill was not just a matter of private life. It became an important vehicle for challenging the authority of a wide range of institutions. Women soon went public with their contraceptive concerns. When risks and side effects became known, they demanded that pharmaceutical companies develop safer pills and include information packets so that women could make informed decisions about their birth control options. They pressured lawmakers to lift restrictions on access to contraception, resulting in Supreme Court decisions that ruled state laws against birth control unconstitutional. When the Catholic Church refused to approve the use of contraceptives, many Catholics ignored the prohibition. Within a few years, Catholic women were taking the pill at the same rate as non-Catholic women.
Of course, the moral authority has still not gotten over its indignation at the possibility of sex outside of procreation, and see this anniversary as a chance to reclaim offense in the face of birth control.
The Pill turned pregnancy – and thus children – into elective choices, rather than natural gifts of the marital union. But then again, the marital union was itself weakened by the Pill, because the avoidance of pregnancy facilitated adultery and other forms of non-marital sex. In some hands, the Pill became a human pesticide.
Christians must not join the contraceptive revolution as mere consumers of the Pill or other birth control methodologies. Finally, many evangelicals are joining the discussion about birth control and its meaning. Evangelicals arrived late to the issue of abortion, and we have arrived late to the issue of birth control, but we are here now.
As for me, I’m just taking a moment of personal reflection on my 12 year relationship with the pill.
Thank you, Pill, for helping me get through college without needed to drop out to care for a child.
Thank you, Pill, for getting me though most of my 20s without needed to leave the workforce, allowing me to establish myself in my field and pay off my debts.
Thank you, Pill, for letting me choose to have a child when I wanted, in the relationship that is best for all of us, at a time when we we stable and strong enough to handle the challenges and grow together.
Actually, maybe I should have gotten it a present. It’s done so much for me.
Mini Roundup: American Life League has released an iphone app to make it easier to take pictures of you around town doing various activities while wearing anti-choice t-shirts, all in the name of “saving babies!” Feministe has their own idea of pictures that should be sent back to ALL in the name of the “preborn.”
April 26, 2010
Okla. Governor Vetoes 2 Abortion Bills – Christian Broadcasting Network
Pope Benedict To Push Through With Britain Visit Despite Condom Insult – AHN | All Headline News
Your morning jolt: NAACP rescinds endorsement of anti-abortion bill – Atlanta Journal Constitution
Dozens Of States Pass, Debate Greater Restrictions On Abortion – Kaiser Health News
Labrador: Anti-abortion group’s endorsement ‘a big boost to our campaign’ – The Spokesman Review
Ministers plan ‘Freedom Ride’ against abortion – Montgomery Advertiser
More states try to restrict abortions – UPI.com
Abortion Restriction Closer to Enforcement – Courthouse News Service
Prentice drops Jaffer bombshell; Tories reignite abortion debate – Globe and Mail
Abortion becomes key issue in Ky.’s US Senate race – NewsOK.com
British Official: Pope Should Open Abortion Clinic, Sell Condoms – Opposing Views
Oklahoma House Overrides Abortion Bills Veto – News On 6
Rejected Virginia vanity license plates revealed – True/Slant
Leaders’ goal: make health care pro-life – BP News
Women’s rights’ just a code for abortion – Shore News Today
Canada says it won’t fund abortions in G-8 plan – Washington Post
Okla. House overrides abortion restrictions vetoes – Washington Post
Bloomberg: Supreme Court Needs Abortion Rights Advocate – Wall Street Journal
The Pill Turns 50 – Christian Post
Church is pro-family, not anti-sex – Washington Post
First lady lauds family planning project – New Vision
New ‘opt-out consent’ law for HIV testing lauded – Wisconsin State Journal
Older people need more education on HIV/Aids – The Citizen Daily
Saving Mothers’ Lives – New York Times
April 27, 2010
States seek new ways to restrict abortions – Daily Caller
Oklahoma abortion bill vetoes in danger – NewsOK.com
Fight over abortion pill looms – Stuff.co.nz
British pope prank embarrasses dimwitted diplomats – National Post
Stephen Harper government says no to abortion – Toronto Star
Proposal for Pope to open abortion clinic… – Cork Student News
Tories leave abortion out of G8 plan – Toronto Star
Fight over pill looms – Stuff.co.nz
Canada does not support abortion – HULIQ
Population priorities: Is family planning the key to curbing growth? – Our Future Planet
LETTER: Condoms mean fewer abortions – Wausau Daily Herald
50th Anniversary Of The Birth Control Pill ‘Worth Celebrating,’ New York Times … – Medical News Today
NW govt to take public HIV tests – News24
Hope for Aids vaccine – Dispatch Online
DC suburbs can no longer draw the shades on AIDS crisis – Washington Post
Effort aims to boost low-income prenatal care – The Columbian
Let’s actually make maternity safer – Ottawa Citizen