The Birth Control Pill turned 50 years old last month. This marked a milestone in the world of contraception—for women, for sexuality, and for reproductive health and family planning. Of course, women have always had a plethora of techniques for preventing pregnancy. In 1500 BC, Egyptian experts used a mixture of ground dates, acacia bark, and honey to create a spermicidal product, and crocodile dung for an anti-pregnancy suppository. In 1839, the Charles Goodyear company put their rubber to the road (less literally) by creating a vulcanized rubber condom. And in 1917, Margaret Sanger, Mother of Birth Control and Planned Parenthood of America, teamed up with moneybags Katherine Dexter McCormick to fund research biologists Gregory Pincus and John Rock to develop the dream, magic “Pill.”
Today contraception has a closet full of clothes including shots, IUD implants, vaginal rings, diaphragms, patches, pills, and of course the main staple—the condom.
For centuries, however, various segments of society have battled against contraception. In her article Masters of the Uterus (Mother Jones, May/June 2010), Elizabeth Gettlemen describes how the controversy started in 1727 when author Daniel Defoe compared contraception to infanticide. Contraception took another hit in the mouth in 1873 when an insecure postal inspector named Anthony Comstock crusaded against birth control by labeling it as “obscenity.” The Comstock Act that followed prohibited mailing contraceptives or information about them. This was not reversed for nearly 100 years (in 1965). In 1930 Pope Pius XI deemed all contraception a grave sin—a ban which is still in place today.
The US Presidents of the past 30 years have also contributed to the crusade against contraception. Starting in 1986, Reagan rejected Surgeon General Koop’s recommendation to expand sex education and have a country-wide condom PR push. Clinton’s Surgeon General Elders got derided for advocating family planning, then released from her position for a comment about masturbation—which in my loud opinion was taken way out of context. Bush reinstated the global gag rule, spearheaded abstinence-only education, and increased birth control costs on college campuses by four to five-fold. When Obama reversed the global gag rule and included stimulus money for family planning, Rush Limbaugh suggested putting pictures of Nancy Pelosi in every cheap motel room to keep birth rates down. If he’s going to make such a derogatory and classist comment, he might as well take the heat and offer hotels thoroughly unappetizing head shots of himself.
In a world where contraception is pitted against procreation, we are lucky to have several superwomans standing by. Gloria Steinem gloriously states, “Sexuality is not only a way we procreate but also a way we communicate and express love and caring and community.”
Champion Nancy Gibbs of TIME magazine demonstrates how the Pill gave women freedom and flexibility to wear the label of “worker”—to make and maintain jobs without employer or employee fear of having to cease work in case of pregnancy. More women trekking the college and career path means mom-hood comes later in life. A byproduct of this is a decrease in population growth—not a bad thing in a world starving for resources!
That said, overpopulation is not the primary issue that plagues our country. Our colossal size carbon footprint comes in the form of overconsumption—aka the devil of the developed world. Thus, the irony regarding contraception is that with more women working, there is a general increase in GNP. The increase in workplace productivity leads to exponential economic growth, and thus, more spending potential. More money made means more money spent—hence a greater capacity for overconsumption.
Unfortunately, our global carbon footprint suffers either way you split it. Contraception helps curb unwanted pregnancies and excessive population growth. Yet too much contraception can lead to a greater quality of life and the tendency to over-consume.
Contraception clearly has a tenuous place in society. It symbolizes a sexual and reproductive freedom, saturated in religious controversy–especially for us Jews who comprise only 1% of the earth’s population. Contraception also manifests as economic and educational empowerment of women, underlined by the irony that a higher standard of living often leads to overconsumption and a large carbon footprint. However, the answer is not to eliminate contraception or reduce its use. The answer is to talk and walk on our planet with greater respect for all beings. So roll up your sleeves, sing Happy Birthday to the Pill, and make a wish that the second half of life’s roller coaster is just as joyous a ride as the first.