Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Shadow Side Of The Contraceptive Pill

Is infertility! Or so Vanessa Grigoriadis tells us in a long article about the 50th anniversary of the contraceptive pill.

I find it tremendously hard not to write a snarky post on this topic because it's a lure for snarkiness like a pheromone trap is a lure for Japanese beetles. Just read the setup of this story:

On a cold night in mid-October, a couple hundred bejeweled women in gowns file into the Pierre with their dates for a very special 50th-birthday party. Before retiring to a three-hour lobster-and-steak dinner in the hotel's main ballroom, they collect oversize spoons of foie gras as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" blasts from overhead speakers in a robin's-egg-blue reception room, with a bar festooned with the kind of miniature silver stars that teachers give exemplary students.
So we have foie gras and jewels! Nothing very serious can follow, right? Or rather, this beginning absolutely screams for those women to get their comeuppance: cold and childless old ages at least if not some awful disease.

The article isn't quite that bad, and that's why I try to keep my snarky alter ego quiet, though it does insist on pointing out that we seem to be offered either selfish and cold infertility with the pill or complete inability to control our fertility without it. These are naturally not the true choices or at least not the only possible choices*.

Now for my more moderate voice: Grigoriadis' article is mostly aimed at educated women, those, whose professional careers will be torpedoed if they have children at the wrong time in a culture which doesn't want to be bothered about the existence of future generations when designing the rules for work. It's also aimed at all those foolish (oh-so-foolish) women who just want to have fun like the boyz, without worrying about getting pregnant while totally not hearing that tick-tock of the biological clock.

That probably omits the majority of women on the pill, those who use it to space their families and all that boring stuff, and, as is the prevailing custom, it fails to address the role of men as also perhaps desiring parenthood and as one half of those responsible for the birth of children in the first place (though the article does tell us why a pill for men is not in the works).

Grigoriadis' main point is that the pill lulls (how?) women into thinking they can delay pregnancy for far too long, and that's the road to fertility treatments and the despair of not being able to have children, after all. Or stated in reverse: If women couldn't control their fertility they would have gotten pregnant by accident much earlier and then their problems would be different. I guess. Though it's unclear how many women are infertile for this reason, and that makes it equally unclear what the actual shadow side of the pill might be.

As Lindsey points out, one way of interpreting this message is that women don't understand the existence of their biological clocks:

If you strip away all the gloss and the celebrity name-dropping you get to the ugly core of this article: Women's liberation is illusory because women are too stupid to know what's good for them. Female sexuality without reproduction is unnatural. Women who flout the natural order will be punished with barrenness.
An alternative (and gentler) interpretation is that Grigoriadis confuses the existence of the pill and the reasons why women wish to delay having children. The former is just a tool to be used in pursuit of the actual reasons. Those have much more to do with the economic rules, the cost of bringing up children, the negative consequences of having them at the wrong time in one's working life, the lack of proper parental leaves, the lack of good child-care and so on.

But you know all that, or at least I have written about it eleventy-seven times on this blog. It's like shouting into a barrel with one fish desolately swimming in it. Nobody else listens except that fish. On the other hand, write something about how the pill wrecks women's lives and we are all ears.
*Here's one picture of the alternatives: World's oldest reusable condom, dating to 1640 and made out of the intestines of a pig.

PS: There are so many other avenues to take in discussing this article, ranging from what women in different demographic groups in fact use for contraception, what knowledge women have of their "fertility window", what (if anything) feminism has to do with the whole discussion about the pill and so on. Feel free to take on those subjects in the comments.