Happy Birth Control Pill Day!

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Courtesy of the New York Times, something that isn’t whorish, for a change. Gail Collins writes:

This is by way of saying that on Sunday we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill. We live in troubled times. […]

Like a great many of our anniversaries, this one is a movable feast. The Food and Drug Administration actually gave G.D. Searle the go-ahead to market the first oral contraceptive (not counting bees) on June 23, 1960. But the F.D.A. announced its intention to approve the pill on May 9, which also happens to be Mother’s Day this year and, therefore, too good to resist.

I can hear all the fundies screeching already. How can one celebrate, on holy, sacred Mother’s Day of all days, a pill that made motherhood merely optional, rather than de rigueur as it had been until then? Sacrilege!

Well, I guess the fundies have their piddling little right to be shocked, shocked! that the pesky thing that’s been keeping them from filling their quivers is now fifty years old and still showing no signs of dying. They also have a perfect right not to use it themselves. But they have no right to deny it to others.

And there are plenty of others. Women have been trying to avoid compulsory motherhood, and to plan when and if they had children, since time immemorial. Birth control has saved women’s lives, and by limiting family size (meaning more food to divide among fewer mouths), has done wonders for the lives and well-being of children, too. Malthus knew it, and had the temerity to say so. Even in the prissy, motherhood-glorifying Victorian era, birth control was a subterranean industry of remarkable proportions:

American women had been limiting the size of their families long before the pill came along. In the 19th century, the fertility rate was plummeting, and ads for everything from condoms to douching syringes helped keep urban newspapers solvent. My favorite factoid from this period is that a company called National Syringe offered a model with changeable nozzles so it could be used for both birth control and watering plants.

Fertility (for plants) and infertility (for the women who tend the plants) in one device! O, the irony.

But wait, it gets even better–and more deliciously ironic:

The powers-that-be believed that the only appropriate form of birth control was celibacy. “Can they not use self control?” demanded Anthony Comstock, the powerful crusader for the Sexual Purity campaign. “Or must they sink to the level of the beasts?”

Comstock managed to get New York authorities to grant him the powers to both arrest and censor, and he bragged that he sent 4,000 people to jail for helping women understand, and use, birth control. He seemed to take particular pleasure in the fact that 15 of them had committed suicide.

One of his targets was Margaret Sanger, a nurse who wrote a sex education column, “What Every Girl Should Know,” for a left-wing New York newspaper, The Call. When Comstock banned her column on venereal disease, the paper ran an empty space with the title: “What Every Girl Should Know: Nothing, by Order of the U.S. Post Office.”

Sanger was the first person to publish an evaluation of all the available forms of birth control. As a reward, she got a criminal obscenity charge. She fled to Europe to avoid going to jail, and her husband was imprisoned for passing out one of her pamphlets. In the end, he got 30 days, and Anthony Comstock got a chill during the trial that led to a fatal case of pneumonia.

Ha, ha. Pardon me if I don’t have even a crocodile tear to shed for the blessed Anthony of Comstock, the martyred patron saint of sex-hatred and censorship. The man who tried to put a chill on women’s efforts to limit their family size without celibacy, dead of a chill himself in the glorious golden age Before Penicillin! Too bad there was no pill to save him. One wonders if he’d have been as zealous about trying to stop research and information regarding antibiotics as he was when it came to contraception.

And here’s another irony: it’s “the level of the beasts” at which you find sex for procreation only. Humans are the among the few animals who don’t have an estrus cycle. Meaning, we can have sex at any time, fertile or not. For us, it must therefore serve a purpose, or several purposes, not linked to reproduction. So Comstock was a bad scientist, among all else. There was no Jane Goodall yet to set him straight.

But Margaret Sanger outlived him, and persisted, and today we have her to thank. I thank her, in particular, for the fact that my period, which had gone haywire after an accident, could be made regular again. And for the fact that I bypassed fertility altogether during the so-called peak of my fertile years (which felt like a nadir to me), and was able to get my tubes tied without incident afterward. My own dear mother had six kids, and used birth control to make sure they did not become a dozen or two (or more, Bog help us all).

So even large families can give some thanks to the early advocates of family planning that they’re not larger–or living in a house with its own graveyard of lost babies, as was commonplace not so long ago. In Canada, we know the value of our birth control, and we like it…and those of us who know and like it best, thank that true saint from just to the south of us for doing her time in martyrdom so that we could all be free. Blessed be the name of Margaret Sanger!

Meanwhile, just to the south of us, there’s still a war a-waging:

And we lived happily ever after. Except that over the last 20 years, protests from the social right have made politicians frightened of mentioning birth control and school boards frightened of including it in the curriculum.

Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, remembers getting a pretty thorough grounding in sex and the ways to prevent pregnancy when she was in school — back in the days when the raciest thing you saw on television was Rob and Laura Petrie waking up in twin beds on the opposite side of the room. “Kids growing up today watch ‘Gossip Girl’ and all these shows where every teenager is having sex every day — and now we don’t teach sex education in school,” she noted.

Even though 100 million women take the pill every day, to the great relief of 100 million or so of their partners, the terror of mentioning birth control is so great that the humongous new health care reform act has managed to avoid bringing it up at all. Advocates are hoping that when the regulations are finally written, they will require health insurance to cover birth control pills like any other drug. But nobody is sure.

“If the administration would announce tomorrow that all birth control would be free for every woman in America, I think the health care plan would gain 30 points in popularity overnight,” said Richards.

And the teabaggers and fundies would be out of a job, out of office, out of all real power. Now THAT would be something to celebrate.

Well, maybe if they could learn to stop protecting the drivel of the local Nazis and concentrate instead on protecting and promoting the REAL freedom of speech–the freedom to teach birth control, among other counter-oppressive
things–they might just get something accomplished there. Then kids would learn the facts of life straight and undiluted from real teachers, not trashy TV shows…or precocious friends behind the bike sheds…or the hard way, as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents often had to.

Let us pray…

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This entry was posted in Isn't It Ironic?, Karma 1, Dogma 0, Law-Law Land, Men Who Just Don't Get It, Morticia! You Spoke French!, Not So Compassionate Conservatism, Schadenfreude, She Blinded Me With Science, Uppity Wimmin. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Happy Birth Control Pill Day!

  1. Richard says:

    Fiftieth anniversary of the CORPORATE birth control pill IN THE UNITED STATES.
    The Huastaca wise women who shared their knowledge of the properties of dioscorea with Mexican scientists, who worked with Sytex, which actually invented “the pill” in 1951. The test subjects, all volunteers, were Mexico City prostitutes — to whom every women in the world owes a huge debt of gratitude.

  2. Yep…and that same plant also yields a superior source of estrogen for hormone replacement therapy, too (beats pregnant mares’ urine and all its nasty, cancerous, heart-diseasing side effects). So when it comes time to look for something to ease those hot flashes, I’ll be thanking those little old indigenous ladies (and prostitutes) all over again.

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