Don’t you hate it when that happens? So does Vanessa Grigoriadis at New York Magazine, who is Very Concerned that the birth control pill means that women don’t realize the biological realities of baby-making… until it’s too late.
The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women’s lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened). Until the past couple of decades, even most die-hard feminists were still married at 25 and pregnant by 28, so they never had to deal with fertility problems, since a tiny percentage of women experience problems conceiving before the age of 28. Now many New York women have shifted their attempts at conception back about ten years. And the experience of trying to get pregnant at that age amounts to a new stage in women’s lives, a kind of second adolescence. For many, this passage into childbearing—a Gail Sheehy–esque one, with its own secrets and rituals—is as fraught a time as the one before was carefree.
Suddenly, one anxiety—Am I pregnant?—is replaced by another: Can I get pregnant? The days of gobbling down the Pill and running out to CVS at 3 a.m. for a pregnancy test recede in the distance, replaced by a new set of obsessions. The Pill didn’t create the field of infertility medicine, but it turned it into an enormous industry. Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect.
Um, what? I don’t think “side effect” means what you think it does.
As Lindsay Beyerstein points out, the Pill isn’t creating a collective female brain-fart where we wake up at 40 and wonder why we can’t have kids. Women are pretty aware that when they’re on the Pill, they are probably not going to get pregnant — that is the entire point. And women are pretty aware that baby-making is not a life-long ability. Blaming the Pill for women delaying childbirth takes the women themselves out of the equation. It’s not like the Pill is slipped into the water system. Women are choosing to take it and choosing to delay childbirth, and mostly to pretty positive outcomes — larger numbers of women are attending college and graduate school in the United States than ever before; there are more women in the workplace than ever before; women live longer; mothers spend more time (and more quality time) with their children than they did in the mythical 1950s heyday of the nuclear family; fathers spend more time with their children, too; and couples marry later (and couples who marry later divorce less, are more financially stable and report happier marriages). Are all of these things to the credit of the birth control pill? No. But the Pill certainly played a big role.
And yes, it is true that many women have trouble conceiving as they age. It is something that women have to think about — fertility isn’t forever, and if you want to birth your own babies, you have to make sure you fit that in . A lot of women don’t want to be pregnant until they’re in their 30s, when their fertility is declining. That’s not nothing. But it’s also not because women are under the impression that the Pill is a fountain of youth. If we’re really concerned with women’s abilities to have babies when they want, it makes zero sense to focus on birth control, which women take explicitly when they don’t want to get pregnant. Instead, maybe consider the impediments to the ability to have a family and a job; consider the American cult of motherhood that insists on total perfection before a woman is deemed capable of being a good mom, but offers women no real help in pregnancy or parenthood; consider, even, the cultural insistence that one’s life is not complete until one has a child. There are a lot of reasons why women delay child-bearing, and a lot of them are really good and logical. There are a lot of reasons why women end up heartbroken when they have trouble conceiving. It’s not because we’ve all been brain-washed by the Pill. And if we do want to give women a wider variety of reproductive options, that requires not only wide availability of medical options (including the Pill), but also major cultural shifts in how we view motherhood and womanhood.
Sexual freedom is a fantastic thing, worth paying a lot for. But it’s not anti-feminist to want to be clearer about exactly what is being paid. Anger, regret, repeated miscarriages, the financial strain of assisted reproductive technologies, and the inevitable damage to careers and relationships in one’s thirties and forties that all this involve deserve to be weighed and discussed. The next stage in feminism, in fact, may be to come to terms, without guilt trips or defensiveness, with issues like this.
No, it’s not anti-feminist to know about biological realities, but it is anti-feminist to suggest that women are so stupid that we don’t understand that we won’t be fertile forever. It’s definitely anti-feminist to suggest that there’s a choice to be made between either sexual freedom or parenthood, and that the price of sexual freedom is anger, regret, repeated miscarriage, financial strain and damage to careers and relationships. I think the course of human history has shown us that anger, regret, financial strain and damage to careers and relationships are also prices paid when women lack basic autonomy and freedom.
The article also focuses heavily on how “unnatural” the Pill is, because it gives you fake periods and tricks your body into thinking that you’re pregnant. It’s an argument I hear a lot about birth control, but rarely gets applied to any other aspect of our lives. Look at the entire way that most human beings live: Not natural. Vaccines? Not natural. Surgery? Not natural. If we all went the way of nature, a lot more of us would be dead, or at least living significantly less pleasant lives. But when a not-“natural” way comes about to free women from the strain of being constantly pregnant (or constantly in fear of being pregnant), we’re suddenly really concerned about nature.
None of this is to say that the Pill is 100% amazing and has zero drawbacks, or that it’s totally awesome to take daily doses of hormones, or that the “it’s unnatural” argument has no merit at all. For a lot of women, myself included, the Pill has drawbacks that are serious enough to keep us from using it. But tricking us into thinking we’ll be fertile forever isn’t one of them.
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