The birth control pill’s 50th anniversary: science, reason and women’s rights

On May 9, 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the marketing of the first birth control pill in the … Continued

On May 9, 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the marketing of the first birth control pill in the United States. As far as I am concerned, nothing in my lifetime has done more to empower women and improve their lives. There would have been a feminist movement without the pill, but lacking the ability to control their fertility–with or without the consent of men–many fewer women would have been poised to take advantage of the economic and educational opportunities opened up by feminism in the 1970s. Yet Gloria Steinem tells Time magazine that the importance of the pill is “overrated”. In The Huffington Post, Dr. Christiane Northrup–one of those New Agey MDs who has made a fortune emphasizing holistic healing over science-based medicine–writes that the pill “fits well with society’s view of the female body as something that requires outside control.” Perhaps Northrup possesses some magic formula by which sexually active women can click their heels three times to limit the number of their children.

This denigration of the pill’s importance is the worst sort of historical revisionism, based not only on a distrust of the male medical establishment that was a strong and well-founded strain in feminism in the 1960s and 1970s but on a general antagonism to science itself that is part of the unreason pervading American culture today. For feminist leaders like Steinem, the idea that the importance of the pill has been exaggerated may simply be a matter of ego, of a reluctance to acknowledge that feminism, like so many successful social movements, was the product of many forces converging simultaneously.

Let me tell you how it was. I was 15 when the FDA approved the pill, and I was the product of a time and a community in which nice girls didn’t have (or at least they didn’t admit to actually having) sex. In my junior year of high school, a girl I knew quite well became pregnant, and there was a huge fight over whether she would be allowed to stay in school after her pregnancy became visible. Surprisingly (most pregnant girls at this time were simply expelled), she was permitted to finish her senior year. In fact, there could have been no scarier anti-sex lesson than the sight of this girl, hardly able to fit behind her desk, removed entirely from the anything resembling normal teenage life. I never discussed my real views on sex, any more than I talked about my atheism, but I read all about the pill and promised myself that when I met someone with whom I wanted to begin my life as a sexual woman, I would somehow manage to obtain a prescription for the pill.

It wasn’t easy. When I entered college in 1963, 18-year-olds were still minors, and birth control was theoretically obtainable only if you could show that you were married. Even Planned Parenthood did not dispense contraceptives to unmarried women. It was only in 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut, that the Supreme Court established a right to privacy allowing the distribution of contraceptives to married couples–a right that was not routinely extended to the unmarried for some years. Nevertheless, the pill–which could be prescribed for “menstrual irregularity”–already gave many doctors cover for bending the old rules. In 1964, I concocted a story about being engaged and wanting to start the pill so that my cycles would be regular by the time of my wedding. It was humiliating to tell this lie, and I am quite certain that the doctor did not believe me, but he wrote me a prescription anyway.

I wanted to become a newspaper reporter, and I was already working for a professional paper while going to school. I knew that a pregnancy would be the end of my ambitions. I’d already seen it, as more than one girl dropped out during her freshman year because she “had to get married.” I also knew girls who had gone through the terrible, life-altering experience of being sent to a home for unwed mothers and giving up their babies for adoption. And one girl in my dormitory bled to death from an illegal abortion. Then there was the amount of emotional energy wasted by young women checking every hour to see whether they had gotten their period.

You may say, as the religious right does today, that celibacy is the way to deal with pregnancy anxiety. I say, as a woman and a secularist, that saying yes or no to sex–without having to “pay” by risking the rest of one’s life–is a basic human right. And it is harder for women to exercise that right. With the exception of a committed couple in a long-term, monogamous relationship, there is no situation in which a man has as great a stake in preventing an unwanted pregnancy as a woman. This is not a criticism of men but a biological fact: pregnancy and childbirth happen within a woman’s body.

The battle over birth control–a term coined by Margaret Sanger in the early 20th century–was being waged long before there were effective means of artificial contraception. In 1873, Congress passed a law defining information about contraception as obscenity and banning its distribution through the mails. State and local “Comstock laws,” named after the anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, remained on the books until the 1960s–as the Roman Catholic Church took over the anti-birth control crusade from reactionary Protestants in the 20th century. Birth control was always a secularist cause: Before World War I, only freethinkers and socialists unequivocally condemned the Comstock law definitions of birth control information as obscene. Robert Green Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic,” was one of the first public figures of either sex to link birth control with the independence of women. Speaking in 1899, Ingersoll envisioned the day when science would “make women the owner, the mistress of herself” by enabling her “to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.”

That promise was realized by the pill, which was the result of a collaboration between physiology researcher Gregory PIncus and Dr. John Rock, a Catholic who was trying to develop a hormonal method to help infertile women conceive. In one of the many unintended consequences in the history of science, Rock discovered that a hormone-based pill could also be used to prevent conception by suppressing ovulation. The research was financed initially by Katharine Dexter McCormick, a longtime friend of Margaret Sanger and wife of the heir to the International Harvester fortune. Sanger, who was born in 1879 and watched her Catholic mother die after 18 pregnancies, had a lifelong dream of a contraceptive that women would be able to use to limit their fertility without the cooperation or even the knowledge of men. She dreamed of a world in which a woman’s fate would not be determined by a husband who did not care whether he made her pregnant 18 times. That dream was realized, for millions of women around the world in societies with widely varying attitudes toward women’s rights, with the development of the pill.

Thus, the pill was hardly a male plot to “control” women’s bodies; it was the culmination of a long research effort, financed at the outset by a woman and carried out by two men who wanted women to have more, not less, power over their reproductive lives. Dr. Rock had even hoped that the pill, because it works by manipulating a woman’s hormonal system, would be approved by the Catholic Church, which forbade older barrier methods of birth control. In this he was disappointed, but Catholic women used the pill in huge numbers anyway.

The Christian Right is still trying to block unmarried women’s access to contraceptives (though its representatives don’t campaign against selling condoms in drugstores), and it has also played a huge role in limiting teenagers’ access to birth control information. But that does not explain the disparagement of the pill’s importance by veterans of the feminist movement, who ought to be celebrating the anniversary of this scientific advance as one of the keys to women’s liberation in our time.

Part of the explanation is the mush purveyed by people like Northrup. She writes, “Other methods, for example diaphragms, condoms and fertility awareness, have been actively downplayed even though, when used properly, they are nearly as effective as the pill.” This is simply not true, according to Planned Parenthood, which keeps the best statistics on all forms of birth control.

In case you don’t know what “fertility awareness” means, it’s another name for the rhythm method, a.k.a Vatican roulette–being aware of the timing of your menstrual cycles and avoiding sex around the time of ovulation. According to Planned Parenthood, “fertility awareness” is the least effective of all methods of contraception–if it can be called contraception at all. The lowest pregnancy rate (for couples who have the greatest success with this dubious method) is 12 unplanned pregnancies per 100 women each year. The more likely rate is 25 per 100–not very good odds for a young woman trying to plan her future. The diaphragm’s rate of unplanned pregnancies is 6 to 16 percent–again, ranging from the most consistent use to average use.

The pill, however has a pregnancy risk of only 1 per cent risk if used correctly, rising to 8 per cent if used incorrectly. The condom actually does have almost as low a rate as the pill, if used correctly every time–2 percent–but the figure that rises to 15 percent if used incorrectly. In truth, the effectiveness of all birth control methods is best measured by assuming that everyone slips up once in a while. So the rate of unplanned pregnancy, which is only 8 per cent per year even if a woman does forget a pill once in a while, is nearly double that for the condom and diaphragm, and more than three times higher for the so-called “natural” rhythm method. And, above all, the pill is entirely under a woman’s control. How, pray tell, can any woman ensure that a man will use a condom with utmost care? (The Huffington Post’s publication of Northrup’s assertions about the comparative effectiveness of various birth control methods, without vetting them with standard medical sources, provides an excellent illustration of the inadequacies of fact-checking on Internet news sites.)

Male and female sterilization (which are, by the way, the most popular forms of contraception among married couples who already have all the children they want) are also 99 percent effective–but they are obviously inappropriate for young women. The pill is the only reversible method of birth control that, when used properly, provides near-certain protection.

The pill is not perfect. Much of the early feminist opposition, stated most forcefully in 1969 by Barbara Seaman in The Doctors’ Case Against The Pill (reissued and updated in the 1990s) rested on the fact that it had not been extensively tested and represented an unprecedented experiment involving the use of a drug by a huge, healthy population. It is true that the pill had been tested on fewer than 900 women in Puerto Rico when it was approved by the FDA in 1960. (At the time, most states had laws against testing any drug to be used for contraceptive purposes.) And it is also true that the first pill had many more short-term side effects than later, lower-dose pills. Moreover, it is still true that the pill should not be used by women who smoke, because it increases the risk of stroke. (Of course, these women would be a lot better off if they would just quit smoking.)

But Seaman, who died in 2008 and was a friend of mine, never took into account the vital risk-benefit equation that applied even in the pill’s early years: It did represent an unknown risk, but the unknown risk was being taken for a huge and certain benefit. Moreover, time has proved that the pill is safe for most healthy young women. A 40-year study of 46,000 women, conducted by the Royal College of General Practitioners found that women who had taken birth control pills have a longer life expectancy and are less likely to have died from any cause than women who have never taken the pill. This study is not the final word, as it cannot analyze long-term effects on younger women who have used later versions of the pill. But there is nothing in this study to bear out the early fears that the pill would have long-term, severely adverse effects on women’s health. Nor can this study ever measure what the impact of the hundreds of thousands of unwanted pregnancies would have been had these women not used the pill.

The pill also does not offer any protection against sexually transmitted diseases (a subject that neither doctors nor the public knew much about in the 1960s). But neither does any other method of contraception except condoms. And one thing is certain: a man who doesn’t care enough to use a condom in order to protect his partner and himself from pregnancy certainly won’t do it to guard against STDs.

In any event, I simply do not agree with anyone who does not see the pill as a major boon to women. Opposition to birth control–particularly to woman-controlled contraception–was always based on the idea that without fear of pregnancy, all sexual prohibitions would collapse. This attitude was well embodied by a 1966 cover story in U.S. News and World Report that asked ominously, “Can its [the pill’s] availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy?” The word “promiscuity” was used constantly in all of these hand-wringing critiques of the pill, and the premise–a very revealing one about the double standard–was that women were the guardians of chastity and they would stop acting in that role once they no longer risked unwanted pregnancy.

I have no doubt that the pill dealt a death blow to the idea that all women should be virgins on their wedding night (an idea that never, of course, reflected reality). But there is a huge difference between promiscuity–which implies indiscriminate sex–and having a number of selected sexual partners before marriage.

Gloria Steinem has a short memory if she thinks that the significance of the pill has been overrated. When I was young, one of the most common excuses used by employers who refused to train women for high-level jobs–and by professional schools with a tiny female quota–was that women would just get pregnant at an early age and the investment would be wasted. Indeed, when I applied for a job at The Washington Post at age 19, I was asked by the director of personnel to sit down and write an essay about how I would combine motherhood with a career (a subject on which every 19-year-old is surely an expert). The new anti-discrimination laws championed by the women’s movement during the 1970s played a huge role in ending these practices, but so did the growing realization of employers that all young women, thanks to the pill, were delaying childbirth and were having fewer children altogether.

So thank you, Margaret Sanger, Katharine McCormick, Gregory Pincus, and John Rock.
I am convinced that the fruit of your dreams, your money and your science did more good for more people than any other invention of the 20th century. And it does not in any way underrate the importance of 1970s’ feminism to say that we might not have been able to achieve what we did if you had not achieved what you did.

Susan Jacoby
Written by

  • PSolus

    “It led to life control for many but to sorrow for others. I know so many women who long for a child to raise in a two parent household but find the contemporary world, dramatically remade by the invention of effective contraceptives, one that does not make such a dream seem possible.”How do contraceptives prevent a woman from marrying a man, getting pregnant, and raising the child with her husband?

  • lepidopteryx

    Ed, how exactly does the Pill reduce the ability of women who want to raise children in two-parent homes o do so? Does it prevent them from marrying? Are they forced to take it? Or are you simply upset that it reduces the number of “Oops” babies available for adoption? I suspect it’s the latter. FYI, there are LOTS of older children in foster care who would love to have permanent parents. There is no shortage of children available for adoption.

  • sonya2

    Thank you for expressing my thoughts exactly, although I could never have done it nearly so well, Susan. I never cease to marvel at people’s antagonistic-keep-the-little-woman-barefoot-and-pregnant-attitudes, in general. Sexism is sexism, no matter where it rears its ugly head.

  • daniel12

    This was a nice history lesson and women should be thankful for the pill. The author is right. What I want to know though is how much feminism is helping the human race in the sense that women are having more and more choice about with whom they want to conceive. The more women have a say in childbirth the more the human race comes to be a reflection of their genetic choices of male partner. Are women more careful than men in their choice of partner? If so, feminism could be a gigantic boost to the evolution of the human race. But of course if it is demonstrated that women are not only arriving at more and more choice in conception but are altering the human race by choice of partner there will be a backlash against feminism by men who are just not up to grade, are not considered fit partners by women…Or is it that women make worse choices when it comes to partners than men? I personally find it difficult to believe women make worse choices than men when it comes to partners because men do not so much make bad choices as have sex with anything which moves thus having children by everyone and anyone.

  • herzliebster

    I’d still vote for antibiotics, clean water supplies, and immunization as the scientific advances that “did more good for more people than any other invention of the 20th century.” We who can afford to be casual about common infectious diseases, fevers, and germs, have little or no sense of how even a minor illness or infection at most times and places — and even today in too many parts of the world — could wipe out several children in a family, turn childbirth into a funeral of both mother and baby, or deprive a family of a breadwinner almost overnight. In spite of the preoccupations of privileged 20th century feminists about autonomy and sexual emancipation, the actual survival of loved ones is an even graver and more basic human concern. And it is well documented that without antibiotics, hygiene and immunization to insure that the vast majority of children will survive and grow up, women do not have the same confidence to limit the number of children they conceive and bear.

  • poppysue85

    How many women of The Greatest Generation married men so that they could have sex, which is a natural instinct? How many of them were then trapped in loveless or incorrect pairings because of children produced and their not having job skills to go out and produce for and protect themselves? How many women married as virgins to men they believed they loved to find out that the sex was awful, or abusive or incompatible? I fell in love HARD three times before I actually married, thank God the Pill allowed me to make those mistakes and find my life partner and best friend.

  • YEAL9

    Some facts about contraception from the Guttmacher 2008WHO NEEDS CONTRACEPTIVES?• 43 million women (and men) of reproductive age, or 7 in 10, are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant, but could become pregnant if they or their partners fail to use a contraceptive method.[2]• The typical U.S. woman (man?) wants only 2 children. To achieve this goal, she (he?) must use contraceptives for roughly 3 decades.[3]WHO USES CONTRACEPTIVES? • Virtually all women (98%) aged 15–44 who have ever had intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method.[2](and men?)• Overall, 62% of the 62 million women aged 15–44 are currently using one.[2] (and men)• 31% of the 62 million women (and men?) do not need a method because they are infertile; are pregnant, postpartum or trying to become pregnant; have never had intercourse; or are not sexually active.[2]• Thus, only 7% of women aged 15–44 are at risk of unwanted pregnancy but are not using contraceptives.[2] (and men?)• Among the 42 million fertile, sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant, 89% are practicing contraception.[2] (and men?)WHICH METHODS DO WOMEN (men?) USE? • 64% of reproductive-age women who practice contraception use reversible methods, such as oral contraceptives or condoms. The remaining women rely on female or male sterilization.[2]

  • EarthCraft

    As reported,What’s the solution? stop drilling? NEVER!The earth gave us an option.

  • bayougirl

    As a college woman who was Roman Catholic, I had to have the requisite “women problems” to justify my use of birth control as I was in a committed relationship with someone to whom I was engaged. I knew many friends whose mothers didn’t require such an excuse and ensured their girls to be protected as they understood the realities of the world. How hypocritical of Catholics, many of whom ensure their children are protected, but do not stand up to a church that contributes to the spread of AIDS throughout Africa by refusing to distribute condoms.There is no doubt that the Pill has allowed a great deal of freedom from women. My father’s mother had fourteen children and lived a life of abject poverty, though she was incredibly well educated. I watch those families that have many, many children (19 and counting comes to mind) where the younger girls are de facto junior mommies who do not see all the possibilities of life that their male siblings have, because they too are expected to follow in their mother’s footsteps (as the Father-led Bible study tells them).Today I am Episcopalian and there are no rules on birth control in our faith. The Anglican church leaves us to our God-given hearts and minds to decide what works for us. The Pill simply allows women to have a better voice in that decision. Thank you writer and Sanger et al.

  • WmarkW

    “Today I am Episcopalian and there are no rules on birth control in our faith.”Yeah, I’ve often thought that the Episcopal church is what the Catholic church would be if the laity ran it. I’m surprised it isn’t growing from Catholic converts. Of course, having high education levels, its cradle members either became secular or more conservative. It used to be called “The Republican Party at prayer,” but the last three elections that party has nominated a cradle member who converted to a denomination more amenable to Southerners.

  • mindys2000

    I agreed with much of what you said and think the Pill should take its place in history as an historical development. BUT, your statement “The pill is the only reversible method of birth control that, when used properly, provides near-certain protection.” is false. The IUD, either hormonal or nonhormonal, has an efficacy rate similar to the Pill, with little to no opportunity for human error. Furthermore, many new hormonal contraceptive methods like the NuvaRing deliver the hormones that are in the pill in ways that are designed to limit the opportunity for mistakes. While the Pill deserves its due, too many people think it’s the only option.

  • 6thsense79

    “With the exception of a committed couple in a long-term, monogamous relationship, there is no situation in which a man has as great a stake in preventing an unwanted pregnancy as a woman.”This is just false. A woman can terminate a pregnancy for not fitting her life-plan; a man is stuck with at least the financial responsibilities of parenthood if his partner wants him to.Posted by: WmarkW | May 7, 2010 9:52 AMIt may or may not be just false but your logic is faulty. I think you need to re read the passage again. The passage made a statement that women have a greater incentative then men to PREVENT pregancy. The logic you gave to dispute that statement is faulty because if a women is making a decision to have an abortion then we’ve moved pass the point of PREVENTING a pregancy since the pregnancy has already occured to another decision point TERMINATING a pregancy. Terminating a pregancy is preventing birth. It is definitely not preventing pregnancy.

  • WmarkW

    Potential cost of unwanted pregnancy:Woman: $500-1000Man: 15% of gross income (not tax-deductible) for 18 years

  • Magnesium

    Actually, Susan, the Fertility Awareness Method is not the Rhythm method at all. the Rhythm method assumes that all women ovulate on Day 14. FAM assumes no such thing, but gives you the information to be able to determine exactly when ovulation occurs, which is different for all women.Please do not continue to perpetuate this fallacty.

  • Magnesium

    Sorry, that should be fallacy.

  • catherine3

    I agree and I am really surprised at Steinem for saying such a thing.EDBYRONADAMS, what on earth are you talking about??? How would the availability of contraception have anything to do with decreasing women’s choice to raise children in a 2 parent household? Are you intimating that since women can control their fertility, men won’t marry them or something? I mean, why?

  • agapn9

    What are the consequences of a low birth rate?Well just look at Europe soon to disappear and become part of the Islamic world – by 2035 muslims will be in control of half of Europe – sounds great doesn’t – especially when you consider that three of the nations they will control Germany, Britian, and France have nuclear weapons. What fun!But don’t worry most of us will be dead then and the children we should have had – they will be dead too.

  • elizdelphi

    Fertility awareness methods (usually termed “natural family planning”) are absolutely NOT THE SAME THING as the old “rhythm method”. The fertility awareness methods are actually very effective when practiced correctly, moreover statistics indicate that the couples who practice them have a remarkably low divorce rate and typically report that “natural family planning” is very good for their marriage. It’s natural, it entails no ongoing cost, and it’s not by any means just for Catholics, it’s for ANYONE who wants an effective way to space their pregnancies, that’s good for their marriage, without using hormones or devices.Learn more here:There is a big difference between fertility awareness methods, and the ineffective “rhythm method”, and they should not be confused. Fertility awareness methods work even for women with irregular cycles. To practice natural family planning (the most common term for fertility awareness methods) effectively, for instance the sympto-thermal method, or the Billings ovulation method, requires some diligence and usually women who want to practice these methods seek some training from health professionals, a friend of mine is a nurse and NFP instructor, she does classes on NFP and then does private follow up sessions with the women to check that they’re practicing it correctly. It’s not like popping a pill, it’s more like an art that you learn.NFP is based not on calendar timing based on the last menstural period, but on monitoring and charting the body’s own signs that indicate accurately when the woman is ovulating, for instance the stretchiness of the cervical mucous.Isn’t it sad for women and men that fertility gets to be treated as something to be surgically excised or medicated away? Fertility awareness methods let you hold off on becoming a parent, in a way that really respects the body of a healthy woman, and doesn’t treat her fertility as a sickness, which is really a terribly anti-woman attitude that has contributed a lot to the objectivization of bodies and commodification of sex.As a woman, I realize how my past use of birth control was both a symptom and cause of some real disorder in my own life. And the social consequences of birth control and the amount of disintegration of family life in developed countries, and all the sad consequences of sexuality without responsibility and often without love, is profound and striking.

  • Jumpy66

    I can respect the author’s opinions. But I have no idea why this is a blog titled “On Faith.”

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    omg! he’s here!

  • mloaks

    The pill, however has a pregnancy risk of only 1 per cent risk if used correctly, rising to 8 per cent if used incorrectly. …if used correctly!

  • kert1

    She doesn’t seem to even mention the effect the pill has had on children, and the idea of being a mother or father. She might want to do some research on what the pill has done to family as well. I don’t think the results are as encouraging. I guess that doesn’t matter if women get to do more of what they want.

  • mloaks

    Potential cost of unwanted pregnancy:Woman: $500-1000Man: 15% of gross income (not tax-deductible) for 18 yearswhat good is the pill if women wont use it? or worse, lie about it?

  • cadam72

    Pregnancy and motherhood are still convenient escapes for professional women. When broadcast anchor Bob Woodruff was nearly killed in Iraq and the duty of leadership fell to Elizabeth Vargas, she got pregnant and quit. When the Abu Ghraib scandal seemed certain to send soldiers to prison for a long time, Lindy English faced her courts-martial as an expectant mother.

  • persiflage

    ‘The pill has cured females of unwanted pregnancies. It hasn’t cured society of irresponsible females.’Nor have we found a pill to cure the stupidity, willfulness and greed of men i.e. wars, Wall Street, pedophilia, religious terrorism, violent crime, deadbeat dads, abusive husbands, and on and on. Truly speaking, men are at the crux of most of our societal ills….wherever we look. I don’t need to hear the arguments on our behalf to know the other side of the story…..

  • giscone

    WOW! It sounds like several, obviously men, commenters here have some personal axes to grind.

  • eamc

    Just one more voice to point out that Fertility Awareness Method/Natural Family Planning is *not* “the Rhythm Method.”The outmoded Rhythm Method was a method for avoiding pregnancy based on counting calendar days. It was ineffective because the timing of events in women’s cycles are not identical. FAM/NFP are based on tracking observable primary and secondary signs of fertility as they happen. FAM/NFP *does not* involve counting calendar days. FAM/NFP is based on sound, accepted scientific knowledge of observable changes in a woman’s body caused by measurable cyclical changes in a woman’s hormone levels. Statistics on FAM/NFP use (like those Planned Parenthood gives) do not take into account incomplete use of the method (an equivalent would be studies on the Pill that included women who did not take it as directed.) When used appropriately most FAM/NFP methods have effectiveness equivalent to hormonal contraception. Further FAM/NFP, unlike hormonal contraceptives, have zero environmental impact. Both Ms. Jacoby and Planned Parenthood should be ashamed of promoting ignorant misconceptions instead of sound science out of prejudice. This does not serve the interests of women in the slightest.

  • Susan_Jacoby

    No, “fertility awareness” is not more effective than what used to be called “rhythm.” Whether you count days or go through an elaborate rigamarole to detect the “observable” signs of phases in the menstrual cycle, the risk of an unwanted pregnancy is unacceptably high. That is, unless you consider 1 out of 4 women batting pregnant accidentally in a calendar year acceptable.

  • drzimmern1

    What is happening? This is the second time I find myself agreeing totally with one of Jacoby’s articles. Thanks for writing my thoughts.

  • Skowronek

    “Remeember that it used to be LAWFUL for employers to simly not hire women because the could get pregnat, ie, have overies”It also was lawful to FIRE a woman who got MARRIED.”As a woman, I realize how my past use of birth control was both a symptom and cause of some real disorder in my own life.”What? YOU didn’t make decisions that you regretted afterwards–it was all due to taking a pill that prevented contraception? “Potential cost of unwanted pregnancy:In case you missed it, Mark, the mother will also be on the hook for the cost of raising a child for 18 years, if she opts to keep the baby. Sounds as though men have just as much of a reason to invest in and properly use contraceptives as women do.

  • JohninMpls

    I’m amazed to read comments from people to don’t support contraception or believe that it has a negative impact on society. I get the Catholic thing. I think it’s a misguided application of scripture, but I at least get it.But arguments that contraception has a negative impact on children or the concept of parenthood catch me off guard. Didn’t see it coming.Sadly, the comments from male posters did not surprise me. The concept of feminism scares some (insecure) men.

  • persiflage

    ‘It is obvious that intercourse and other sexual activities are out of control with over one million abortions and 19 million cases of STDs per year in the USA alone. Are “full-proof” methods of birth control responsible for some of this??’This kind of thinking seems better suited to an octogenarion Catholic monk that spends most of his time thinking about the ‘sexual activities’ of other people – when he should be praying for his own deliverance. In the end, both activities are about equally constructive…..

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    agapn9You seemed depressed. No one can see the future.

  • rosefarm1

    Wow, what a worthy and insightful article. It actually made me a little “verklempt” to reflect on what the impact that the inventors/supporters of the pill had on my life and the lives of all the women I know. (The beer I had at lunch might also have increased the emotionality of the moment. Thank goodness for reproductive freedom and Happy Mother’s Day! And here! here! to their legacy. 🙂

  • elizdelphi

    “But there is a huge difference between promiscuity–which implies indiscriminate sex–and having a number of selected sexual partners before marriage.”Let’s have some truth here: either style of fornication significantly increases the likelihood that the future marriage will end in divorce, and the marriages are unhappier while they last (see: Second and third marriages have progressively much higher rates of divorce, and a marriage preceded by one or more short-term pseudo-marriages is likelier from the get-go to end in divorce (seems like these relationships aren’t good training for lifelong commitment, fidelity and self sacrifice–go figure!). Divorce is hard on the woman and man, it’s especially hard on the children.

  • rosefarm1

    Er, I meant to write “hear hear!”. But you get my drift…

  • Susan_Jacoby

    Addendum: The unreliability of “fertility awareness” is demonstrated not only by the high rate of unplanned pregnancy among couples who practice it but by its failure, in most cases, to work for couples with infertility problems. In both instances, the methods used to determine when a woman is ovulating–for opposite purposes–are highly uncertain. Taking one’s temperature to pinpoint ovulation (“fertility awareness”) is only marginally more accurate than counting the days (rhythm).

  • kert1

    Lepidopteryx,There is a real lack of parenting going on in this age and it can largely be traced back to the sexual revolution and contraception. Both men and women were told that they could have sex when they wanted to without children. Of course, this has just let to more unwanted children and not less and this doesn’t even take into account abortion. Now fathers (and sometimes mothers) regularly abandon children since they never wanted them in the first place. Mother’s are far less concerned about raising children then their careers and it shows. It’s not contraception itself that is the problem but the license to have sex whenever you want. I’m fine with family planning and such, but we should always remember that the natural consequence of sex is children. This should be blessing and not a curse. But people have used “the pill” and other things selfishly. Not to plan for the best situation for their children but to avoid children altogether. This is not a good situation for anyone and it is showing. We won’t know all the consequences until it is over with.

  • eamc

    Addendum: As I see there is some confusion. Using basal body temperature *only* as a method of fertility awareness would indeed have limited use (both for avoiding and achieving pregnancy.) I am not personally aware of any such method.All methods that use temperature (that I am aware of) also rely on cervical mucus observation. Cervical mucus is a primary fertility indicator and of much more use than basal body temperature.

  • eamc

    Addendum 2: (first addendum was typed in too much of a hurry.)All stats from the studies I quoted are “perfect use” stats.Those who observe basal body temperature also sensation and sometimes cervical position in addition to cervical mucus. (Added for the sake of accuracy.)

  • alance

    Too bad Susan’s mom didn’t have access to oral contraceptives in the 1940s. Sexual politics get so tiresome and boring.It ain’t nice to mess with mother nature. Not only do we get bombarded with dangerous chemicals, we also get bombarded with dangerous hormones – including birth control and menopause pills. They are added to our meat, dairy, and eggs courtesy of Big Chem and Big Pharm. They do a lot of harm, screw up our bodies and cause cancer years down the road of life. An IUD is much safer.The sexual revolution was a cultural phenomena of the 1960s and 1970s. We celebrated our sexuality for the first time until it was co-opted by religion and the media. We are still the most puritanical society on earth and we are suffering from the feminization of America.

  • Susan_Jacoby

    “Imperfect use” is the best standard for all statistics on birth control effectiveness, because everyone makes mistakes. What makes “fertility awareness” so much less effective than the pill is that the former is much more complicated, and the opportunities to make mistakes are therefore multiplied. If you want to take a 25 percent chance of becoming pregnant if you make an error, be my guest. I am not impressed by the word “natural.” It used to be “natural” for tens of thousands of children to die of polio, just as it was “natural” for the Catholic mothers of my childhood to have seven to ten children because they were forbidden by their religion to use any method of birth control that worked. Anyone who longs for that “natural” state is quite welcome to embrace it.

  • Athena4

    The Pill has helped millions of women all over the world control their fertility, which has raised the life expectancy and quality of life for impoverished nations. The less children a woman has, the more resources she has to give to the ones that she does raise. Children are better fed, have better water, health care, and can go to school. If you want proof of this, look at countries where they have family planning programs, versus ones where contraception is banned because of religion. The ones with the family planning programs are doing much better.

  • alance

    The Pill has robbed Peter to pay Paul. In western nations fertility is way down – endangering the social covenant between generations. My selfish lack of children is endangering the next generation – by not being able to provide social security — by not being able to provide old age assistance.Mexico is a funnel that is saving America’s behind. It is funneling a mixed population of White European, African and Native Americans into our nation with a much higher fertility rate steeped by 500 years of Catholicism and raising our national fertility rates to we are at least replacing ourselves. Of course we could also raise the retirement age to 75.

  • YEAL9

    From the Guttmacher Institute:Percentage of women (men?) experiencing an unintended pregnancy (a few examples)(The RCC approved methods below from the same report) Calendar/rythym 9.0 – And once again comments from the real Susan Jacoby posted last year:”From this day forward, I will never respond to any comment, on any subject, from anyone who has brought up the screen name issue in any way pertaining to me or anyone else. Next week, I hope to be able to comment in this space on serious issues involving faith and reason. I remain, as always,The real Susan Jacoby Note: At the time, the imposter was using the screen name SUSAN_JACOBYSo apparently the comments noted at the times listed below from a SUSAN_JACOBY were from someone else.Posted by: SUSAN_JACOBY| May 7, 2010 3:00 PMPosted by: SUSAN_JACOBY| May 7, 2010 4:59 PM

  • lepidopteryx

    OFF TOPIC:Athena, email me at It’s important.

  • persiflage

    ‘We are still the most puritanical society on earth and we are suffering from the feminization of America.’It looks like Alance may have missed the sexual revolution altogether, if he thinks we are ‘suffering’ because women have become more self-determining in any number of ways. Suffrage should not be equated with suffering….. We’re puritanical i.e. hung-up with and preoccupied by sex in unhealthy ways, because of our ‘puritanical origins’ and the continuing huge influence of religious mores inspired by fundamentalist thinking from both the Catholics and the Protestants (predominantly of the male gender, since they make the rules in religious organizations). The very ones that missed the sexual revolution because they were too busy praying, weeping, and nashing their teeth at the thought of rampant ‘unsanctioned’ sex. And there was plenty! Folks that are preoccupied with the sexual habits of others either work for a public health agency, or have a prurient interest in the human anatomy and how it should be employed for various sexual functions – according to their standards. Anyway I was there way back in the 60’s, and I remember it well – not the praying part, but the non-praying part. All in all, I don’t think ‘puritanical’ and ‘feminization’ belong together in the same sentence, but that’s just me.Personally, I’m all for immigration. The USA is and always has been an immigrant nation. High reproduction rates are to be applauded only if the accompanying lifestyle and society at large are enhanced thereby – and this is so often not the case. If parents and offspring are living off of state and federal subsidies, that isn’t helping pay for those Social Security benefits either.

  • auradawnveirsgmailcom

    The sole reason why churches ban abortion is their need to create, conserve a increase church income. If a conception is aborted, it won’t live to become a believer who will tithe ten percent of lifetime income. It won’t live to pay special fees for weddings, christenings, confirmations, church school & funerals. For the same reason,church law bans suicide–corpses don’t tithe. Have you ever seen or heard clerics admit their church laws exist so they can make a living? In l973, the Court forced our civil power to stop enforcing church law banning abortion. That was Roe v Wade. Bans on contraception still exist and must all be nullified.

  • PSolus

    “It’s not contraception itself that is the problem but the license to have sex whenever you want.”Having sex whenever one wants is never a problem.”I’m fine with family planning and such, but we should always remember that the natural consequence of sex is children.”Not necessarily.”This should be blessing and not a curse.”Again, not necessarily.”But people have used “the pill” and other things selfishly. Not to plan for the best situation for their children but to avoid children altogether.”Avoiding children altogether is not necessarily selfish.”This is not a good situation for anyone and it is showing.”Why is it not a good situation, and how is it showing?”We won’t know all the consequences until it is over with.”When it is all over with, there will probably be nobody around to know all the consequences.

  • PSolus

    “It is obvious that intercourse and other sexual activities are out of control…”If you think this, you’re probably doing it wrong.

  • joe6

    Susan Jacoby,

  • BigTrees

    Ever notice that pro-lifers aren’t really “pro-life.” Their interest ends at birth and are no where near when an unwed, uneducated, unemployed teenaged mother witha three-year-old is on welfare and food stamps and some compassionate conservative tells her to go find a job. Hypocrites!

  • 5amefa91

    Check the web from the Times of Malta at The link shows a picture of Pope Benedict on a billboard with two “panda” bears stenciled in at the bottom. The caption reads:”Two billboards in Marsa advertising the Pope’s visit to Malta got the unlikely addition of two stencilled images of what looks like a panda. It is not clear why the “artist” in question juxtaposed the bears with the Pope. The organising committee was alerted yesterday morning and it plans to erase the images.”Hint: They are NOT pandas. Gotta love it. LOL.

  • mrbradwii

    Anything that’s anti-catholic doctrine must be a good thing, and I’m sure that many things were made easier by the pill.But, in some ways, it had an effect on men, too, devaluing sex, affecting rates at the local bordello, no doubt, the poor professional woman having to compete with the girl next door!And it did move sexual initiation to a younger age, removed a large defense against male pressure to go all the way. If I love you didn’t work and I’ll still respect you in the morning didn’t work, then perhaps all three in combination, love, pill, respect, might work. Love waning at the prospect of the next seduction of course…So on balance, yes, it changed the landscape and I cannot imagine going back, another tool in the bag of individual choice always being a good thing. Although, I would think the prevalence of STDs these days would provide impetus towards a bit more chastity than the hookup generation seems to exhibit. But thankfully health care is now as free as love…

  • daniel12

    See below the recent news from discovery (science) news on the internet.This delay in age of motherhood is associated with delay in age of marriage and with growing educational attainment. The more education a woman has, the later she tends to marry and have children. Birth rates also have risen for the most educated women, those with at least some college education, while being relatively stable for women with less education. These dual factors have worked together to increase the education levels of mothers of newborns.Evidence of feminism improving genetic caliber of intelligence of country in which it exists?

  • YEAL9

    From the Guttmacher Institute:Percentage of women experiencing an unintended pregnancy Method Typical vs. the RCC approved methods below from the same report Calendar/rythym 9.0

  • persiflage

    ‘vs. the RCC approved methods below from the same report’Recommended mainly for Catholic engineers that don’t mind holding the thermometer for their spouses… fact, probably insist on it. But what’s a single lady to do without a degree in calculus?

  • Lily1601

    Great article, but I’d like to second Mindys2000 in that the pill is NOT “the only reversible method of birth control that, when used properly, provides near-certain protection. ” The IUD (both hormonal and non)and implants are reversible and have higher rates of effictiveness than the pill. Injectables, patch and vaginal ring are also close in effectiveness to the pill. The pill is still a great option though and I think it’s incredibly significant to the feminist movement. The method you choose will depend on medical history and the type of side effects you don’t mind managing. I want to stress that people should look up creditable references, such as the World Health Organization for pregnancy rates, side effects, etc. In response to some of the comments to the article:For men who are concerned about women lying to them, paying for children they don’t want and STDs: wrap it up! Latex condoms are one of the greatest inventions that help prevent both pregnancy and STDs!

  • persiflage

    Find below the Catholic sources for all of the TTWSTYED nonsense on liberals, natural moral law, the birth control pill, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, and on and on and on…..All are based on pure superstition and the grandiose confabulations and elaborations typical of religious mythology ….if you want thinking straight out of the 12th century or earlier, look no further than Catholic theology. People actually took this stuff as the truth way back when – and some still do today. It’s a pitiful state of affairs.

  • mrbradwii

    […]Oh my dear, I’m sure that you’ve applied the not operator to a larger set of objects than is under the domain of catholicism.Murder for instance is not proscribed because the catholic doctrine says so. Ditto for lying cheating and stealing. You are well enough schooled to know this, so I know you are just having some good hyperbolic fun, no? But, perhaps not. You may believe, however, that NML all came together in a lovely plan and has been worked on for two thousand years by the best minds. That is your choice. A choice and a belief. But your church doesn’t own morality exclusively.So add a smile to your day, I was being intentionally sarcastic, ironic, and facetious, given your church’s current troubles. A simple solution to which presents itself: when you find yourself in a hole with a shovel, stop digging or don’t start… but that is off topic.Yes the pill is convenient, dangerous, and ineffective against STDS. As with all choices there are disadvantages and advantages. But stay-at-home-baby-factorying is still an option. It is not zero sum, add an option, take away an option. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to present baby-milling as a healthy role, a viable economic alternative as desirable as full participation in all aspects of society.

  • edbyronadams

    “Latex condoms are one of the greatest inventions that help prevent both pregnancy and STDs!”However, not nearly 100% effective against herpes.

  • PSolus

    “Since latex condoms predate the oral contraceptive, why such the big deal? We are now encouraged to use the latex condom during every sexual encounter so isn’t oral contraception irrelevant?”You should probably be getting this information from your mommy and daddy, not from the Internet.

  • FarnazMansouri

    JD3If an unwanted pregnancy occurs today, the woman has a wide variety of choices — and I don’t just mean abortion but also adoption and even “safe surrender” sites — and that’s wonderful for her. But if she decides to have and keep the baby (or even lied about using birth control in order to get pregnant), the man has NO choice — he has to pay. That’s wrong.Legalize choice for men!If it fails, so to speak, you have a problem. That, however, you will have to take up with Nature.

  • YEAL9

    “Latex condoms are one of the greatest inventions that help prevent both pregnancy and STDs!”Not according to the Guttmacher Institute:”FIRST-YEAR CONTRACEPTIVE FAILURE RATESPeriodic abstinence – 25.3 (Masturbation) 0

  • US-conscience

    I was 15 when the FDA approved the pillSo, your 64 now ? Why dont you update your photo ? ( could it be pride ? ) Your getting closer each day to meeting your maker. Better start thinking about that !

  • Skowronek

    “”Potential cost of unwanted pregnancy:I note you completely skipped over the part where I wrote:”Sounds as though men have just as much of a reason to invest in and properly use contraceptives as women do.”So what’s stopping men who do NOT want to be a father at that time from donning a condom? Why take the risk? Condoms are a lot less expensive.Adoption’s great. There are many children in foster care who are also eligible to be adopted. It would be a lovely thing if more people were foster parents, or if looking to adopt, went outside their comfort zone and took on an older child. Rather than an infant.

  • persiflage

    Examples of the grandiose claims made by devout Christian theists of the conservative stripe – note that fear is always the final bludgeon employed on non-believers:’Your getting closer each day to meeting your maker. Better start thinking about that !’ ‘They are universal truths right reason cannot dispute. Those who violate them, violate themselves.’Thomas Aquinas remarked that one of the great joys of attaining heaven was to be able to look down on the eternal suffering of the damned! Compassionate thoughts from one of the preeminant Doctors of the of the Catholic Church, and all-around nice guy! Religion typically thinks in terms of huge exaggerations – speaking for the entire universe is quite a feat when you’re living on a tiny planet some 93 million miles from the nearest star…..and really have no clear idea how you got here in the first place. I’m personally another one that likes the ‘Mom and Dad’ theory of origins…… seems to have been fairly well tested, as theories go. When will religion ever become more reasonable, one wonders??

  • lepidopteryx

    Alphabet Man,having more kids than you want and/or can afford to feed may be good for the economy overall in the form of greater numbers in the workforce when they get old enough to hold jobs, but it’s hell on personal economies of the families getting them to that point.

  • WmarkW

    I don’t think its essential for the Western (or any other part of the) world to grow. Most people live in a place that would be better off with less population.What we didn’t do was adapt politically when it was necessary. The Cold War was supposed to be a once-in-generations event that justified perpetual deficit spending because future generations wouldn’t need to fight one. (Traditional wars had always created federal budget deficits, that then got paid back during peace.) Instead, America has become stuck being the worlds superpower and obligated to keep the oceans and skys safe, and has made perpetual deficits politically expedient even when the spending was not for defense. I have no idea whether today’s young generation will honor their parents’ deficits or not. But we should do something to each their burden, like make housing cheap. If their parents don’t get to sell their home for a million bucks to spend the rest of their lives living in a country club community when not vacationing on a cruise ship, so be it.

  • FarnazMansouri

    WMarkW:Re: GreeceSamuelson omitted a few things in his article, which I also read and touched only briefly on the failure of Greeks to file income tax returns.The failure is enormously widespread. Not only do the wealthy not file, but many others do not either, since they see no reason why they should when the rich do not.The failure to file has been the subject of great attention and far exceeds the percentage Samuelson mentioned.Further, the Greek government did not pursue those who did not file. Another matter neglected by Samuelson was the all but institutionalized corruption that characterizes Greek government, a problem it has frankly confessed to, as it now has no choice.Greece’s current “solution,” in addition to borrowing insanely is to lay off workers, lower their salaries, and deprive them of pensions. Unsurprisingly, there have been riots. Leave it to Samuelson to shift the blame precisely where he has.Among the casualties are teacher layoffs, layoffs in vital student services, layoffs of professors, salary freezes, etc.Obama’s education plan?A competitive workforce in what remains of the global economy?

  • FarnazMansouri

    Hi Persiflage,“Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in Physics, said at the moment of this explosion, “the universe was about a hundred thousands million degrees Centigrade…and the universe was filled with light—Steven Weinberg; “The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe.”

  • Athena4

    The “Ten Commandments” are the fundamental basis of the NML and they are based on the NL that governs human nature.”Yeah, I noticed that you posted on a Sunday. How’s that “keep holy the Sabbath Day” thing workin’ for ya? Because, even if you’re sitting in front of your computer, some system administrator is working on a Sunday to keep your network running. Ya know, “natural moral law” was used to excuse slavery, too. I’m just sayin…

  • persiflage

    TTWSTYED sez:’You should read your own links. They duplicate what I have written, viz. “that slaves should be treated humanely and justly and that “per se” Slavery was not immoral.’Slavery has always been immoral, retrospective to modern standards – it’s simply been a widespread & commonly found practice historically, until over time humans gradually decided otherwise. Slavery was legitimatized and supported by religion, because religion is simply one aspect/feature of the host culture, and reflects those overall values. The fact that it’s now considered universally immoral, has everything to do with the evolution of human culture, along with changing mores and values. Humans no longer ‘believe’ that slavery is OK. Personal freedom and individual equality are fundamental to our own constitutionally based secular democratic society – we fought a Civil War in part to ensure the permanence of those values in the USA. These egalitarian values are not of course always reflected in religious milieus that are part of the larger society.

  • lepidopteryx

    WHY THE PILL IS AN ABOMINATION:It is possible for two people to love each other and wish to express that love sexually while not being ready to become parents.