You don't look a day over 50

Nurse giving birth control pills to patient, elevated view

The birth control pill turned 50 this year. Time magazine celebrated the anniversary with a 5,000-word look at the sociological history of its development and use. And I have to say that while the piece reads a bit like a love letter to 1960s feminism, author Nancy Gibbs discussed religion and values throughout the piece. This seems like the obvious thing to do when talking about something related to sex and procreation -- but we all know how many reporters would avoid including religion in the discussion. The piece is called "The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox" and it's well written and engaging. Here's a sample:

"The Pill was not at all what separated reproduction and sex among married people," argues Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who calls that "among the biggest misconceptions" about sexual behavior and the Pill. Long before its introduction, women already knew how to avoid pregnancy, however imperfectly. The typical white American woman in 1800 gave birth seven times; by 1900 the average was down to 3.5.

But well into the modern age, contraception met with unified opposition from across the religious spectrum, Protestants and Catholics, Western and Eastern Orthodox. Sex, even within marriage, was immoral unless aimed at having a baby.

The treatment of Margaret Sanger is interesting. Despite talking about her and her views at length, she's portrayed in pretty much nothing but a positive light. No mention is made of her strong support for eugenics. But hey, the piece was only 5,000 words long. Whenever I point out how odd it is that people write about her without mentioning eugenics, someone will comment "But everyone knows she was a major eugenicist." But how do they know . . . if it's never mentioned in the media?

Anyway, much of the story is devoted to how "motivation, money, medicine and genius" combined to produce a pill that women could take easily. We learn about precursors to in vitro fertilization and how the people who developed the pill used Puerto Rican women as the guinea pigs since testing for contraception was illegal in the U.S. Lots of really interesting and good stuff.

Midway through, we get to a section called "The Catholic Conundrum." We learn that pharmaceutical firm G.D. Searle & Co. worried that Catholics would object to their marketing of the pill and would boycott the company and:

In 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, many lay leaders and clergy anticipated a relaxation of restraints on family planning as part of a general liberalization of church teaching. By the time his successor, Pope Paul VI, appointed a commission to study the issue two years later, roughly half of American Catholics were already practicing birth control. Leaked reports of the commission's findings suggested that nearly all its theologians and a majority of the Cardinals favored changing the church's teaching on the immorality of contraception -- but the following year, Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he sided with the minority. The teaching against contraception stayed in place. Hundreds of American theologians issued a statement that this was not an infallible teaching and that Catholics could in good conscience dissent. And in any event, it was too late to reverse the trend; by 1970, two-thirds of Catholic women were using birth control, more than a quarter of those the Pill.

The previous paragraph exemplifies a bit of a weakness of the piece. Many things are asserted without enough substantiation. And speaking of substantiation, the author actually uses the Kinsey Report to make some claim about female adultery. The self-selection problems make those reports difficult to take seriously. And then as if riffing off the Kinsey Report -- we get anonymous anecdotes about how the Pill changed women's lives.

Anyway, I did think this set up to one treatment of a religious objection was a bit unfair:

Slowly but surely, the availability of the Pill changed the way women viewed their choices. And for many people watching the ground shift beneath the American family, that was the whole problem.

Opposition to the Pill among conservative Catholics was consistent from the beginning, but it was only after it had been in widespread use for years that some conservative Protestants began rethinking their views on contraception in general and the Pill in particular. "I think the contraceptive revolution caught Evangelicals by surprise," observes Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "We bought into a mentality of human control. We welcomed the polio vaccine and penicillin and just received the Pill as one more great medical advance."

But beginning in the 1990s, many conservative Christians revisited the question of what God intends in marriage and pondered the true nature of the gift of sexuality. The heart of the concern, in this view, is that using contraception can weaken the marital bond by separating sex from procreation. The ideal of marriage as a "one-flesh union" places the act of intercourse, with the possibility of creating new life, at the center of the relationship. "Go back a hundred years," Mohler says. "The biblical idea you'd have adults who'd intend to have very active sex lives without any respect to the likelihood of children didn't exist. And it's now unexceptional." This is not to say that everyone has an obligation to have as many children as possible; Mohler has two, not 12, he notes, and as long as a couple is "not seeking to alienate their sexual relationship from the gift of children, they can seek to space or limit the total number of children they have." But the ability to control human reproduction, he says, has done more to reorder human life than any event since Adam and Eve ate the apple.

Mohler's quote is about how contraception can change the way a couple views their sexual congress and their marital bond. But the last paragraph leading up to Mohler's views makes it seem like his problem is going to be related only to how women had more choices in their lives and lifestyles.

But I think that Gibbs found a great spokesman to present the evangelical concern with -- not opposition to -- birth control. It's nuanced and covers a lot of ground with an economy of words. She has Gloria Steinem respond to Mohler and then lets Mohler respond to Steinem. I love when you get more than just the competing quotes. Steinem has a fascinating quote where she says that social conservatives are "winning the abortion fight." She goes on to allege that theological concern with birth control is about reestablishing patriarchal structures. And then:

Mohler does not dispute every charge. That would be intellectually dishonest, he says. The Pill "changed the woman's moral horizon from a likelihood of becoming pregnant to a total lack of likelihood. I'm certain feminists champion that as a tremendous gain necessary for their liberation in the workforce and elsewhere — I think it's fair to say social conservatives have great concerns about that entire package."

Close-up of birth control pills in two plastic tablet dispenser cases

It's like an actual conversation. How nice to move beyond the competing quotes into more of a discussion. That discussion continues with thoughts from Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. I'm pretty sure there is an error, where the author writes. "When the GOP controlled both Congress and the White House after 2000, funding shifted away from family-planning programs and into abstinence education." It's definitely true that abstinence funding increased a great deal under the Bush administration. But I'm pretty sure that funding came from newly allocated funds to abstinence-focused federal funding avenues. The money that went to other sex education programs also probably increased. I looked for data and couldn't find it. But the fact is that abstinence-focused programs receive just a fraction of the state and federal funding that other programs do. Not that you'd know that from most mainstream reports.

The last paragraph sums up the mood of the piece well:

It is possible that somewhere in some lab, the next big thing is being invented that will twist the whole debate another 90 degrees. Maybe it will be an artificial womb, which would allow unwanted pregnancies to be carried to term, just not by the reluctant mother. There was a time when researchers imagined that Plan B, or the morning-after pill, might become not an emergency form of contraception but a routine one; women would take it once a month to induce a period and never even know whether they had gotten pregnant. Would just enough ignorance appease the twitching conscience while solving the cost and convenience challenges as well? Traditionalists, meanwhile, press for progress not in medicine but in marriage, to restore it as the central social institution shaping people's sexuality. As the conversation of the past half-century makes plain, science alone will not resolve questions that reach this deep into our relations with one another.

Yes, the piece is a celebration of the Pill. But even while it provides a platform for older feminists to reflect on their successes, it thoroughly addresses some of the moral concerns. Not bad.

Also, I can't link to it -- it's now behind the pay wall -- but First Things had a great piece by Timothy Reichert that used economic modeling to argue that The Pill has some harmful effects on women in various market conditions. It was really interesting and it's in the May issue, I believe. If you read both the Time piece and the First Things piece, you'll get a nice well rounded look at the sociological effects of the Pill.

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