Hey, Let’s Talk about Birth Control (part 1: History)

So in the last week modern medicine has evidently gotten some decent results road testing hormonal birth control for men. It’s still very much in the study phase but the pill functions by lowering testosterone dramatically but suppressing potential side effects (lower libido, breast growth) by including other chemicals that mimic what testosterone does. I’m a little ashamed to say it, but part of me laughs pretty heartily at stories like these in which the potential side effects may limit eventual production and taking of the drug, given how much women on birth control have tolerated over generations. We had to fight to be able to have access to the stuff, and it routinely mucks about with our systems, but we keep taking it:  the costs are much higher for us than for men, generally speaking, without it.

First a little history lesson.

Birth control was illegal in America, essentially, until the 1960s. The Comstock Laws effectively prohibited communication about birth control (it was a measure that directly impacted the mail–what could be sent, etc) which meant even pamphlets about the rhythm method would have been deemed obscene and tossed. Family planning clinics like those set up by Margaret Sanger in the early 20th c were frequently raided and closed. Women with money might get around the prohibitions, but those without could not.

Condom Tins
Condom tins. Image linked from Collector’s Weekly, https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/getting-it-on-the-covert-history-of-the-american-condom/

[Condoms, incidentally, have existed for centuries. While the Comstock Laws shut down the trade via mail order (the main way people got a lot of things, as we do, too) by the 20th century they were on store shelves sold as protection against venereal disease. Thus while stores violated the spirit of the law, they kept to its letter.]

In any case, the party who ultimately controlled whether a woman got pregnant or not from intercourse, whether it was using the rhythm method or a rubber, was men. And many men wanted their partners to be pregnant a lot, and/or they didn’t want to use condoms. Further, particularly when those women were not their wives, men could just bail when a partner became pregnant, leaving women deeply constricted and without good options. Margaret Sanger, for all her deeply problematic ethical issues, was deeply sensitive to the shitty position women were in when it came to sex. Having no control over fertility meant women had little control over their lives. She put a great deal of time and money into developing a network of family planning centers–Planned Parenthood–and in development of pharmaceutical birth control for women.

The Pill

By the mid 1950s, researchers had developed The Pill, but needed test subjects. They got them in Puerto Rico under some shady conditions, as PR didn’t have a birth control ban. A monster combination of estrogen and progesterone, the pills tested there may have led to three deaths. Few women were well-informed on what they were taking or why, and as that WaPo article notes, several were still part of the trials until 1964–long after the drug was in America and deeply troubling side effects became that much more obvious. A full quarter of the participants left because of them in PR, but the man running the study, Dr. Gregory Pincus, pressed on. By 1960, the pill was marketed in the US as menstruation-related (fully legal!) and by 1962, package inserts could note it might prevent birth. But by that point, 6 American women died of blood clots related to the pill (26 had gotten them). That said, it is only in 1965 that married couples could get access, legally, to birth control: prior, women would have to get scrips for gynecological reasons that were likely fabrications. Single people did not gain that right until 1971.

Sweet freedom

The pill meant that women could control their own fertility, albeit with some ugly side effects. Women chose to tolerate those effects, however, because the costs of not doing so were enormous and hinged on a couple of things. One, they were–as adult humans–entitled to pleasure. America still struggles with this idea (even as it hyper sexualizes women), but women are allowed to have sex for funsies. The pill liberated women to do so in whatever context (in marriage, outside of it, and so on) they might want.

A second key point is that even inside the context that’s socially approved (marriage), many women wanted to be freed from the cycles of pregnancy and birth that their mothers had. They wanted to be able to time their children (if they wanted them to begin with) in order to pursue work. They wanted to have only the number of kids they might be able to support. Make no mistake, that kind of control is tremendous and a reason why many people opposed the pill: women who can choose to work and be financially independent of a man stand to upset the larger patriarchal order (and they did). We take for granted, I suspect, that control women have over their bodies now is what permits us a much wider range of opportunities, including access to powerful places. However it’s limited these days, that we even have such access has as much to do with the changes wrought by the pill as anything else.

More another day!

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