100 million women around the world start each day by swallowing it

If some imaginative person had made a birthday cake for it, she – it would have had to be a she – might have put 100 million candles on it. For that represents the number of women around the world who start each day by swallowing it.

Yasmin is a birth control pill – known generically as the Pill – and many celebrated its 50th birthday on May 9th with justifiable gratitude and fanfare.

May 9, 1960, is one of those days that will shine bright in American history: it is the day that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of the tiny pill that gave women control over their fertility. The FDA's "blessing" attested to the safety of hormonal contraception, or "birth control," in the words of Margaret Sanger. The Pill changed the world.

When it was approved, 500,000 women in the U.S. were already taking it, according to the recent Time cover story. This number would continue to swell rapidly, leading The
A recently released National Survey of Family Growth study found that the Pill is "the most popular method [of contraception] in the United States, used by 10.7 million women between the ages of 15 and 44. The Economist's crystal ball seems to be working well.

The early years in the life of the Pill were relatively easy ones. Millions of women "embraced" it, whatever the public arguments were for or against its use. It was an effective and convenient way to avoid pregnancy.

Most saw its promise in offering a different life beyond child rearing. More women were able to imagine a life that included both children and job. The results soon became plain: more companies, no longer afraid that women would leave as soon as they conceived a baby, eagerly opened their doors. Congress passed Title IX in 1972, ending not only discrimination in college athletics for female undergraduates, but also throwing open the doors of law, medical, and business schools to women.

But in the 1990s, the recent cover story in Time reported, when the Pill was about 20 years old, a backlash developed. The impetus for the counter-revolution started, or was ramped up, by organized religions and conservative political advocacy groups. The Catholic hierarchy consistently opposed the Pill from its inception, even though in 1970, "two-thirds of Catholic women were using birth control and more than a quarter were on the Pill." Many Evangelical Christian denominations followed suit, framing their disapproval in the context of what "God intends in marriage." Church leaders proclaimed that "using contraception can weaken the marital bond by separating sex from procreation."

On the eve of its 50th birthday, Katherine Spillar, Ms. magazine's executive editor, summed up the precarious situation in which the Pill currently finds itself: "We're still fighting those battles in Congress [like allowing hospital workers and pharmacists who have moral qualms about contraception to refuse to fill prescriptions]. To think that in 2010, 50 years after the birth control Pill, we still have to fight for access and effective family planning – it's painful."

If women gaining access to the Pill is painful in the U.S., it is infinitely more painful for women in the developing world. Investigative journalist Michelle Goldberg writes of this dilemma in her book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World. In her concluding chapter, "Sex and Chaos," she paints a frightening picture of what will happen if we do not provide women in the developing world with the family-planning help many so desperately desire.

In developing countries overall, 15 percent of married women, and "seven percent of unmarried women have ... an unmet need for contraception," Goldberg writes. "This means they are sexually active, do not want to become pregnant, and yet are not using birth control." In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of unmarried women with an unmet need for online contraception is 24 percent and in many Latin American countries, "more than 40 percent of births were unwanted."

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