According to Gail Collins, tomorrow—Mother’s Day, May 9—could be considered the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill, although there are several days contending for that honor. By the time I was growing up the Pill was already a fact of life, albeit a new one. I certainly used it, and I believe that on the whole I, personally, benefited greatly from it. But that doesn’t mean it was an unmitigated plus in all respects.
Collins manages to write an entire column devoted to Margaret Sanger and her crusade for the dissemination (pun intended) of birth control information without once mentioning any of the other huge controversies that dominated Sanger’s life, such as her socialism and her advocacy of eugenics, including her drive to convince members of races she considered inferior to reproduce less, as well as the forced sterilization of the mentally feeble.
Sanger began her contraceptive-promoting activities in the early decades of the 20th century, during a time when it was against the law to teach about birth control, but later exploited an exception that was made for doctors. But even prior to that, women in all cultures have had a folklore of remedies (mostly ineffective), as well as the most drastic (and dangerous) ex-post-facto measure of all, illegal abortions—not a type of contraception, of course, but a way to prevent birth when contraception was unavailable or failed.
Collins ignores this fact in her piece, as well. But abortions were very common even when Sanger began her work; for example, I recall reading a biography of a turn-of-the-century working class woman from New York City who mentioned that the women in her neighborhood had almost all had abortions numbering in the double figures, performed by a local guy whom everyone knew was employable for a small fee for just that purpose. Abortions were also sometimes self-induced; those were free in monetary terms, although they could be costly in other ways. The consequences of either type of abortion, in those pre-antibiotic days, could easily be major infection and/or death. Of course, that was true of childbirth as well.
The Pill plus Roe v. Wade changed all that. One would think that with the former there would hardly be any need for the latter. But if one thought that, one would be wrong. The advent of easy and extremely effective contraception has brought with it a cavalier attitude towards it. This is partly because abortion is also seen as so relatively easy, safe, and available; partly because unwed motherhood has turned into something so acceptable and is even romanticized as desirable; and partly because sex is now ubiquitous even for the very young and very irresponsible.
These things are not coincidental to the Pill—they are at least in part a direct result of what Sanger envisioned, the freeing of women to enjoy sex without its previous built-in consequences. But, as with so many things, consequences follow us around nevertheless; they are just different consequences.
Now we have to worry about rampant promiscuity among teens and even preteens, and the deep psychological and even physical damage it can cause (such as STDs). Girls who once were protected by the mores of society and their own fear of the shame of pregnancy are free to enjoy sex—but how many of them are really having all that much fun, and at what cost? How many of them have the maturity to understand what they want and with whom they might be happy? How many are giving in to the age-old pressures of popularity and the needs of teenage boys? How many boys are fathering kids early in life and bearing that burden? How many boys and men are brokenhearted at the loss of their potential child when a women unilaterally decides to abort?
There were terrible costs to the bad old pre-Pill days. But there are huge problems today as well, and they are not limited to teens—women who delayed pregnancy for so long that they find their biological clocks have run down, for example, or those who have a long series of meaningless relationships in a chase after that elusive and perfect (and non-existent) sexual partner who will fulfill their every desire. When we have more choices, we must bear the consequences of the decisions we do make
[ADDEUNDUM: Gay Patriot has some observations, including a classical one.]
[ADDENDUM II: Glenn Reynolds links me and Raquel Welch, a combination not usually seen in nature.]