Contraception: a hard pill to swallow?

Sunday 14 October, 16:0017:15, Frobisher Auditorium 1Sexual revolutions


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The dream of a pill that could give women reproductive control and increase their sexual and social freedom has a long history. Back in the 1920s, birth-control advocates like Margaret Sanger in the US and Marie Stopes in England both wrote and commented about the need for a simple pill that could relieve women of what they saw as the destructive scourge of repeated pregnancy. The availability from the 1960s of ‘The Pill’ has been widely associated with a subsequent revolution – the sexual revolution – and with women’s liberation. This female-centred method of fertility control separated sex and conception in a truly thorough-going way. It turn, it has been associated with widely debated changes to gender roles, marriage and the family.

The Pill has been presented as a genuinely socially disruptive technology. For example, the sociologist Francis Fukuyama noted that it allowed women to have risk-free premarital sex, to postpone childbirth and marriage, and made it easier for them to enter the workforce. On the other hand, he argued, it also reduced the pressure on men to take responsibility when their female partners became pregnant, illustrated by the decline of ‘shotgun’ marriages. The Pill is presented as central to a whole set of social and cultural changes in the second half of the twentieth century. Those troubled by these developments, or who oppose contraception altogether for religious reasons, contest the claim that the Pill’s disruptive effects have been positive. Others, notably some feminists, have also taken a more jaundiced view. From the 1960s onwards, commentary from this quarter connected the Pill with population control, medical control over women’s bodies, and negative health effects.

Today, some argue it is very ‘last century’ to continue to associate the Pill with women’s liberation and reproductive choice. Commentary highlights the negative effects of the Pill and it’s hormones for women’s physical and mental health. ‘Natural’ and non-hormonal methods of contraception are promoted as better for women. The case is also made that the idea that contraception, in any case, is ‘women’s business’ is outdated. In today’s society, it is argued, men should fully share the burden, including through taking a ‘male pill’.

So what assessment should be made of the contribution of the Pill to women’s freedom? Is it right to see it as a socially and culturally disruptive technology? If so, to what effect? What do women need, in the twenty-first century, when we think about the future of contraception?