Rowan Pelling: What's so great about the Pill?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For years, one of the worst anti-feminist heresies in the canon has been to say that the contraceptive pill has shackled women more than it has liberated them. Espousing such a view immediately ranks you alongside the spittle-flecked ranters of the moral minority. I would go to the barricades for an adult's right to practise recreational sex - or not, come to that - and think the gradual, still incomplete, liberation of women from prudish and hypocritical sexual strictures over past decades has been one of the great goods of the modern age. I just don't believe that the Pill has been the glorious enabler of sexual revolution that it's cracked up to be.

For years, one of the worst anti-feminist heresies in the canon has been to say that the contraceptive pill has shackled women more than it has liberated them. Espousing such a view immediately ranks you alongside the spittle-flecked ranters of the moral minority. I would go to the barricades for an adult's right to practise recreational sex - or not, come to that - and think the gradual, still incomplete, liberation of women from prudish and hypocritical sexual strictures over past decades has been one of the great goods of the modern age. I just don't believe that the Pill has been the glorious enabler of sexual revolution that it's cracked up to be.

A cursory knowledge of history will tell you that the course of moral censure and licentiousness has been cyclical, and has had precious little to do with contraception. So I find it hard to subscribe to the notion that the Rolling Stones, Woodstock, the mini-skirt and the whole Swinging Sixties charabanc was a direct result of the Pill. Now the tide of opinion seems to be moving my way. We already know that the Pill can increase a woman's risk of weight gain, high blood pressure, thrombosis, strokes and certain types of cancer. Long-term use has also been linked to fertility problems and loss of libido. Now researchers at the University of Boston, Massachusetts, tell us that this loss of desire can prove permanent. One scientist said that taking the Pill, "raises the possibility it is imprinting a woman for the rest of her life".

What a far cry this is from the brave new world of the Pill's inception, when proponents heralded the liberation of women from the tyranny of their own fertility - unwanted pregnancies and the stigma of single motherhood. But in snaffling up their prescriptions, women exchanged one position of ignorance for another, equally constricting.

Whereas before, too many females had little basic knowledge of sex and discussion was taboo, now the Pill was offered up as a modern panacea, with scant discussion of downsides or alternatives and little thought to the long-term consequences. As women became more educated about sex they became more ignorant about their own bodies and reproductive systems.

Knowledge of ovulation and the often subtle physical changes that indicate whether you are fertile became redundant information in the age of the Pill. And the fact that the Pill rendered millions of women vulnerable to STDs seemed to be overlooked by those who proclaimed the social benefits of neutering millions of fertile women.

And so for 40 years medics have handed out packs of pills like sweeties. When I was in my teens, I was never once offered any alternative advice. A friend of mine in her early twenties has had only a handful of periods since she her teenage anorexia. The doctor's solution? To implant a slow hormone-release device under her skin rather than investigate the vagaries of her uterus. Why waste good medical time and money on such complexities when you can quite simply turn off young women's ovaries and turn them into sex machines? Anything rather than rafts of careless pregnancies. Except Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe anyway and soaring STDs (many of which will destroy infected girls' fertility). I don't think you have to be a rocket scientist to feel that it might not be a good idea to take hormonally volatile creatures and then pump them full of artificial hormones. Would we do the same to a hundred million men with so little outrage and so few questions?

A small proportion of women on the Pill feel physically better for taking it, but a larger number shrug off potential problems on the grounds that the Pill is the most "convenient" way to bash their uterus into submission. And so women gamble their libido, their fertility, eventheir health, for a quick-fix solution. And that's before we count the devastating cost of high levels of oestrogen in our water to both wildlife and ourselves.

A friend of mine in television once solicited the following off-record comment froma female scientist, now dead, who helped devise the Pill: "I think that the contraceptive pill should never have been licensed."

Comments