The birth control pill turned 50 years old last month. This marked a milestone in the world of contraception — for women, sexuality and reproductive health and family planning.
Of course, women have always had a ways of preventing pregnancy. In 1500 B.C., Egyptians used a mixture of ground dates, acacia bark and honey to create a spermicidal product, and crocodile dung for an anti-pregnancy suppository. In 1839, the Charles Goodyear company put its rubber to the road (less literally), creating a vulcanized rubber condom. In 1917 Margaret Sanger, the mother of birth control and Planned Parenthood of America, teamed up with moneybags Katherine Dexter McCormick to fund research biologists Gregory Pincus and John Rock to develop the dream, a magic “pill.” Today, contraception has a closet full of clothes, including shots, IUD implants, vaginal rings, diaphragms, patches, pills and, of course, the main staple — the condom.
For centuries, however, various groups have battled against contraception. In her article “Masters of the Uterus,” Elizabeth Gettlemen describes how the controversy started in 1727, when author Daniel Defoe compared contraception to infanticide. Contraception took another hit in the mouth in 1873, when an insecure postal inspector named Anthony Comstock crusaded against birth control by labeling it “obscenity.” The Comstock Act that followed prohibited mailing contraceptives or information about them.
This was not reversed for nearly 100 years, in 1965. In 1930, Pope Pius XI deemed all contraception a grave sin — a ban which is still in place today.
U.S. presidents in the past 30 years have also crusaded against contraception. In 1986, Ronald Reagan rejected Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s recommendation to expand sex education and have a countrywide condom PR push. Clinton’s Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was derided for advocating family planning, then released from her position for a comment about masturbation — which in my loud opinion was taken way out of context. Bush reinstated the gag rule, spearheaded abstinence-only education and increased birth control costs on college campuses by 400 to 500 percent.
When Obama reversed the gag rule and included stimulus money for family planning, Rush Limbaugh suggested putting pictures of Nancy Pelosi in every cheap motel room to keep birth rates down. If he’s going to make such comments, he might as well take the heat and offer hotels thoroughly unappetizing head shots of himself.
In a world where contraception is pitted against procreation, we are lucky to have several superwomen standing by. Gloria Steinem gloriously states, “Sexuality is not only a way we procreate but also a way we communicate and express love and caring and community.”
Nancy Gibbs of Time magazine shows how the pill allows women to maintain jobs without the fear of having to quit due to pregnancy. More women in college and careers means mom-hood comes later in life, leading to a decrease in population growth — not a bad thing in a world starving for resources!
That said, overpopulation is not the primary issue plaguing our country. Our colossal carbon footprint comes from overconsumption, the devil of the developed world. With more women working, there is a general increase in productivity and economic growth. More money made means more money spent — hence a greater capacity for overconsumption.
Unfortunately, our global carbon footprint suffers either way. Birth control curbs unwanted pregnancies and excessive population growth. Yet too much contraception can mean a greater quality of life and the tendency to over-consume.
Contraception clearly has a tenuous place in society. It symbolizes sexual and reproductive freedom, steeped in religious controversy. It manifests economic and educational empowerment of women, underlined by the irony that more productivity can lead to overconsumption.
The answer is not to eliminate or reduce contraception. It’s to walk on our planet with greater respect for all beings. So roll up your sleeves, sing happy birthday to the pill, and make a wish that the second half of life’s roller coaster is just as joyous a ride as the first.
Jenni Skyler, PhD, is a sex therapist and board-certified sexologist. She runs The Intimacy Institute in Boulder, www.theintimacyinstitute.org.