Ph.D. Octopus

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Irresponsible Journalistic Endeavors and the Pill

with 3 comments

by Luce

A quick post to draw everyone’s attention to an absurd essay in New York Mag by Vanessa Grigoriadis on the Pill, which she claims has

“allowed [women] to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women’s lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened).

Grigoriadis is skeptical of all these celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Pill. Weirdly the way she tries to detract attention away from the importance of the Pill and to question whether we should take so laudatory a stance of its impact on women’s lives, ends up giving the Pill too much significance in having determined the course of women’s reproductive lives today.

But before I get into that, a quick corrective to her assertion that “the whole point of the Pill from the beginning has been population control. Even though America was consuming more than 50 percent of the world’s resources in the late fifties (with 6 percent of the world’s population), eugenicist fears of the developing world’s excessive procreation ran rampant during the Cold War.”

While population control and eugenics are without a doubt part of the Pill’s history, Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormack approached Gregory Pincus at the Worcester Institute also in order to give more power to women to control reproduction. As books such as Lara Marks’s Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill, Adele Clark’s Disciplining Reproduction, and Andrea Tone’s Devices and Desires show, birth control has been about intention and planning, for bureaucrats and your everyday women and men alike,  for many many years now. Oddly Grigoriadis cites Tone’s book to support her claim that the Pill was all about population control, and even discusses the various methods and contraceptives developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to prevent reproduction; yet this evidence of a long history of reproductive planning plays no part in her final argument about the impact of the Pill on women’s reproductive lives. She essentially argues that the Pill has allowed women to “forget” to reproduce in their 20s, hoodwinking them only to have them discover in their mid-30s that they no longer can. Then they’ll have to rely on [gasp!] new reproductive technologies: frozen sperm and eggs, IVFs, surrogate mothers:

That may be the world to which many are heading—even more medicalized and technologized, where all women freeze their eggs and submit to assisted reproductive technologies, and with it, more complicated choices and questions that bioethecists love to hash over. Even Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the Pill (before he became a Stanford professor, playwright, and sci-fi novelist), has suggested that all forms of birth control will eventually become obsolete and the Pill “will end up in a museum.” In his imaginings, girls and boys will deposit their eggs and sperm in a reproductive bank to be frozen at 20 or so and then get sterilized. They’ll want to do this because genetic diagnoses of embryos will become increasingly sophisticated, and no one will want to risk having a child with birth defects, let alone a child of an unpreferred gender or one predisposed to a hairy back. When these people want to have children, either one or six, at 30 or 60 years old, they’ll make a withdrawal from the bank.

Grigoriadis’s article drips with technological determinism and implicit cyborg nightmares. It bifurcates reproduction into the natural and the unnatural and hearkens back to a 1980s feminist narrative of medical and technological nightmares: women being taken over by mad scientists and madder science. It’s a “just say no” attitude that’s really silly when you get down to it and consider the way that technologies can be utilized by women to achieve greater agency and control in their lives. Women should obviously be aware of the effect of any drug on their body, and there is plenty to say about the type of information fed to women by pharma and reproductive clinics, but my generation is not unaware of health risks, particularly of the Pill, and in fact I don’t think the Pill plays nearly as large a role for my generation as it did for many of our mothers. Women are more likely to go on and off the Pill today depending on sexual patterns and partners, and condoms play a major role (likely more prevalent than for the generation above) because of multiple bedmates and STDs. First time users of the Pill are aware of the impact of the drug on the body — discussions of weight gain or mood swings and concerns about long-term impact were prevalent in college. And the “tick tick” of the biological clock is a trope that has never left our culture (and in fact has likely more recently entered it as women have put off pregnancy).

The Pill is not THE cause for women pushing off pregnancy into their 30s, and if the Pill were to disappear tomorrow, it would do little to change this reproductive trend (in part because there are plenty of other technologies to fill the Pill’s role, but also because there is a desire to be able to plan pregnancy). Career and waiting for the right partner were the reasons that women went on the Pill in the 1960s and 1970s and these are still the primary reasons many women will wait until their 30s to have children, even though there are fertility risks in doing so. Yes, the Pill isn’t a necessary good, and assisted reproductive technologies have their pitfalls and are not guaranteed to succeed. There is a lot to be analyzed in terms of the impact of assisted reproductive technologies on women, health, family units, kinship, and society, but in response to the fear-mongering tone Grigoriadis takes, it’s worth taking a moment to contemplate their potential and wonder, allowing the infertile and those seeking to build alternative families and family structures to do so.

Listen, I’m all for treating our bodies well and I’m all for women seriously considering what they want their reproductive life course to look like (as we should seriously consider all major life decisions…?) but to propose that some constructed natural/artificial or human/technology divide is the grounds on which to impugn the Pill… is that really going to hold up in our increasingly biomedical age? And are those really the grounds on which you want to suggest that a young woman reconsider her use of the Pill?

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Written by Kristen Loveland

November 30, 2010 at 21:22

3 Responses

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  1. In case it’s not obvious, I should note that the above is neither a full nor blind endorsement of the Pill. Great followup from Amanda Marcotte at Slate’s XXFactor: http://www.doublex.com/blog/xxfactor/nothing-natural.

    luce

    December 1, 2010 at 10:48

  2. […] man. While the field has moved very far away from any technological determinism (even if certain journalists haven’t), it’s always nice to read E.P. Thompson who gets angry as he denounces those […]

  3. […] quite capture Grigoradis’s story. Let me know what you think of one of the following instead: sensationalistic, outlandish, insupportable. 4. In every era, there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of […]


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