A sweet pill

In: Uncategorized

6 May 2010

I was puzzled to come across numerous articles, including a cover story in Time magazine, about the 50th anniversary of the contraceptive pill as I thought it had already happened several years ago. It turns out that 50 years ago this month America’s Food and Drug Administration did approve the pill. However, the 50th anniversary of the first synthesis of an oral contraceptive by Carl Djerassi was back in 2001.

Either way the pill is an extremely important invention. Whether it is the single most important invention of the twentieth century, as the Economist argued in its Millenium issue in 1999 , is open to debate. There is intense competition for the title.

The pill is an exemplar of the notion of mastery over nature. It gives women far more control over their fertility than was possible before it was invented.

In a world where modern contraception is ubiquitous it is easy to take it for granted. To remember what life used to be like for women it is instructive to look back at the past. Richard Titmuss, a British social researcher, writing in 1966 painted a vivid picture of what life what like for most women before modern reproductive technology became available:

“The typical working class mother of the 1890’s, married in her teens or early twenties and experiencing ten pregnancies, spent about fifteen years in a state of pregnancy and in nursing a child for the first years of its life. She was tied, for this period of time, to the wheel of childbearing. Today, for the typical mother, the time so spent would be about four years. A reduction of such magnitude in only two generations in the time devoted to childbearing represents nothing less than a revolutionary enlargement in the freedom of women”

Admittedly many Malhtusians are also enthusiastic about the pill. Their concern is not the freedom of women but limiting the global population.

However, the fact that Malthusians are keen on the technology should not put others off from supporting it. Our goal should be to give women more control over their fertility. That should include the possibility of having few or no children as well as the freedom to have many children if they so wish.

Technology can play a liberating role in giving women control over their fertility but it needs to be complemented with a struggle for political freedom.