Reconsidering the Pill

New York magazine has a surprisingly good article on the little-discussed consequences of the Pill that will have every Catholic woman wanting to yell “I TOLD YOU SO” at her computer. (Or was that just me?) After opening with a description of the Pill’s 50th anniversary gala earlier this year (and really, the details of that sad affair alone are worth the price of admission), the piece moves on to address what happens when women try to come off the Pill, after five, ten, even fifteen years on it:

The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them 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). Until the past couple of decades, even most die-hard feminists were still married at 25 and pregnant by 28, so they never had to deal with fertility problems, since a tiny percentage of women experience problems conceiving before the age of 28. Now many New York women have shifted their attempts at conception back about ten years. And the experience of trying to get pregnant at that age amounts to a new stage in women’s lives, a kind of second adolescence. For many, this passage into childbearing—a Gail Sheehy-esque one, with its own secrets and rituals—is as fraught a time as the one before was carefree.

Suddenly, one anxiety—Am I pregnant?—is replaced by another: Can I get pregnant? The days of gobbling down the Pill and running out to CVS at 3 a.m. for a pregnancy test recede in the distance, replaced by a new set of obsessions. The Pill didn’t create the field of infertility medicine, but it turned it into an enormous industry. Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect.

No one really talks about — or, frankly, much cares about — the specter of infertility down the road when the idea is to avoid pregnancy now. But for all its promises of liberation, women are beginning to chafe more and more at the idea of handing over control of their own bodies — this time not to “the man,” but to a pill:

[F]or the wheatgrass-and-yoga generation, there’s something about taking a pill every day that’s insulting to one’s sense of self, as an accomplished, adult woman. “I feel like I’ve gotten a message over the years that the less I have to do with the nitty-gritty biological stuff of being a woman, the better, and that’s a weird message,” says Sophia, 35, who was on the Pill for fourteen years. “In my ninth-grade health class, I remember the teacher saying, ‘You can get pregnant any day of the month, so always use protection,’ and I kind of knew that wasn’t true, but because I was on the Pill, I never really cared about finding out the right answer. The Pill takes a certain knowledge away from you, and that knowledge is empowering.”

The article goes on to talk about methods by which women are regaining that control: It describes the “fertility awareness method” in great detail — which every married Catholic woman will recognize simply as NFP under a different name. (Hear that, ladies? You’re cutting edge!)

I’ve long wondered about the kind of compartmentalization that goes on when a woman can choose to buy all-natural, hormone-free beef but won’t think twice about pumping her own body with unnatural levels of hormones daily, for years on end. It seems that that mentality is — thankfully — starting to change. And while this article itself (and our culture at large) is still largely pro-Pill, every small step women make toward understanding its drawbacks and seeking alternatives to its approach to fertility is an improvement.

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Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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