Thursday, May 6, 2010

Happy 50th to The Pill!

Happy birthday to The Pill, and many happy returns!

Last night, by some unusual instance of cosmic alignment that comes around about as often as Haley's Comet, I actually saw the nightly news, during which Brian Williams informed us that The Pill turns 50 this month.

Which, to give a cultural point of comparison, makes those tiny doses of hormones roughly the same age as the home economics textbooks, so frequently forwarded as email jokes, that told young wives, "No matter what happened today, his day was far more stressful than yours," and urging the young Mrs. to be ready for Darling's return from the office with "touched up lipstick, a freshly mixed martini, bathed, happy children and his slippers."

I started to think that the little white dial packs, which my friends and I grew up taking for granted, truly did change the world more than most of us ever realized when we skulked into health services at school seeking prescriptions behind our parents' backs.

Simply put, I cannot conceive of a world where men could exercise virtually absolute power regarding when and how often women would become pregnant. There are women reading this rolling their eyes and saying, "There are other methods!" and "I'd never let my guy tell me what to do with my body."

Not so fast. Ever consider whether your grandmother and her friends from bridge club actually wanted a new bundle of joy every year for a decade? Especially during a time when child rearing fell almost exclusively to the mother. Some did, for sure, but I'm equally certain most did not.

The Pill (more than any other breakthrough in my humble opinion) allowed women to change an ancient dynamic. Marriage no longer meant the automatic and immediate sacrifice of a woman's own ambitions to her mate's. Equally importantly, she could have some say in the spacing of her brood once she decided she was ready for the tremendous but exhausting adventure of Mommyhood.

I'm getting older and no longer fit the ideal demographic for Pill taking, so why am I on my soapbox about it?

Because I'm afraid that in our socially polarized republic, even with a progressive president installed in the White House, the right of women to control their own bodies is under threat.

If we allow, as we do in parts of this vast country, pharmacists to decide which prescriptions they will honor; or physicians to lie to their patients regarding the results of prenatal tests; or school boards to write curriculums that mislead children about sex, or worse, reinforce the notion that a girl's entire worth is tied to her virginity; then it's not a stretch to think that, especially in some backwaters of America, access to female controlled contraception could come into question.

I'm not saying that I expect The Pill to become illegal, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear about new hoops for women to jump through in order to get their hands on it every month.

Which is completely backward for many reasons, especially if you consider the alarming teen pregnancy rate in this country. If we made it easier for teens to get The Pill, we'd take the onus for birth control off of hormone crazed 17-year-old boys, half of whom didn't pay attention when their health teachers wrangled a condom onto a cucumber, and half of whom are just too horny to care. I find it hard to imagine that giving teenage girls The Pill could in any way increase teen pregnancies, but that's what more than one school board in America would have us believe.

And that's only one hurdle. Even if a young girl can get the prescription, in many places she will still need to find the funds to fill it.

In most states, health insurance doesn't have to cover contraceptives for anyone. Congress has taken up that issue at least three or four times, but refused to correct the travesty. Does anyone really wonder if the result would be different if we had more female than male representatives?

So it's a bittersweet anniversary: we should look proudly at how far we've come, only if we also pause to consider how far we still need to go.

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