Fifty years ago this June, the Food and Drug Administration granted approval to the birth-control pill. Because the FDA had announced on May 9, 1960, that it intended to approve the drug, and because May 9 conveniently fell on Mother's Day this year, The Pill's celebrants seized on Mother's Day to mark The Pill's anniversary. In contrast to the perfect timing that links a drug to prevent motherhood with a holiday celebrating it is the bad timing that witnesses The Pill's 50th anniversary coinciding with a study whose findings suggest birth-control pills have worked better in theory than in practice.
The Pew Research Center's "New Demography of American Motherhood" survey reports the disturbing statistic that 41 percent of American babies enter life without their parents united in marriage. In 1960, when the FDA approved The Pill, just one in twenty births occurred to unmarried parents. Fifty years of The Pill has counter-intuitively resulted in more unplanned pregnancies, rather than less.
Just don't tell that to retreads still fighting the sexual revolution. Upon The Pill's half-century mark, its partisans continue to read from a five-decades-old script that has been exposed as fiction in the intervening years.
"Critics warned that The Pill would spawn generations of loose, immoral women; what it spawned was generations of empowered women who are better equipped to make rational choices about their lives," explained Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founder of Ms. magazine, in a CNN.com symposium on the anniversary. She continued, "Since wanted children are often better cared for than unwanted children it meant that more kids were wanted, grew up healthy, supported, and loved." Playboy's Hugh Hefner contended that The Pill "separated sex and procreation and gave women control over their bodies."
Did they miss the last fifty years?
The Pill was going to eradicate abortion, illegitimacy, and divorce. All of these social ills exploded in The Pill's wake, as did several venereal diseases unknown when the FDA approved The Pill. Certainly, as countless testimonies note, The Pill enabled individual women to plan pregnancies, pursue careers, and enjoy more sex. Who's to gainsay the belief of many American that The Pill did indeed improve their lives? But from the standpoint of reproductive responsibility, The Pill has been, in aggregate, a disaster.
Like so many social panaceas, The Pill unleashed a slew of unintended consequences. More so than Playboy, The Kinsey Reports, Roe v. Wade, or any other postwar development, The Pill offered the Faustian bargain of more sex, fewer children; more partners, less heartbreak; promiscuity without disease. But rather than the theoretic dreamworld for women, The Pill has spawned an adolescent male's fantasy made real: easy sex, pleasure minus the responsibility, and the cad replacing the gentleman as the social ideal.
The Pill provoked men and women to partake in an act of permanent consequences with the most transient of acquaintances. The result, predictably, was generations of children unwanted by their parents, who in many cases demonstrated this sad reality by abandoning or aborting them. The Pill reduced a serious act to frivolity.
When surveyed on why they had children, 51 percent of women responded to Pew: "It wasn't a decision; it just happened." In other words, The Pill may have thwarted nature but it did not repeal human nature. Unlike The Pill, which performs close to perfection in laboratory studies, people living in the real world remained imperfect, prone to temptation, and sometimes unable to weigh instant gratification with long-term consequences. And even the champions of contraception admit shortcomings. According to the Planned Parenthood spinoff, the Guttmacher Institute, "Fifty-four percent of women who have abortions had used a contraceptive method (usually the condom or the pill) during the month they became pregnant."
Further complicating The Pill's legacy is the dramatic rise in births among older women -- aided by fertility rather than anti-fertility drugs -- that the Pew survey documents. Since 1990, Pew notes that births to women 35 and older jumped from 9 percent to 14 percent. Ironically, birth control delaying pregnancy, or unleashing promiscuity leading to infertility, has more women reaching for pills working at cross purposes from The Pill.