You might think that contraception is beyond the scope of this blog, which is after all focussed on becoming a parent. But contraception is in part about being able to decide when you become a parent and so I feel like I at least get to wander into that topic from time to time. This column on the NYT website today is such a time.
It’s about the pill–which is to say oral contraceptives. My students are often (always?) surprised to realize that fifty years ago it was illegal to use the pill in many places. Even if you were married. Not until 1965 in Griswold vs. Connecticut did the Supreme Court rule that a married couple could not be prosecuted for using contraceptives. (Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising–after all the US Constitution certainly doesn’t talk about birth control and, as I’ve said before, it doesn’t talk about marriage either.)
Anyway, even if you think we’re making great strides towards gender neutrality in our lives, ready access to birth control is of particular importance to women. You can say that men and women are both affected when conception occurs but the stark reality in many cases is that the effects are different. Oral contraceptives were (and are) particularly important to women because they are reliable means of contraception that can be effectively employed by the woman without necessary participation from her male partner.
The article in the Times points out that:
“by allowing women to delay marriage and childbearing, the pill has also helped them invest in their skills and education, join the work force in greater numbers, move into higher-status and better-paying professions and make more money over all.”
You could think about it this way: Without reliable access to contraception women had to choose between engaging in sex (with the concomitant risk of pregnancy) and developing their careers. (At the very least, pregnancy made (and still makes) embarking on a career more difficult.) Without meaning to portray women as sex fiends particularly, many women faced with this choice started families. That was what young women were supposed to do anyway.
There’s another critical point mentioned in the essay.
By decoupling sex from marriage, young people were able to put off getting married and spend more time shopping around for a prospective partner.
Not only is sex decoupled from marriage, sex is decoupled from procreation. Add the developments in ART, you can have procreation without sex as well as sex without procreation. This has lead to vast changes in how we think about who is a parent–and you see, I’ve made it come round to my topic.
Today people engage in sex without becoming parents and people become parents without engaging in sex. It’s this decoupling that opens up the field so that we can (and have to) discuss who counts as a parent and why.
Apart from all this I’d really recommend taking a few moments to read the NYT essay. I know that not everyone will think the developments outlined there are positive, but there’s certainly food for thought.