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December 13, 2010

Has The Pill Created A Fertility Crisis?

Oh New York magazine, you've done it again.

The Dec. 6, 2010 issue of New York includes an article (the cover story) entitled "Waking Up From The Pill". In it, Vanessa Grigoriadis covers the 50th anniversary of the oral contraceptive while completely condescending women and missing the point. She claims that The Pill may have inadvertently caused a fertility crisis, because having sexual freedom somehow disconnects women from their bodies (and apparently their brains?).

According to Ms. Grigoriadis, The Pill turns a woman's body into "an efficient little non-procreative machine" to which I would respond, well duh.  She wrote that The Pill's exactly 28-day cycle, is "a nice effect, but it’s not real. And there’s a cost to this illusion"... Why?

Apparently she believes that having control over our bodies makes us lose control of our bodies:
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.   [...]   
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. [emphasis mine]
Now, she does have a point, sort of. Women do have more problems conceiving as they get older and the Pill does make it easier to avoid having children earlier. But Grigoriadis is making a pretty big jump here to claim that The Pill is responsible for women's infertility (even if indirectly). There's a glaring disconnect in her argument - she seems to ignore the fact that women are making conscious decisions about their lives. The Pill didn't create the desire to prevent or delay procreation. It simply made it easier. The Pill - and other breakthroughs in contraception - gave women the opportunity to make a different choice for themselves than those previously handed to them by society. Today, advancements in the field of infertility medicine also give women an additional set of options.

Maybe the popularity of The Pill (and in turn, the delaying of procreation until later years) did help build up the infertility industry, but it's extremely condescending to claim that women haven't been aware of the so-called 'side effects' or consequence of their choices all along.

She blames feminism for keeping this "dangerous" secret and getting defensive when others dare to spill the beans:
And ironically, this most basic of women’s issues is one that traditional feminism has a very hard time processing—the notion that this freedom might have a cost is thought to be so dangerous it shouldn’t be mentioned. Earlier this decade, there was an outcry when the American Society for Reproductive Medicine commissioned an ad campaign on New York City buses featuring a baby bottle fashioned as an upside-down hourglass (around the same time, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist, made headlines with a suggestion that women would be better off having their kids in their twenties and entering the workforce a half-dozen or so years later). The National Organization for Women called the city bus ads a “scare campaign.” NOW’s president even wrote an editorial claiming that “women are, once again, made to feel anxious about their bodies and guilty about their choices.” [emphasis mine]
Sorry, but I'm with the president of NOW on that one. The original bus ads included four "risk factors" of infertility (smoking, STDs, weight, and age). Grigoriadis only quoted one line from NOW's then president Kim Gandy. Here's a little bit more of what she had to say, to put it in context:
Certainly women are well aware of the so-called biological clock. And I don't think we need any more pressure to have kids. [...] NOW commends the good doctors for attempting to educate women about their health, but we think they are going about it in the wrong way -- by blaming individual women and their behavior for a problem that is caused by many factors, some behavioral, but most not. The ASRM gets free publicity and women are, once again, made to feel anxious about their bodies and guilty about their choices.
There's the problem right there. It's not that women are ignorant about their bodies - although, okay, maybe some of them are - it's more about the way that the information about women's bodies is presented to them. For every woman who has had someone shame her for daring to not want children, there's the opposite side of the spectrum, where teenage girls are receiving sub-par sex education (or none at all). If there are women out there who are disconnected, detached, or uninformed about their bodies... it's not The Pill's fault.

More from Grigoriadis:
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.” [emphasis mine]
Wow.  From Sophia's anecdote I didn't get the impression that The Pill was taking away knowledge, but rather society was. The blame here, in my opinion, lies with the doctor who prescribed her The Pill in the first place (and every doctor she had since), the health teacher who gave her that misinformation, the school board who sanctioned that curriculum, and the parents who didn't educate her about her body. And the blame also somewhat lies on Sophia herself. The Pill didn't take anything away from her that she didn't have access to. You can't expect every teenage girl to care about getting the correct info about sex and reproduction (not unless they're, say, Shelby Knox) but she wasn't a teenager for all of those 14 years. The Pill didn't take away that knowledge, it only made it slightly unnecessary... but any young (or not so young) woman should know how her body works regardless.

Why aren't our schools giving our children an accurate and comprehensive science, health and sex education? Why aren't we all given copies of Our Bodies Ourselves at various stages of our lives? Why are we afraid to ask our doctors questions (or stand up to them - or get a second opinion - if they're not being straight with us)? Why don't we read the fine print when we go on a new medication? Of course, some of us do, but too many women do not. And that's not The Pill's fault.

And infertility is not The Pill's fault. Of course, tell that to Grigoriadis, who seems to think that all infertility is related to The Pill:
Consequently, a cult market has cropped up catering to women in the process of rediscovering their bodies when they go off the Pill. There are ovulation kits, though they carry a hefty price tag ($30 for a pack of seven tests, while Viagra is covered by health insurance—how revolting), and Whole Foods carries a set of plastic beads with colors that indicate when a woman is fertile and when not, called CycleBeads, a collaboration between a private company and Georgetown’s Institute for Reproductive Health. CycleBeads use a twelve-day “fertile window,” because even though an egg is able to be fertilized for only 24 hours, sperm can last up to five days inside a woman’s reproductive tract—though a more realistic estimate of a woman’s true fertility window is more like three days, certainly for women whose fertility is declining because of age. [emphasis mine]
Sorry, but not a single one of the items she mentioned above are solely for women who are "rediscovering their bodies when they go off the Pill". They are items for women who are having trouble conceiving (or merely anticipating the possibility of having trouble conceiving). It doesn't seem to dawn on Grigoriadis that sometimes young women have difficult conceiving; sometimes people are infertile for reasons unrelated to age; and not every woman who has put off procreating (purposefully or not) necessarily did so by using The Pill. She insists on making this connection, when really there are so many reasons why women might have fertility issues or might not be trying to get pregnant until later in life.

And she seems to believe that women have been tricked into taking The Pill... that we have been deceived or misled... that we are too stupid or too naive to understand what we're doing when we fill that prescription. And apparently, it's the fault of feminists? No, really. Not only are we keeping The Pill's evil secret, but apparently feminism is pro-ignorance all of a sudden:
Sexual freedom is a fantastic thing, worth paying a lot for. But it’s not anti-feminist to want to be clearer about exactly what is being paid. Anger, regret, repeated miscarriages, the financial strain of assisted reproductive technologies, and the inevitable damage to careers and relationships in one’s thirties and forties that all this involve deserve to be weighed and discussed. The next stage in feminism, in fact, may be to come to terms, without guilt trips or defensiveness, with issues like this.  

Choice is a more accurate word when the chooser—us—is aware of all the possible consequences of taking different possible paths. But reality has a hard time getting into these areas, let alone the Brave New World of infertility medicine. Women have certainly come a long way—and this, a sense of reality about these most fundamental of issues, may be the next stage. [emphasis mine]
And... fuck you Vanessa Grigoriadis. Way to turn feminism and choice and sexual freedom all around and twist them up and turn them into something to use against women.

I'm sorry, but this just rings way too similar to claims put forth by the American Life League's 'The Pill Kills' campaign (especially the 2009 claim that The Pill destroys relationships). Neither The Pill, nor sexual freedom causes anger, regret, repeated miscarriages, financial strain, or damage to careers and relationships.  It's so condescending to think that women need to be coddled and treated like innocent, stupid children. Oh golly gee, someone better tell me about the dangers of The Pill before I go ahead and fuck up my life, silly me! (This just smacks of the "informed consent" laws that people keep trying to pass in regards to abortion.)

No, it's not anti-feminist to want to be fully informed about the risks involved in various forms of contraception... but it's pretty damn anti-feminist to think that women are so clueless that we need someone to babysit us and make sure we get that information.  Or that we all even care about these so-called consequences.

Not every woman wants to have children. Not every woman who takes The Pill early in life necessarily is desperate to have a baby later in life. Not every woman will feel anger or regret about not procreating sooner (or at all). Not every woman who goes off The Pill will have difficulty conceiving. Not every woman who has difficulty conceiving will be deeply deeply heartbroken about it.  Not every woman who has difficulty conceiving will care enough to try assisted reproductive technologies. Not every woman who tries assisted reproductive technologies will experience financial strain if they do. Not every career or relationship will be damaged by the inability to procreate (or the choice to not).

Yes, they are all possibilities, but they are not inevitable, no matter what Grigoriadis suggests.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree entirely that the woman you are quoting has a very strange logic to her ideas about choice and the pill, and that linking it to fertility (as if women didn't INTEND to delay getting pregnant until their thirties or *gasp* never!).

BUT I am not a fan of the pill, and I do think women are not properly informed of its side-effects, and it is true that I didn't discover my own fertility cycle until going off the pill at the age of 25... because I didn't have to. The pill has a number of troubling, semi-permanent hormonal side-effects on women, from lowered muscle mass, lowered ability to achieve orgasm, intensified pms, and messed up fertility cycles for some time after going off the pill. And the only thing I was warned by my doctor when going on the pill was that it wasn't foolproof, so I should probably still use a condom too! Right.

That being said, the most important thing is still women's ability to choose. The pill allows that for a lot of women. The say that having the ability to choose is somehow detrimental.. what kind of strange agenda is this woman pushing? Terrifying. Should we all rather simply be forced to have children in our early twenties for our own good, just because we're physically more fertile? There's just nothing about it that makes sense!