I’m a feminist, and I am not in love with contraception.
The patch, shot, and especially the pill have been iconic of the feminist movement since the mid-twentieth century when the first hormonal contraception was developed by Margaret Sanger and a team of physicians in order to lift the burden of childbearing from women’s shoulders (and uteruses).
The development of the drug seismically changed our social reality by dividing sex from childbearing, allowing couples to enjoy sex without the responsibility of an ever-growing family. With such firm feminist backing, it’s easy to overlook the fact that contraception is a band-aid solution to the problems it claims to solve.
Feminism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Margaret Sanger and her team rightly understood that women’s biological reality – having children, usually in young adulthood – clashed with a world designed for men. With higher education and employment coinciding with childbearing years, women were compelled to choose between them. The socioeconomic landscape was and is a “man’s world” – designed for people whose biological reality does not include pregnancy and childbearing.
Since this was clearly a situation of inequality, feminists like Sanger were right to respond; however, we need to question the cause of this inequality and reconsider our solution to it. The dissimilarity between men’s and women’s biological realities constitutes a difference, but it is only when a society tailors its educational and work opportunities to men’s biological nature, to the degree that women are excluded, that inequality occurs. Therefore, there were two potential solutions to this situation: to change the way the society approaches work and education, or change women’s bodies. Both are extreme. Feminism chose the wrong answer – one that binds women’s liberation to technological access.
Functionally, the main problem with equating birth control and liberation is the “zombie apocalypse test” – if the developed world came to an end tomorrow, would contraception still be a viable solution to this inequality? Whether or not the zombie apocalypse happens by the weekend, it’s a relevant question because, for most of history (and in much of the world today), women faced the same social marginalization without the access to medical intervention that we enjoy. Does our equality depend on technology? If it does, it’s a shallow and superficial equality, revealed as such when we scratch the surface of our technological band-aid world: a band-aid solution indeed.
Philosophically, the problem goes deeper. How can we be pro-woman and want to medicate women’s biological reality away? To see women’s fertility as a liability rather than a strength, and to find it necessary to change women rather than changing the culture, is to be not only intolerably condescending but undeniably unfeminist. Most of all, believing that women need to medicate their bodies to gain equality means that that equality consists in being more like men, rather than being uniquely empowered as women.
This faux-feminist position promises women equality at the expense of their femininity, insisting that women can have it all only if they fix themselves with medical solutions. The foundational assumption that our bodies are tools to be manipulated, rather than components of our selves to be respected, ultimately pathologizes the healthy woman body. In this light, “band-aid solution” is too polite a term for the harm that birth control does to women.
Fortunately, there are more pro-woman ways to respond to this inequality.
The most necessary solution is to expect the society in which women live to reflect their inherent reality, rather than asking them to shape their biology to its economic constructions. A culture that does not allow women to bear children at a historically normal and biologically advantageous time of life is a culture that doesn’t allow women to be women and is therefore broken.
We should also revisit awareness-based family planning. Though dismissed by many as a primitive option, awareness-based fertility management – choosing when to have sex based on the normal times of fertility and infertility in the menstrual cycle – has an extremely high success rate when used correctly.
This method of planning pregnancies is phenomenally pro-woman: not only does it empower women through education rather than through medication (which is tied up with side effects, financial costs, and distribution challenges) but it also honors women’s biological reality by respecting the connection between sex and childbearing. Most importantly, it entrusts women’s reproductive health to the intelligence and discipline of women themselves rather than to profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies.
To reorder women’s bodies rather than the culture that discriminates against them shows either a lack of imagination that the culture could change, or a lack of conviction that women are worth the trouble. The wound that birth control inflicts on women is socioeconomic and it is unresolved, and we deserve better than a band-aid.
By: Kathleen Mawhinney
Photo: Get the Gloss
This article belongs to The Cadre’s opinion section. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of The Cadre.