Years before she founded Planned Parenthood, pioneering feminist Margaret Sanger dreamed of a “magic pill” that would put women in charge of their own fertility. As a visiting nurse in New York City’s tenements, Sanger saw women struggling with unwanted pregnancies, botched abortions, and more children than they could take care of, thanks to husbands who wouldn’t cooperate on birth control. A woman who relies on a man for birth control, Sanger wrote in 1920, is “exploited, driven and enslaved to his desires.” In the early 1950s, Sanger joined forces with philanthropist Katharine McCormick to coordinate the research program that would drag that magic pill into existence.
Sanger lived to see the 1960 launch of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive pill, and its success vindicated many of her hopes for women’s liberation. The pill ushered in a new era of educational and professional attainment for women. As a discreet, highly effective, and fully female-controlled form of birth control, the pill allowed women to plan their families, space their births, and even delay childbearing long enough to establish themselves in careers.
In her new book Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control, Holly Grigg-Spall offers what she calls a “feminist critique” of hormonal contraception. She argues that the so-called liberating force of the pill has been illusory. She claims that the pill keeps women in the thrall of patriarchal capitalism and destroys their health in the process. The addiction allusion in the title is not a metaphor—Grigg-Spall is convinced that the pill is an addictive drug.
It would be tempting to dismiss the author as an isolated crank, but she is part of a disturbing effort to reduce women to their biological functions in the name of feminism. Sexists have been trying to reduce women to incubators since time immemorial, but recently some self-proclaimed feminists have jumped on the bandwagon, arguing that true liberation means being left alone to experience feminine bodily functions like ovulation, childbirth, and breast-feeding in all their natural glory. To these “feminists,” tampons and epidurals are keeping women down. And now, the birth control pill is, too.
Grigg-Spall’s argument rests heavily on her own bad experience with Bayer’s Yasmin (which she blames for turning her into an emotional wreck) and comments on various websites dedicated to sharing pill horror stories. She indignantly anticipates that readers will dismiss these anecdotes: “I was sick, and then, I was well,” she writes. “That this is not enough evidence of the pill’s impact reveals so much about why women are encouraged to take this drug in the first place.” In other words, she accuses her critics of being sexist if they won’t accept her cherry-picked testimonials as proof that the pill harms all women.
Actually, there are good reasons to be suspicious of uncorroborated anecdotal evidence about the effects of drugs on our bodies. Millions of American women take the pill every day, so it’s a statistical certainty that some of them will have symptoms like depression, headaches, and weight gain, which are among the afflictions most commonly blamed on the pill. The only way to separate true side effects from coincidence, selective recall, and the power of suggestion is to conduct controlled clinical trials. Double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have not found modern birth control pills to cause more depression, headaches, or weight gain than a placebo.
There’s no question that some women experience side effects on the pill. Perhaps the best known and most serious of these is an increased risk of blood clots. The pill approximately doubles a woman’s risk of a blood clot, but her absolute risk remains low. On the pill, a woman’s annual risk of developing a clot rises from about 1 to 5 women out of 10,000 to 3 to 9 in 10,000. Bayer’s controversial Yaz and Yasmin pills probably push the risk of blood clots even higher (10 to 22 in 10,000). Even so, the risk of a blood clot on the pill is a fraction of the risk of a blood clot during pregnancy or the postpartum period. Are these acceptable risks? As a pill taker, they are to me, but every woman has to make up her own mind.
You might assume that women take the birth control pill for, well, birth control, but Grigg-Spall thinks she sees a more sinister agenda. “Women do not choose ... hormonal contraceptives because these things are necessary or convenient for them or because they consciously need or want to,” she asserts. Instead, according to the author, “Women are encouraged to suppress their monthly ovulatory cycle in order to not miss any days of work or so as they can remain sexually available or experience only one-note moods.”
Sweetening the Pill frames hormonal contraception as a societywide assault on ovulation and menstruation orchestrated by the capitalist system and its handmaidens in the medical establishment and feminism. Grigg-Spall ascribes the pill’s popularity to a misogynist culture that expresses its contempt for the female body by squelching its natural cycles with artificial hormones.
If capitalism, medicine, and feminism sound like strange bedfellows, that’s because they are. Grigg-Spall makes a series of seemingly contradictory claims about the capitalist-medical-feminist bloc that is supposedly bullying women into taking the pill: 1) The pill is popular because it turns women into emotionally stable and industrious workers who never miss a day of work or bleed on the shop floor and because the economy needs women’s “passivity, anxiety and emotionality.” 2) The pill is the modern-day equivalent of the 19th-century practice of “female castration,” which was used to desexualize women, and the pill is promoted as part of a feminist scheme to make women more alluring and available to men. 3) The pill kills female libido, and the pill fuels the supposed epidemic of sluttiness known as “raunch culture.”
Does the pill masculinize, ultrafeminize, or unsex women entirely? Grigg-Spall claims all of the above!