Remembering The Pill

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26 Responses

  1. Jason Kuznicki says:

    Contraception is not a consumer choice — it is certainly not a “lifestyle choice.” It is, rather, an entire way of life, promising to the human being a second nature grafted technologically on top of (and repressing) one’s first nature.

    How does this differ from, say, the Internet? Or the automobile? Or antisepsis?Report

  2. nadezhda says:

    Whata ya mean “repressing one’s first nature”, white man?

    Lordy! The handwringing and romanticizing of a time before women could exercise some control over their reproductive lives is… what should I call it, misguided? uniformed? patronizing? sick?

    For all of womankind’s existence on this planet, sexuality and reproduction have been overlapping but far from equivalent aspects of identity and experience. And you know what, they still overlap. But thanks to the wonders of modern science, they overlap now in ways that give women more (here’s the scary word, so whisper it softly) choice about the entire structure of their brief existence in this vale of tears.

    I don’t have a clue what this is supposed to mean: “…the alternative of cultivation: that tenuous self-government that requires a long memory, and an acceptance of our dependence on others and our fragility within the world of creation”. That each of us has to grow up and, when given choices, learn to think seriously about them and take responsibility for what we choose, both as to how they affect ourselves and others? If so, then I hate to break it to the author, but that’s always been the case, even before the Pill or any other exotic technology that might make contraception more reliable. And it still is.

    Apparently, as we’ve lost all this wonderful cultural memory of our “first natures”, we’ve also lost any recollection of what it was like for our “first natures” to have to choose between total abstention and risk of preganancy, even within the confines of the sacrament of marriage.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to nadezhda says:


      You said it, sister. I wish for just a generation it could be men who bore children in their bodies. How the world would change!Report

      • @Jason Kuznicki, LOL. Indeed!

        But this whole nostalgia trip is more pernicious than the usual problem of clueless men pontificating on behalf of all humankind. I even see some younger women getting sucked into nostalgia wallowing who never experienced the “lost culture” they’re mourning. Lots of folks who bemoan the “new smorgasboard of life-style choices” when it comes to reproduction actually can’t imagine what it would mean, as a really day-to-day lived experience for themselves and their friends and families, to not have the choices that are now available. They take for granted gender relations that, while far from perfect, have been thoroughly transformed for the better in the past 5 decades. Take away reproductive choice, reclaim our “first natures”, and it’s back to the kitchen for you, baby doll. And that’s no joke.Report

  3. Nadezdha and Jason,

    I can’t speak for Jame Matthew Wilson (perhaps he will chime in here in the comments), but his writing has never struck me as patronizing or sick-minded. Nor do I see any indication that he is uninformed.

    Wilson is offering an account of what makes a life good. Rather than explain why that account is unconvincing to you, you have dismissed his argument with a series of labels. You have called him a nostalgist for reminding you of the nature whose abolition is the false fancy of our time. You have called him a chauvinist for arguing that men and women should have real, reasoned moral choice. Wilson’s vision of the good life may be repellent or compelling, but let’s debate that rather than accusing him of prejudiced habits of mind.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

      @Matthew Schmitz,

      Both nadezhda and I simply noted that Wilson’s writing is almost pure doubletalk. One should not be afraid to say it when it’s true. Wilson wants “real, reasoned moral choice”? He has it. Right now. I have no idea — literally no idea — what he’s complaining about.

      Adding a choice — like the pill — does nothing to the menu of choices you had before. You are still free to choose them if you like. What Wilson seems to be upset about, in plain language, is that others are no longer forced to choose exactly as he would prefer.

      A near-perfect analogy exists between his claims and the anti-anesthetic arguments of the nineteenth century. Suffering an unchosen situation, “cultivating” one’s personal character, is good. And technology is going to ruin it. It’s too bad we don’t have this form of suffering anymore.

      Easy to say when you’re not on the operating table.Report

      • Snell and Wilson make their point about choice in response to the observation by the Princeton Office of Population Research that, “the future lies instead with fool-proof contraceptives that require almost no thought or action.” Snell and Wilson observe — and I tend to agree with them — that this is a future in which choice, in a non-trivial sense, will have been reduced. Of course, there is another non-trivial sense in which it will have been increased. I do not think that by noting both I beomc guilty of doubletalk. I have merely noted one irony of history.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

          @Matthew Schmitz,

          Even on your own terms, then, the complaint fails. The biggest change we will see with the advent of “fool-proof contraceptives that require almost no thought or action” will be that fewer people will choose permanent sterilization.

          Those who are now using ordinary contraceptives won’t see much of a change — except that it might work a bit better — but those who might otherwise have chosen permanent sterilization will now have a choice that preserves fertility. You ought to be cheering, I’d think.Report

        • Cascadian in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

          @Matthew Schmitz, I fail to see how having something easy and reliable constitutes the lack of choice. If these lads want to take the Benedict option and join the Amish, godspeed.Report

        • Barry in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

          @Matthew Schmitz, “…that this is a future in which choice, in a non-trivial sense, will have been reduced. ”

          No. It will have been made easier.Report

    • @Matthew Schmitz, @Matthew Schmitz, I thought I’d made clear in my initial comments that I have significant substantive objections to the discussion you linked to. Apparently not. So I’ve elaborated below why I find it difficult to take the discussion seriously in the authors’ own terms.

      However, I have to take up what you seem to think the discussion is about. You appear to equate the “good life” (for whom and how it was better than life as is now possible for women is unclear) with the opportunity to make “real, reasoned, moral choices”. But pre-contraception sexual activity didn’t involve much freedom or opportunities for women to make morally responsible choices about sexual activity. Rather than a moral calculus of self-control being set against the power of sexual desire, the primary controlling element was fear — fear of pregnancy and its consequences, especially but not exclusively for the unmarried, of social and economic catastrophe.

      When we eliminate fear as a principal driver of or constraint on behavior, we’re actually enhancing our opportunity for meaningful personal moral action. And it’s that challenge — that we actually have to be responsible for our moral choices rather than have social structures dictate through punishments what is “moral” behavior — that so many folks yammering about a mythical lost “good life” seem to be so scared of.

      The challenge we face today is not that we are deluding ourselves with the “false fancy” that we’ve abolished hu(wo)man nature. The challenge is that we now have to be adults and learn to control our behavior through moral reasoning about our actions and their consequences, for ourselves and others, in a world characterized by the abundance of choice and fewer societal disciplines. Women no longer have the “luxury” of being controlled by fear in a world of limited opportunities that repressed much of womankind’s “first nature”. Which seems to me to be a move in the right direction toward a better definition of “good life”.Report

      • @nadezhda,

        If mere choice was what we valued, there would be no reason for hostility toward those who make one choice and urge their fellow citizens to do the same.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

          @Matthew Schmitz,

          I dunno. I have no problem using strong words toward people who hold beliefs I consider notably wrong. These people may of course continue believing what they do. That’s their choice. I’m not restricting their choice in the least, nor would I.

          But honoring the freedom of conscience requires also permitting me to think less of someone who calls me “mendacious” merely for thinking that the birth control pill was a really good thing for women, and by extension, for men.Report

          • @Jason Kuznicki,

            At no point did I call anyone in this argument “mendacious.” If I left the impression that that was my view, than I sincerely apologize.Report

            • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

              @Matthew Schmitz,

              You did not, but Wilson did:

              I would suggest that far from being of little or no consequence, the Pill has been one of the decisive transformative causes of our society from one of memory and cultivation to one of increasingly listless and dehumanized automata and the disingenuous rhetoric of choice. Those most likely to concede the scale of this transformation are usually those most likely to blurt the deluded language of “autonomy”; they admit the scope, but lie about its nature. So let us peer through the screens of evasion and mendaciousness for just a moment: in one half century contraception has shown itself to be perhaps the most various, unpredictable, and significant public event imaginable; its effects easily outstrip those of the spewing oil in the Gulf; indeed, the Pill’s radius of effect, in terms of range and variability, exceeds even that of the atomic bomb. Let us now return to the climate of our forgetting.

              As they say, I resemble those remarks.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                the Pill has been one of the decisive transformative causes of our society from one of memory and cultivation to one of increasingly listless and dehumanized automata and the disingenuous rhetoric of choice.

                And let’s not forget the Designated Hitter rule.Report

        • Cascadian in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

          @Matthew Schmitz, With the history of hostility around these matters, I see know reason why turn around isn’t fair play. Of course, there are better answers than nasty hostility:

        • Barry in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

          @Matthew Schmitz, Perhaps it’s because those people deploring contraception are the fellow travelers of those who not only deplore it, but are trying to restrict it.

          Additionally, most of the criticism (all?) is based on the fact that Wilson is pretty much straight up lying in his critique.Report

  4. nadezhda says:

    I’m typically sorry when I offend someone. But not this time. The fact that their discussions were triggered by the possibility of a new long-lasting contraceptive technology doesn’t alleviate the problems with their fuzzy, nostalgic handwringing that has au fond some pretty unsavoury assumptions about women and/or is inexcusably cavalier about how women’s lives have been transformed, taking both the good and bad together, dramatically for the better over the past 5 decades.

    First, with a more reliable technology (and reliability is the important benefit of a long-acting contraceptive), women will still have decision-points. They simply will have fewer of them over their lifetime. And btw, even if science could produce a contraceptive that’s effective for a decade at a time, it wouldn’t be chosen by most women in their child-bearing years — at least not until they’d decided their child-bearing was over. Women (and typically their partners) want more, not less, control over timing pregnancies.

    So let’s say the manufacturer offers a two-year option. During child-bearing years, a woman will have to make a serious, reasoned choice each time the contraceptive needs to be “renewed” as to whether pregnancy is an outcome she desires or at least is comfortable with. So it seems to me, there’s going to be more rather than less thoughtful moral reasoning (including taking into consideration the interests of her regular sexual partner if she has one) compared with decision-making at the moment of sexual intercourse (not the best time to be making careful decisions) or when she automatically pops a pill in her mouth in the morning as she half-asleep brushes her teeth.

    So any argument that long-term contraception somehow makes women less morally responsible falls apart on examination. It’s true that the technology has significant implications for the social structures which define the choices available and provide incentives and disincentives for certain types of behavior. But all that means is that we should be celebrating, not bemoaning, the fact that women have been liberated, not just sexually, but to be able to make more careful, thoughtful, reasoned moral choices that have profound implications for the entire structure of their lives (and I’d add for the lives of their partners).

    Both authors show an implicit nostalgia about a Golden Age of a culture that was somehow “better” because it had firmly fixed “moral anchors”. But it wasn’t a Golden Age — just ask any woman who came of age pre-Pill. And life pre-contraception — because it so radically restricted the choices, moral and otherwise, available to women — in fact “repressed” all of the “first nature” of womankind other than her nature as defined by her reproductive capacity. To argue otherwise seems to me, at best, misguided and patronizing.

    What the authors are rending their garments about is that pharmaceutical contraception (as distinct from condoms or diaphragms) separates for women the choices about the consequences of sexual activity from the choice to engage in a particular act of sexual intercourse. And this “represses our first nature” which, implicit in their reasoning, equates women’s sexuality with reproduction. Woman’s “first nature” is that she can’t engage in sexual pleasure without the concommitant risk (in many cases, in effect punishment or if you prefer, “consequences”) of pregnancy. And if she separates sexual pleasure from the possibility of punishment, then our culture loses its moral bearings.

    And that’s, to put it kindly, all stuff and nonsense.Report

  5. nadezhda says:

    @ Matthew Schmitz [I’d use the reply button, but it’s converting the entire comment into a link]

    You wrote: If mere choice was what we valued, there would be no reason for hostility toward those who make one choice and urge their fellow citizens to do the same.
    We’re not discussing a woman’s individual choice as to whether she should use a particular form of contraception or even no contraception. If you want to convice a woman she should eschew contraception in order to add “fear of pregnancy” to the other factors she should consider when deciding whether to engage in a particular act of sexual intercourse, be my guest. Undoubtedly, some women find the argument persuasive, hence the recent fashion in “virgin vows”. That’s their choice, and more will-power to them!

    But I was addressing the arguments used by the authors whose writings you endorse that the “contraceptive revolution” has produced a cultural collapse because it’s destroyed the possibility of exercising thoughtful, reasoned, responsible moral choice. I find that an absurd position and have argued why. Taking moral responsibility for one’s sexuality and reproduction is a whole lot more than to f**k or not to f**k.

    Your authors are conflating the structure of a woman’s entire life, and the moral choices she makes for herself and others, with her reproductive capacity. Or to use the lingo you quoted, woman’s “first nature” is defined and forever limited by the uncertainties of biology and all its social and economic implications for gender roles. And accordingly, we’re “repressing” our “first nature” if we take advantage of technology to separate the consequences of our sexual behavior (about which we must make thoughtful, morally responsible choices) from our reproductive choices (about which we must also be thoughtful and morally responsible). But as previously I explained, even before the Contraceptive Revolution, a woman’s sexual identity and experience overlapped with, but were not the same as, her reproductive biology. I find the poverty of imagination, and lack of empathy, displayed by equating a woman’s “first nature” with her reproductive capacity simply staggering.

    I guess that means that every new opportunity the post-Contraceptive Revolution has made possible for women, and every decision I’ve made (not always wisely, but usually fairly thoughtfully) over the course of the past some-odd decades about career and family and loving partnerships, was actually violating my “first nature”. Gee, I guess that means that everything I’ve done that wasn’t dicated by my reproductive biology wasn’t true to my “first nature” — wonder where that exotic stuff came from if not from my “nature”? Have I unknowingly adopted an artifical or ersatz “nature”? Who invented that ersatz nature – Satan? Or maybe it’s my bad nature that was able to flourish because my “first nature” was “repressed”. Seriously. Sounds absurd, right? But those are the ridiculous implications of the vocabulary and logic of the articles you’ve endorsed.

    And you think what I wrote was hostile and offensive?Report

  6. Barry says:

    I think a good analogy would be somebody bemoaning the decline of serfdom, and claiming that serfdom freed people to make more genuine moral choices.Report

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