The Pill at 50

BARBARA KAY

When Mother’s Day was invented just over 100 years ago, early and multiple motherhood was the near-universal destiny of most women. That all changed 50 years ago with the invention of “the Pill,” as oral birth control soon became known.

In 1961, 400,000 women used it. Today 100 million women pop that little magic pellet into their mouths to start their day, confident they won't get pregnant no matter where their fancy leads them.

Contraception didn't begin with the Pill. But real sexual freedom did. Pre-Pill contraception was messy, risky, cumbersome and anti-romantic. By automating and distancing safe readiness for spontaneous sex from the act itself, women felt truly liberated from nature's implacable laws.

Everyone agrees that the Pill coincided with, and arguably caused, the greatest paradigm shift in relations between the sexes in all of human history. Societies in which the Pill is freely available are so different from pre-Pill days in so many ways that we have hardly even begun to take the honest cultural measure of what has been gained and what has been lost in the transition.

At the heart of the debate between those who think the Pill is woman's best friend and those who think it is society's worst enemy is the Pill's cultural separation of sex from procreation. In the West the Pill has undeniably diminished marriage as the social institution that has governed men's and women's sexuality for all of recorded human history (and still does for billions). Men and women always had sex outside marriage, but never with honour before the Pill removed all social stigmas against premarital, promiscuous sex. (If anyone is stigmatized today, it is those who still see marriage as the primary conduit for sexual activity.)

Are women happier today than they were before the Pill? They should be, but, according to a 2009 study in the American Economic Journal, "The paradox of declining female happiness," "[W]omen's happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men [over the past 35 years] .... and [the decline] is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries."

How can an innovation so liberating in principle not have resulted in expanded happiness for its targeted demographic? I found a provocative answer to that question in an analysis of the Pill's influence by Denver economist Timothy Reichart in the May issue of First Things magazine.

As an economist, Reichart thinks in the language of marketplaces. His most pertinent and helpful observation is that there used to be only a "marriage market" for both men and women, to which all their sexual thinking was directed, and in which sex and morality were inextricably linked. Reliable contraception, however, created a separate, morality-neutral "sexual market," which all young men and women now feel bound to explore before marriage, resulting in a decline in the marriage market and therefore a decline in women's and children's well-being.

In the marriage market, the costs and benefits are equally divided between men and women. But in the sex market, while young women flourish for a while, men's benefits eventually rise and women's fall. That's because women in their thirties defer to their biological clocks and actively seek to enter the marriage market, while men have no such constraints.

Only one institution stood, and stands, foursquare against the Pill.

So, forced by their biological clocks (one of nature's few remaining trump cards in the battle between technology and natural law), women leave a market where they had bargaining power to enter a market of male scarcity, where marriage-minded women are in oversupply. The competition for available men is intense, which results in women striking bad deals at the margins in order to satisfy their need for children. Reichart argues that such marriages, embarked on with a lower level of commitment than pre-Pill days, leave little wiggle room for disappointment, which, coupled with greater opportunity for infidelity, especially for men (women in the sex market like older men), in turn produces higher divorce rates. All observers agree that divorce hurts women and children more than it does men.

Only one institution stood, and stands, foursquare against the Pill. The Roman Catholic Church predicted that foolproof contraception would lead to the classic "tragedy of the commons": family breakdown, the early sexualization of children, rampant abortion and women's disinvestment from the home.

But, as the old saying goes, being right won't make you president. Women (even the majority of Catholic women) will not live their individual lives to serve "the commons."

Mother's Day ain't what it used to be and never will be again.

 



 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Barbara Kay "The Pill at 50." National Post, (Canada) 4 May, 2010.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Barbara Kay, and the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Barbara Kay is a Montreal-based writer. She has been a Comment page columnist (Wednesdays) in the National Post since September, 2003. She may be reached here.

Copyright © 2010 National Post




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