Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Pill and the Crone Generation

On Mothers' Day the world will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the contraceptive birth control pill developed by doctors Gregory Pincus and John Rock at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, only a few miles from where I live.

Feminists in 1960 cited the pill as the most important discovery since fire. But for my generation, it turned out to be a mixed blessing, although it has saved countless women from dying after backstreet abortions and has helped families around the world stop having more children than they could feed or care for.

In 1963-64 when I was a 23-year-old graduate student at Columbia University in New York, I knew women with unwanted pregnancies who flew to Puerto Rico, got in a taxicab at the airport and asked the driver to take them to an illegal abortionist, where they would pay a lot of money for a procedure that took place in horrific conditions. (I know one who came back from Puerto Rico only to discover the baby was still growing inside her. She ultimately had it and put it up for adoption.)

When I started dating the man who is now my husband (40th anniversary coming up in September), I called the Columbia University health services and asked for the name of a gynecologist. They suggested a woman with a practice near Park Avenue on the East Side.

I went to see her and after she examined me, I asked for a prescription for the new birth control pills. (They were marketed as “Enovid”.) She wrote out the prescription and then asked me if I wanted her to do the blood test then and there.

“What blood test?” I asked.

“For your marriage license,” she replied.

I told her that I was not scheduled to be married. She stared at me, visibly shocked and disturbed, but said nothing and handed me the prescription. Embarrassed, I left and on the way out, I paid for my visit with a check. It was a small amount — something like ten dollars. As time passed and my bank statements came, I eventually realized that the doctor never cashed my check.

Thinking back, I decided that she may have feared that I was there undercover, testing to see if she would give the pill to a young woman who openly said she was not getting married. (I’m sure all her other patients lied.) Giving me the prescription may have been illegal or risking her medical license. I don’t know.

(I just looked it up and, sure enough, the pill was not legal or available for unmarried women until 1972. So I was a criminal in 1964—or my doctor was.]

Today, with birth control pills constantly advertised on television — citing them as good not only for birth control but also to cure acne and just about everything else — young women may not realize how difficult it once was to obtain any kind of birth control. (Now there are whole aisles in the drug store called “Family Planning!”)

My grandmother, who was married to a Presbyterian minister in Oklahoma Indian Territory, had two college degrees before 1900, but she also gave birth to nine children, the last one when she was 49 years old and had snow-white hair. My mother told me how her mother wept when she learned she was pregnant with the last two.

The birth control pill is definitely a great boon to womankind—even though it did not have the anticipated result of lowering divorce and eliminating all unwanted pregnancies, much less eliminating poverty and war. It has definitely given women more control over their own bodies and fate.

But those first birth control pills taken by my generation in the sixties had much higher levels of hormones than today’s pills (higher than was necessary, it turned out.) Those first pills caused blood clots, and some of the women who took them died. And though I don’t have medical expertise and am certainly not a doctor, I suspect that the breast cancer epidemic that has touched nearly every woman of my age in some way may be partly the result of the amounts of hormones we received during our fertile years from those first pills.

Why do I suspect the pill contributes to breast cancer? Because every time I go in for a mammogram I’m asked how many years I took it and which years they were.

So on the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the birth control pill, we can give thanks for the benefits it has brought to the world and to women in particular, but we should also stop to think of those pioneers who took the first birth control pill and did not survive to enjoy their crone-hood.


Susan said...

I have two strong memories of being an early birth control pill user.

My husband and I were being married two weeks after college graduation in 1963. I went to a doctor in our college town for my premarital exam a few months before the wedding. I got a prescription for the pill and believe it or not, sent it to my father-in-law-to-be, a pharmacist! He had told us to send any prescriptions to him and he would give us a discount. In those days especially it had to be awkward all around to be getting that particular prescription from him!

My mother always worried about the effects of the pill and sent me endless articles she read that talked about the risks involved. She probably had reason to worry, as the dosages were so much higher than today's pills. And I admit to emailing my kids articles that I want to be sure they read!

lactmama said...

I took the pill for menstrual pain, not married and given to me in the 60's by my physician dad in NY. Strange about the ban on unmarried women, I had not heard of it.

The big deal I remember was going to a nice old doc in the Village who would fit us for a diaphragm (having stopped the pill).

Notice with the mammo they may ask you how long you were on the pill but they do not ask how long you breastfed?? Doodah Doodah