by Aymen Haroon
I distinctly remember my first ever encounter with the concept of birth control. I was in fifth grade and we were learning about Population in my Social Studies class. One of the sections stated: population control is a massive problem in Pakistan due to the lack of birth control used in rural areas. Even at the age of eleven, I knew there must be a solution that’s easy to implement: birth control methods; and Pakistan would be rid of so many problems. At that age, we learned that the reason birth control is not popular in rural areas is that it means fewer offspring available to help work and do manual labour.
What I didn’t understand then was the looming cloud of taboo, shame, patriarchy and politics attached to birth control. Pakistan is a heavily male-dominated country, with cherry-picked religious guidelines that mostly benefit men. I learned this as I grew older.
When I entered my freshman year of college in the U.S, I was under the impression that birth control here was the most basic concept. This was strengthened by the knowledge that my roommate had an IUD and that there are more than the above-mentioned forms of birth control. If an eighteen-year-old has an IUD then birth control here, in a first-world country, means something has been figured out and there is easy accessibility. Perhaps the absence of stigma contributed to this ease. I went through the next two years of college under this impression, till one of my close friends in my senior year told me she wanted to be sexually active but was hesitant as she did not want to risk pregnancy. I naively asked her why she didn’t get birth control pills, to which she responded it was because it is expensive and that she would have to get a prescription. This was shocking for me, so I decided it was time to take this extended issue into my own hands and educate myself about women’s health. It felt like it was my responsibility to know my body and the laws that pertained to it.
I went through the archives of Purdue Library, where I studied, to look for documents and papers in hopes to find ideas of birth control dated back to the 1970s and 80s. It made sense to dive in somewhat deep. I wanted to compare the idea of birth control then versus now. I found more similarities in birth control culture than I should have. We have not moved forward much in terms of women’s health and more particularly in birth control, because all those in charge of our bodies have been men for so long.
Some documents (given they are slightly old), were too amusing not to share:
“Plug to be tested for Birth control”. This was the headline of a newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune published in 1977, about 44 years ago. The article was more like an advertisement for a new IUD rather than helpful information. The language used in the article was sugar-coated-in sweet things making the IUD sound like a revolutionary, life-changing, non-issue invention. It called for women volunteers willing to try the ‘plug’. THE PLUG. The procedure was described as non-invasive, very simple with little to no risk to the patient. Women were painted as test subjects and in one tucked away sentence, it even pointed out that this plug has worked on baboons and should work on women as well.
Dr. James Marion Sims was named the father of gynaecology. THE FATHER of gynaecology. He is said to have played a big role in the revolution of gynaecological tools and surgery, but let’s not forget, he practised and experimented on enslaved black women, many of which died under his care.
It’s quite convenient that there are no invasive devices that can be used on men, who should be equally responsible for birth control and family planning. A vasectomy is nearly 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and costs A LOT less than the cost of female sterilization, or even the long term cost of birth control medications for women. It’s also a low-risk surgery.
Another statement that stood out in an article:
“Women who have had children and think their family is complete.”
Birth control was and is still preferentially advertised to married women whereas it should be an option for anyone who takes ownership of their body and has the agency to do what they want with it. Why can you buy condoms at the corner store? There is no stigma attached to buying condoms, you don’t need a prescription, and you get the nod of approval. In Rome, you can buy them in vending machines. Condom advertisements are overly sexualized, which is a massive pandemic of its own. The disparity is very drastic and evident. This diminishes a woman’s sense of control of her own body and may make her think twice before being sexually active.
Another newspaper article from Newsday in mid-1979 was titled “Contraceptive tied to Cancer”. The article highlighted the case of Depo-Provera, a contraceptive injection made of man-made progesterone that was linked to cancer in beagles during the testing phase. As many of 200,000 women in the United States had access to Depo-Provera by prescription from their doctors or by family planning clinics. There was an ongoing battle for the ability of Upjohn, the company that owned Depo-Provera, to make the product available in the market as a form of contraceptive.
I am inclined to think that if this was the case and the drug affected men, they would not even think twice about taking it off the market. There has been an ongoing conversation for a male oral contraceptive to come to market but it hasn’t because it causes some of the side effects that women have already been dealing with because of oral contraceptives for years. The article even went on to suggest that the policymakers are not yet ready to put men through any kind of inconvenience in regards to birth control but are comfortable with the talk of cancer-causing contraceptives for women.
It is a shame that we continue to work on birth control methods for women and do not put in an equal amount of effort for birth control for men. This inequality is very revealing of the need for equality for women in every aspect of life. We have still not moved forward in the last forty years.