Hard to swallow

PBS's 'The Pill'

Last month, as part of the highly regarded American Experience series, PBS stations across the country aired The Pill, a documentary history of the invention of the first effective oral contraceptive. Written and directed by Chana Gazit, a self-described member of the "pill generation," the show chronicles the successful crusade for the birth-control pill. It combined interviews with several noted historians of the birth-control movement, archival images and voices of advocates and opponents of the pill, and personal reflections by baby-boom women who came of age during the 1960s and l970s.

Although the story of the birth-control pill has been told more than once, it’s probably a good time to take another look. More than forty years have passed since the FDA approved oral contraceptives. Public controversy over the pill’s use is over. Indeed, the pill itself may be on its way out. In what the Wall Street Journal recently described as the biggest change in birth control since the advent of the pill, drug companies are rolling out a new generation of hormonal patches, rings, injections, and morning-after pills, all designed to make birth control more "hassle-free." Today especially, as Americans face the prospect of the total bioengineering of human reproduction, it is useful to reflect on how and when it all began.

Regrettably, though, The Pill missed the opportunity to provide insight or perspective. It was slippery on the facts, barren of nuance, and suspiciously selective in its treatment of the historical record. Consider a few telling examples:

In one interview, Andrew Sanger, grandson of birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger, explained that his grandmother’s sense of mission came from the fact that her own mother had eighteen pregnancies, eleven children, and seven miscarriages. According to Sanger, this experience was "not uncommon in nineteenth-century America." Neither was it common. The birth rate among white couples dropped sharply during the nineteenth century, from an average of 7.04 children in 1800 to 3.56 in 1900. What’s more, 80 percent of that decline occurred before 1880. Thus, Margaret Sanger’s mother, whose eighteen pregnancies occurred during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, hardly typifies women’s experience at that time as Andrew Sanger suggests.

If the show exaggerates the burdens of pregnancy in the mid-nineteenth century, it overstates the burdens of married sex in the mid-twentieth century. The filmmaker relentlessly portrays marriage as a commitment that young women wandered into mindlessly and joylessly, without any knowledge or experience of sex. As one of the baby-boom women puts it, "In the 1950s, one was supposed to go from absolute celibacy...to full-blown wonderful blossoming sexuality with one’s husband." As a statement of prevailing norms, this characterization may not be entirely off base, but a description of norms isn’t a description of actual behavior. After all, norms weren’t always observed. And the available evidence on behavior suggests that more than a few engaged couples at that time had sex before marriage and actually continued to enjoy it afterward.

The program attributes the postwar boom in birth rates to Catholic women: "the Mrs. Murphy or Mrs. O’Shaughnessy or Mrs. Krupnik, whoever she is in your parish, who shows up on Sunday morning with ten children." This is a distortion, willful or otherwise. Yes, the birth rate for Catholic women was modestly higher than it was for other women. But this difference was hardly enough to create the surge in births. That was a pervasive pattern and was driven, not by Catholic injunctions but by a widely shared embrace of peace, prosperity, and family life after the turbulent years of Depression and war. In those days, bigger families were a result of national optimism, social confidence, and rising economic equality, not orders from the Vatican.

In fact, what The Pill conveys is not so much a true history of the oral contraceptive as a popular mythology of sixties feminism. Its plot line is the political struggle against the forces of patriarchy and traditionalism. Its characters divide into familiar camps: On one side, a handful of heroes. On the other, institutional villains. On one side, women struggling for their right to control their reproductive lives. On the other side, men fighting to hang on to their power over women. Similarly, the two decades in this tale are stark opposites. On one side, the dark ages of the 1950s. On the other side, the enlightened spirit of the 1960s. Cast as the archenemy in this tale is the Catholic Church-its laity as well as its hierarchy.

Thus, the film portrays Catholic women as unable to think for themselves, as mindless baby machines programmed by the Vatican. Indeed, The Pill comes perilously close to resurrecting early twentieth-century nativist views of Catholic women as "breeders" and even evokes some of the more recent and similar stereotypes of poor welfare mothers.

It also depicts Catholic opinion on birth control as monolithic. Except for John Rock, the Harvard doctor, Catholic birth-control advocate, and Sanger ally, there is no effort to acknowledge or to represent the views of Catholic laity, theologians, or feminists who have long registered their dissent from the Vatican position.

To be sure, Catholicism figures largely and legitimately in the story of the birth-control pill. The church was, and is, the most implacable, organized, and persistent opponent of the pill and other forms of artificial birth control. Indeed, you would think the hierarchy’s official statements on contraception would give the filmmakers a sufficient foil for their story, but they aren’t willing to settle for that. Their attack is more sweeping in its scope. It paints Catholics not only as the chief obstacle to birth control but as the community that encompasses and symbolizes all of the hostile forces then arrayed against women: the social climate of the 1950s, the patriarchy, and the institutions of marriage and motherhood.

That, however, is a caricature of the actual American experience. [end]

Published in the 2003-03-28 issue: 

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (Knopf), directs the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values.

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