- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It’s quite ironic that the anniversary of the birth control pill, which prevents motherhood, falls around Mother’s Day.

Of course, the Pill is typically seen as mother’s little helper — it got plenty of accolades this month as it reached its 50th anniversary as a federally approved product.

One angle, though, seems to have gotten short shrift, so let me raise it. One of the unintended consequences of the Pill is that it changed the relationship between men and women in a way that did not benefit women: Both unplanned pregnancies and unwed childbearing remain common, despite the Pill.

In researching the 50-year history of the birth control pill, I saw that it achieved many of its desired consequences: It was (and is) highly effective, easy to use, and safe for most women. Unlike sterilization (the second most common form of birth control), the Pill preserves fertility, even if used for years. And since a woman can take it without the knowledge of her husband or lover, it gives her virtually solo control over her ability to become pregnant.

A rollicking 1975 song by country star Loretta Lynn captured feminine exhilaration about the Pill: Marriage may have once trapped her on “Nursery Hill,” but “I’m tearin’ down your brooder house, ‘cause now I’ve got the Pill!” she crowed.

Liberating women from the nursery — and even the house — was certainly an effect of the Pill, but, as with everything else in life, when women change their behavior, men do, too. And that is where the unexpected consequences came in.

“The main impact of the Pill and the sexual revolution that followed was … to change male behavior,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in his 1999 book, “The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order.” (Italics in the original).

Before the Pill and legal abortion, the prevailing norm was that if a man and woman had premarital sex and she became pregnant, he would take responsibility for her and the child. Thus, between 1965 and 1969 alone, almost 60 percent of brides were pregnant at the altar, Mr. Fukuyama wrote, citing the work of economists Janet Yellen, George Akerlof and Michael Katz.

But by 1980-1984, only 42 percent of brides were in these “shotgun weddings.”

“Since the Pill and abortion permitted women for the first time to have sex without worrying about the consequences, men felt liberated from norms requiring them to look after the women whom they had gotten pregnant,” Mr. Fukuyama explained.

“One of the greatest frauds … was the notion that the sexual revolution was gender-neutral, benefiting women and men equally …,” he added. “In fact, the sexual revolution served the interests of men. …”

No story about the birth control pill can be complete without a few observations from William J. Bennett, who has written extensively on morals, virtues and the American family.

The Pill was one of a “confluence of factors” that led to the breakdown of the American family and hypersexualization of the culture, the former education secretary said in his 2000 book, “The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family.”

The Pill, plus legal abortion, meant that “[f]or the first time, on a large scale, sex has been de-linked from both marriage and procreation,” he wrote.

This has made sexual promiscuity — heterosexual and homosexual alike — a fact of life, “incorporated into the mentality and often the behavior of even the youngest adolescents, and reinforced by well-meaning adults through programs like the free distribution of condoms in schools,” he wrote.

Put another way, the Pill ushered in an era of “disciplined” childbearing — and “undisciplined” sexuality. Which of these two legacies will have the most profound and lasting impact on human relations? Time will tell.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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