The question is no less urgent now than it was 35 years ago, when the first oral contraceptive was unleashed on American society: Was the Pill a good idea? Did it really "change the world?" If so, was it for the better?
Bernard Asbell incomprehensibly wants to have it both ways: the Pill liberated sex, but it is not responsible for sexual liberation. The sexual revolution (if it happened at all), he writes, "was not principally driven by the sudden availability of the Pill."
L Nonetheless, in his book, "The Pill: A Biography of the Drug
that Changed the World" (Random House. 411 pages. $25), he proclaims, "In the privacy of the love bed, the Pill burst as a gift of liberation. In the timeless war between the genders, it contributed to a zone of peace. In the silent, sweeping, rising tide of the world's population, it offered a protective dike."
Oh really? The simple facts seem to me to be precisely the opposite: Whether because of the Pill or in spite of it, 35 years later love is not free, but for women and children increasingly costly; the war between the sexes shows no signs of abating. As for population, all the evidence shows that it is not new contraception, but industrialization that leads families to limit births.
The Pill is a puzzle. Despite the fact that as Mr. Asbell notes, "to identify this extraordinary drug . . . at any pharmacy anywhere, all you need to do is spell the word pill with a capital P," the Pill is not really a medicine at all: It's the first drug designed to fix something that ain't broke.
Like plastic surgery or abortion, it aims not to heal the body, but to transform it. It heralds what the author calls the new Era of Biointervention, in which our bodies - our nature - increasingly become the object of our own design.
The potentially unsavory nature of this project is apparent in the motivation of Margaret Sanger, whom Mr. Asbell dubs "The Mother of the Pill." Over the years Mrs. Sanger toyed with many reasons for birth control, finally settling on world population growth.
But Mr. Asbell unearths a letter proving that as late as 1950, at the age of 71, Mrs. Sanger never abandoned her obsession with eugenics: "I believe," Mrs. Sanger wrote, "that now, immediately there should be a national sterilization for certain dysgenic types of our population who are being encouraged to breed and would die out were the government not feeding them."
The myth of the liberating effects of the Pill and of Margaret Sanger are deeply intertwined, not in the least because Mrs. Sanger herself relentlessly propagandized on her own behalf, "By making birth control seem an innovation she personally had imported from France," noted one of her biographers quoted herein, "she conveniently suppressed some historical facts [including] that contraception was widely practiced among certain social groups in the United States as early as the nineteenth century. . ."
Americans not only like technology, we ascribe to it all kinds of magical powers, including the ability to overturn moral truths. So Mr. Asbell believes that the Pill created "a necessity of choices, of creating a new code of behavior for coping wih a new technological power." But the Pill was less a technological innovation than most people believe. Since the late 19th century middle-class American couples had access to contraception.
Even today more American women use some form of contraception (such as condoms, foam, diaphragm or natural family planning) invented prior to the Pill than the Pill itself.
As millions of crisis pregnancies over the last 30 years prove, it was not the Pill but the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade that severed the link between sex and procreation; it was the failed promise of the Pill in the '60s that created the push for legal abortion in the '70s.
So if the Pill was less of a technological revolution than it was made out to be, what kind of revolution was it? If the
Pill did change American society (and there is persuasive personal testimony that it did), the question is how?
At least part of the answer lies hidden in Mr. Asbell's interviews. The promotion of the Pill politicized contraception, transformed it from a personal moral issue into a public, medical one.
As one woman put it, "The Pill made contraception an item of talk - of dinner-table talk."
Notes another, "It suddenly became something everybody could state an opinion on, argue about, instead of feeling this is a matter so private and personal you could only whisper it to your confessor or your best woman friend. The climate was changed."
In breaking down taboos, the Pill ushered in a new era of sexual openness, of "Hustler" and Geraldo as well as Dr. Ruth. It put contraception on the tip of everyone's tongue, much as the AIDS crisis enabled us all to read about condoms in a family newspaper.
Age of desire
In 1914, in a prophetic and revealing diary entry, Margaret Sanger rejected "the Christian, democratic, ascetic ideal," in favor of unrestricted emotion: "Those who restrain desire do so because the desire is weak enough to be restrained. Reason usurps its place and governs the weak. . ."
We live in an age which she, as much as anyone, inaugurated: the Age of Desire, in which, following Oscar Wilde we believe the best way to deal with temptation is to succumb to it.
Taming desire in this way has produced not a paradise but a paradox: A pill whose promoters promised it would ease illegitimacy, end abortion, eliminate poverty, strengthen marriage and promote true sexual love, has instead heralded an era of of easy sex and difficult marriages: a society in which rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, abortions, and child poverty are all on the increase.
If the Pill did not cause these unfortunate social problems, it certainly failed to end them.
How do we explain these cultural contradictions of contraceptive culture? When sex is systematically stripped of its ancient tie to marriage - to possession and procreation - people do not lie down content on the empty bed made for them. Instead they engage in a restless, destructive and ultimately futile attempt to invent for themselves some durable meaning for their deepest erotic drives.
Why is it that, 35 years after the Pill, two-thirds of African-American babies are born outside of marriage? The technocrats cannot understand it, except as a failure of technology or the market.
But anthropologists like Elijah Anderson have forced us to face the fact that the problem is not technological but cultural: in the sex codes of the inner city, unprotected sex has replaced the wedding ring as the sign and symbol of true love. If you really love a man, you allow him the full use of your body. So the poor struggle, like the rest of us, to find some way to turn mere sex into mating.
Opponents of the contraceptive culture argued that the consequences of this draining of sex would be the end of marriage. As one '60s editorial Mr. Asbell quotes presciently put it, once sex and procreation have been morally separated, "How does one maintain the institution of marriage as Christian morality has always understood it? What reason . . . demonstrates why a man must choose a woman (not another man) for his mate and cleave to her (and her alone) in a permanent union?"
Thirty-five years of increasingly broken marriages and unwed mothers suggest fears of the opponents have too evidently come to pass, while the promises of the Pill are as yet unfulfilled.
Maggie Gallagher's books include "Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution is Killing Family, Marriage, Sex and What We Can Do About It" (1990) and "The Abolition of Marriage" due for publication in the Fall by Regnery Gateway publishers. Starting this month, she will be writing a nationally syndicated column for Universal Press.