This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Birth Control in Amerika
by Rita Arditti, Claire Huga, & Cynthia Kneen
‘Science for the People’ Vol. 2, No. 4, December 1970, p. 28 – 31
It should be easy to limit a woman’s reproduction by sterilizing her at the birth of her nth child. Is this a shocking idea?… The Women’s Liberation Movement may not like it, but control must be exerted through females. Divorce and remarriage play havoc with assigning responsibility to couples or to men. Biology makes women responsible.
(Editorial in Science, 31 July 1970, by Garrett Hardin, PPP, University of California, Santa Barbara.)
How is birth control practiced in our society? It should come as no surprise that in a society where women are the lower caste, birth control is practiced by intervention on the female body. The upper caste, after all, runs the show. The power structure in our society is male. The scientists who do birth control research are male. The government agency (fda) that allegedly checks this research is male. And doctors, natch, are male. The only role females play in all this is a passive and suffering one. We are the experimental objects of these Dr. Frankensteins.
It’s a familiar story to women. We go to a doctor and lowering our eyes, embarrassed at our dependency, with a mixture of fear and anger we stumble through that horrible sentence, ‘What do I do not to get pregnant?’. Remember, we are asking this of a male doctor, behind whom stands the drug companies and their male researchers, behind whom stands your friendly fda, and behind whom stands the whole power-penis-potency complex (PPP). What do you think he’s going to tell us? Right! ‘Get high on our latest special, the PPP’s Pill! ‘Great new wonder drug! It launches frontal attack on the pituitary gland (fondly known as the master gland of the body—which means that our entire hormonal system is assaulted) and ‘saves us from pregnancy’ in exchange for a two-page long list of side effects—nausea, edema, vomiting, bleeding, cramps, mental depression, bloating, changes in menstrual period, etc., with risk of thrombophlebitis, pulmonary embolism, cerebral thrombosis, etc. etc.—which our male pharmacist or male doctor threw in the waste basket, and which we will never see. What we do see are little booklets from the drug companies decorated with roses, tulips and peach blossoms full of reassuring babbling.
If we’re lucky enough to remember some high school biology, we may not like the idea of frontal assault on our pituitary. And, trying hard not to hurt his feelings (doctors are very sensitive) we ask hesitantly if ‘maybe there isn’t something else, something a little less…?’ Surprise! He even seems pleased at our inquiry! ‘Ah yes,’ as he pats his belly (sound familiar?), ‘a little plastic treat’ (his eyes are glowing reverently), ‘the *I*U*D*’ he sighs. What is this new marvel, this ‘intra-uterine device?’ A hunk of plastic with a metal core which gets inserted in our uterus and whose mode of action in there is a total mystery. Great! Dr. Christopher Tietze of the population council says it bluntly enough: ‘The virtue of the IUD is that it is in the uterus, minding its own business. Its mischief is confined to the female organs.’1 Our misty-eyed Santa doesn’t mind, but how would you like to have an artificial thing stuck in your uterus for 10 years or more?! Yet we can avoid the worst, it seems. We agree to the diaphragm—euphoria! We feel Safe, Sound, Independent. We’ll gladly grease it every night, wash it, powder it, protect it, check it, stick it in our bodies, tomorrow! tonight! anytime! So wonderful! And it’s all on us. Thank you, Dr. Frankenstein.
As we go along struggling with the burden of our reproductive system, we might begin thinking as we did when we were very young, ‘If I could only be free of this oppression, be like a boy! Boys don’t have periods, boys don’t have to be afraid of getting pregnant.2 The brutal answer to this ancient longing is the male scientist’s public advocation of the sterilization of women. Should we be surprised? In a death oriented society overkill is the ultimate solution to any problem. And who’s going to get sterilized? Not males—’no one’s fooling with my sperm, baby!’ Amerika wants to sterilize its females, us and our sisters, mostly poor, mostly black, mostly mothers trapped on welfare—the undesirables, the scum of the earth. The brutality is numbing. It goes with the rest of male Amerika’s destructiveness throughout the world, only now it’s getting closer to home.
Why have we taken this? Because we’ve had to, because we’ve been made the underdog (think about that) in this sexist society. They taught us that we had to give up everything, interest, friends, work, and concentrate on the only really important thing for a female: getting a man and getting married. After giving up everything, we’ve become totally dependent for our psychological, physical and material needs on one other person. So we had better run a good show, wholly dependent but ‘always ready.’ We think we will be happy, everything’s all settled, our man’s not going to run away… We’ve made it! We’ve met the one criterion by which a woman’s worth is measured! And if we don’t want to get pregnant because the whole burden of child-rearing is on us? Because our man might, after all, run away? Because he might beat us and insult us if we are ‘stupid enough’ to get pregnant? Then of course we will go to the doctors and submit to any orders the medical-pharmaceutical complex hands down.
In an article typical of the PPP2, Carl Djerassi, president of Syntex Research and ticky-tacky professor of chemistry at Stanford University, lays down four conditions that must he met if the drug industry is to develop better contraceptives—and since he claims only private industry can do this (some mumbo-jumbo about ‘multidisciplinary scientific elements, ‘creative ability to organize,’ ‘unique finances’), we’re told we better cough up fast. Ahem, (1) ‘Conditional approval.’ which means good-faith blessing by the fda of drugs that have scarcely been tested. Thus a drug will be put on the market, ‘use-tested’ on the public, stamped ‘approved’ if we don’t die, and withdrawn if we do. Carl, Carl, isn’t that what’s being done now anyway? (2) ‘Right of appeal’ if the fda dares to slap the money-makers’ wrists. (3) ‘Increased patent protection,’ so that profits on their brews keep rolling in, and in, and in. (4) And—arabesque finale, the maraschino cherry at the top—’government-industry interaction,’ or public subsidy of the private corporations. After all, Djerassi says, this risky business can’t go on forever. It serves the people? The people oughta pay.
The time is long overdue to ask about male contraceptives and male sexual responsibility. Where is it? In the same article Djerassi the Bandit advances three ‘reasons’ for the lack of effort to develop male contraceptives. (1) He claims less is known about the reproductive biology of the male than the female. Bullshit. Study of the male reproductive system is at least as advanced as studies of the female system, and the male reproductive organs are easier to work with: a man’s gonads, the testes, are placed conveniently outside the body whereas a woman’s, the ovaries, are hidden deep within. There is no hormonal cycle, there is no changing period of fertility. A man’s fertility is easier to assess, and the effect of drugs can be readily checked by taking a sample of his semen. It is definitely a simpler situation to control. (2) He says it is easier to experiment on women than on men, because they’ve got us already through the services of their medical lackeys and the Planned Parenthood Clinics. True. In other words, it’s the politics of sexism that scientists serve. (3) And of course that old favorite, that classic reason—’the male’s generally lesser interest in, and greater reservation about, procedures that are aimed at decreasing his fertility.’ Tst, tst, tst. Wonderful this consideration for possible experimental subjects, but how many women have been accorded such delicate scientific concern? Might we hazard a daring hypothesis? Could it be possible that the sex of the drug executives and the researchers has something to do with this? Could it be that the whole power complex trembles at any notion of sperm-control? After all, the reluctance of the experimental subjects could easily be overcome—just give them booklets of peach blossoms and tulips to calm their silly fears.
What is to be done?
Women must stop using methods of contraception that endanger our physical and mental well-being. Doctors cannot be trusted. Contraceptives that have to be taken under their supervision should automatically be considered Dangerous. How many women who’ve been prescribed the pill first had had their liver functioning tested, or were thoroughly checked for mastitis, kidney disease, thrombo-embolism, mental depression, diabetes, family history of cancer, etc.? How many of the pill-pushers, even if they are aware of counter-indications, have prescribed their little dynamite anyway? How many of us have even been informed of the possible complications, or had other reasonable alternatives presented to us? And the IUD is not a reasonable alternative, since doctors cannot be relied on to test for pelvic infection or even to inform us of the possibility their devices will puncture our uterine wall, etc. The right of women to our physical and mental well-being must be reclaimed. These contraceptives should be withdrawn from the market.
Where does this leave us? The responsibility for birth control has to be shared by the reproductive unit: female and male. There is at present only one method available which shares the responsibility, doesn’t have dangerous side effects, and doesn’t require reliance on the medical establishment. This is the use of a condom by the male and a spermicidal foam by the female. Research into other methods that meet these three requirements must be begun at once.
Those of us who have been harmed while being used as human guinea pigs must be compensated. This includes the women in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Thailand and other countries, and all women in prisons and ghettos. The experimentation that is currently being conducted on all of us must stop.
Centers for women must be established to help us regain our dignity, vitality and sense of personhood. Programs to teach us about our bodies and basic health care should be carried on. Clearly, these centers must be staffed and controlled by women.
Clinics must be established for the mass rehabilitation of adolescent and adult men. Programs should be devised to help them repair their personalities and to overcome fears about their penises, their potency and their semen. These programs would greatly benefit from counselling by women.
These centers and clinics should help us destroy the power relationships that cripple us and that, through us, suffocate our children.
Free legal abortion must be made available to any women desiring it. Women who wish to carry their pregnancies to completion must be granted free child-care facilities for their children. This means that food, clothing, medical care, all the basic needs must be provided. These must be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The fact that abortion is considered criminal is criminal itself. It is this and the lack of social responsibility for children that drives women to dangerous devices and drugs advertised as 100% ‘effective.’
A massive effort to develop safe contraceptives for women and men must be launched. Priority must be given to the development of male contraceptives. WE MUST REFUSE TO TAKE TOTAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR BIRTH CONTROL.
Women who wish to begin helping themselves should watch for the course Women and Their Bodies, taught and published by a collective of Boston-area women and soon to” be available at the New England Free Press, 791 Tremont Street, Boston, Massachusetts, for about 50 cents. Also available from the New England Free Press is the Birth Control Handbook, an informational pamphlet published by the Arts and Science Undergraduate Society of McGill University, Montreal, for 10 cents.
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