The pill – an incomplete revolution

Fifty years after the contraceptive pill arrived in  Australia, the revolution it promised women remained incomplete – and the belief  that the pill gave women full control over their fertility was a myth. This was  one of the confronting themes of an event co-hosted by the Centre for Women’s  Health, Gender and Society, which is part of the Melbourne School of Population  Health.

Held in collaboration with the Victorian Women’s Trust, the  November 2011 event’s speakers included Dr Louise Keogh, a health sociologist  and senior lecturer at the Centre, and Mary Crooks, the Trust’s executive  director. Billed as ‘a free evening of fun and reflection on the first 50 years  of the contraceptive pill’, the night kicked off with a comedian, was open to  the public and drew a 250-strong audience.

Speaking after the event, Dr Keogh said the pill served as  “a nice example to help us reflect on how things have changed in the last 50  years.” A close examination of the pill’s  history  revealed the extent to  which women were short-changed by the deal delivered by the pill, including its  nine per cent failure rate, its side effects and  contraindications. “Yet somehow we’ve totally swallowed the myth that it’s all  been solved,” she says. “We’ve got the pill so we have got fertility management  sorted.”
 
Dr Keogh’s speech highlighted some glaring contradictions of  the sexual revolution in which the pill played such a pivotal role. These  included the myth that sex and fertility were separate. In real life, women  still balanced the two in tandem, and lived with the impact of the pill’s  failure. For one in three, that meant having an abortion. “But in  reality, no contraceptive is 100 per cent   effective, so why don’t we expect contraceptive failure and abortion?”

The sexual revolution was supposed to deliver a level  of gender equality. Not only did this not occur, she said, but also women were,  within their relationships, taking personal responsibility for a societal  failure to share power and control equally between men and women. “We should be  looking outwards, asking, ‘why we do not yet have gender equality?’ And  demanding answers.”

The ability of women to time pregnancy to fit in  with their other life goals was another damaging myth. Women were expected to  juggle the demands of careers, travel, and relationships  with a closing window of fertility. “Why do  we act like we have control, when in reality, many of us will not be able to squeeze  pregnancy into the narrow bands of time we are offered to do so?”
 
Commenting later, Dr Keogh said, “The next step is to start  being honest. To stop spreading myths about choice and freedom and instead to  look closely at the responsibilities that women are carrying and the level of  support they have to manage those responsibilities.”
 
Greater honesty about managing fertility would help young  women to make more informed decisions about their futures. Furthermore, it was  time for society to “be more upfront” about the hidden reality of abortion. “Rather  than blaming women for failing to use contraceptive properly, or for being  risk-takers, we need to acknowledge that all contraceptives have failure rates – one in two pregnancies are unplanned – and abortion has been with us for a  long time, and is likely to continue to be one of the ways we manage our fertility.”
 
She called for more research into developing contraception  that met women’s needs by being 100 per cent effective and free of side  effects. “The research around contraception is too often focused on ‘why women  don’t use contraceptives more effectively’,” she said. “But the questions  should be ‘why aren’t they designed to suit women’s lives and what women want?’  “