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?’ “