THE SURPRISING SOCIAL REVOLUTION WE’VE STARTED WITH THE PILL
What’s it mean for women—and men? New freedom, less divorce, a lower birthrate, a better-educated population, and an end to illegitimacy
MOST OF US CAN look back on the year 1960 without wonderment. For us it was just a medium-dry, average sort of year; a good year for Burgundies and Democrats. But, as it’s only now becoming clear, our grandchildren will almost certainly rank 1960 with 1492 and 1789 as one of the major turning points in the social history of mankind. Because in that year, after six years of exhaustive laboratory tests, the birth-control pill became generally available to the population at large. And nothing will ever be the same again.
Today nearly a million women in Canada and more than eight million other women throughout the world are happily swallowing the pill and wondering how on earth their mothers, let alone their grandmothers, ever managed to lead reasonably normal lives without it. They arc part of the first generation in history in which women have been given a real choice about when to marry and when to have children. The pill has freed them from the tyranny of pregnancy — the oldest, the most natural and thus the harshest tyranny of all.
That is just the beginning of the story. Since the coming of the pill our birthrate has dropped, the composition of our labor force is changing and for the first time in decades the average age of brides has gone up. And meanwhile, as the Great Emancipator, the pill is already having profound and largely beneficial effects on the whole structure of our society.
Peering into the future, even cautious sociologists predict a world in which the pill will be directly or indirectly responsible for happier marriages, fewer divorces, a better-educated population and a drastic reduction in Canada’s current boom in illegitimate babies (now running at about six out of every 100 live births). Because of the pill, adoption agencies may start to go out of business, women will start making more decisions (and probably pay for the privilege by becoming as prone to heart attacks and ulcers as men) and governments could start paying bonuses for not having babies.
Why the pill, as opposed to other forms of contraception? Largely because it works — a soothing 100 percent of the time unless the user makes a mistake. Although some doctors (and many women) arc still wary about the pill, 12 years of tests have proved that at least 80 percent of all women can take it without any lasting adverse side effects. Another 10 percent can usually cure the side effects by switching from one brand of pill to another.
The side effects for the remaining 10 percent, however, can be frightening. A study by two Saskatoon doctors, K. M. Crocker and W. D. Stitt, showed that 17 out of 185 women taking a common brand of pill developed the symptoms of pseudopregnancy — nausea, dizziness, headaches, swollen feet and breast discomfort. Other women report such other adverse effects as high blood pressure and rapid loss of hair.
Researchers arc constantly refining and improving the pill. Both once-a-month pills and contraceptive injections arc being tested in the U. S. But whatever form it comes in, the pill has three other major assets: it’s cheap, it isn't messy and, for most women, it has extra medical benefits. Not only does it ease menstrual tension and regulate periods, but in later years it acts as a hormone therapy. Professor R. L. James, a sociologist at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough College, sums it up this way: “Esthetically, conveniently, economically and effectively, the pill is the best basis yet devised for planning families.”
IANYONF. STILL IN doubt about the pill’s effectiveness need only glance at Canada’s declining birthrate. Live births fell to 24.6 per thousand of the population from about 28 per thousand between I960 and 1964 — a drop of nearly 15 percent. Jacques Henripin, a demographer at the University of Montreal, says the drop may eventually reach 20 or 30 percent. This, for Canada at any rate, could be a mixed blessing. The dangers are that the population may not only be reduced but could begin to include an unhealthily high proportion of people over 60. The benefits are that families will be more evenly balanced in terms of income and social advantages and that welfare services will become more comprehensive.
For the individual, the main social effects of the pill are concentrated around the years just before and just after marriage. The pill has produced radical changes in the behavior patterns of young people, says Prof. James, and as a consequence the family can hardly fail to improve as an institution. The most dramatic impact will be felt on that domestic time bomb, the shotgun marriage — known delicately in sociological circles as “the seven-month-baby factor.”
Canadian statistics in this area are remarkably slim. But recent U.S. studies in neighboring cities show that as many as 50 percent of all first marriages involve seven-month babies. Canadian figures are probably much the same. What is certain is that unwanted pregnancy is the motive behind a very high percentage of teenage marriages. One sociologist who conducted a study in western Canada estimates that 50 percent of girls in an average suburban high school have probably had intercourse and that 10 percent of all Canadian girls in high school drop out because they become pregnant.
“Quite obviously, a lot of people who have seven-month babies, especially teenagers, would not have married that particular partner,” says Prof. James. “There is a good possibility, therefore, that the pill will produce better, more stable marriages and, eventually, a lower divorce rate. At the same time there will be fewer school dropouts. The pill will allow many more girls to continue into higher education.”
Figures from the Dominion Bureau of Statistics are already beginning to bear out this thesis. The average age of brides, which had been falling consistently since the 1920s, began to creep up again in 1963-64 (to 21.2 years). More pointedly, the percentage of brides who are under 20 is declining rapidly. In 1960, when the pill was introduced, about 34.5 percent of all brides were teenagers; in 1964, the latest year for which figures are available, only 30.7 percent of brides were under 20.
This trend, which seems certain to continue, means that more marriages are being based on other factors besides the desire for sex, which, rightly or wrongly, can now be satisfied more safely by experience before marriage. Couples are seeking each other for love, affection and companionship and these marriages have a higher chance of success. Studies show that the optimum age for a good marriage is when the man is in his mid-20s and the woman a little younger.
It is in the years immediately after marriage that the pill truly opens up a brave new world for modern couples. In its simplest terms it gives them a vast number of alternatives they never enjoyed before. In the first place, they can marry secure in the knowledge that they won’t be burdened by children right away. More and more women are planning careers after high school or university, either on a permanent basis or at least for several years while their husbands get firmly established. For these couples the pill provides some depth of meaning to the classic period of adjustment, giving them a chance to build a sound economic and psychological foundation for their marriage.
In the second place, the pill makes planned parenthood a great deal more meaningful than the casual hit-or-miss concept it was before 1960. Today’s parents can decide, with a considerable degree of certainty, just how many children to have and how to space them. They can, for instance, avoid clusters of children. Many young parents today realize that children born too close together tend to have the same kinds of needs at the same time, creating a greater chance of rivalry and jealousy. (Studies show that two-year age gaps produce the happiest families.)
Some sociologists take a stern view of these implications. “The pill is a typical product of the ‘Brave New World,’ ” sniffs Dr. J. A. McCrorie of the University of Saskatchewan at Regina. “It provides increased sexual freedom and expression for those who have less and less time to enjoy it.”
But most experts agree with Prof. James. “The crucial thing about the pill,” he says, “is that without it too many kids are being born into bad families.”
One young matron, probably typical of hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have cheerfully put their faith in the pill, explains it this way: “The pill made it possible for us to get married even though my husband was still in school and babies would have been a real hardship — financially, emotionally and physically. Even now he’s out of school, I’m still on the pill, because it’s still a young
marriage and we have carefree things to do before raising a family. And we can choose. We can even choose not to have a family ever, if we want to.
“When and if we do have children, it will be because we want them. A traditionalist Anglican minister pointed a long finger at me one day and said, ‘Anybody who doesn't raise a family is a selfish person.’ But he’s got it wrong. One of the human tragedies is that too many selfish people have had children and made rotten parents simply because they didn't know how to avoid pregnancy.”
That Anglican minister seems to be a part of a rapidly diminishing minority. Except for the members of some extreme fundamentalist sects, most Protestant churchmen regard the pill as a blessing for the well-being of mankind. “1 don’t think the pill is immoral,” says the Reverend Ernest Howse, former moderator of the United Church. “I believe it is utterly immoral for us to have avoided this question for so long. Only the sort of mind that once denounced lightning rods and inoculations as interfering with God’s will is now denouncing the pill.”
Even Roman Catholics, caught in a theological limbo while the Vatican makes up its mind about the pill, are wrestling with the church’s whole approach to contraception. Privately, many Catholic moralists are adopting a liberal attitude — even if they haven’t yet come out in print.
The traditional position is succinctly expressed by Monsignor Athol Murray, president of Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask.: “If people can’t comply with natural law they will just have to account to God.” The new view comes from Father George Hoffman of the theology department at St. Mary's University, Halifax: “Catholics have been asked to refrain from artificial contraceptives while the Church re-examines the question. But the precise application of this directive must, of course, be prudently applied to each individual case.”
JLVJLOREOVER, FEW CHURCHMEN (and fewer doctors and sociologists) show much concern for what seems to be the average layman’s chief moral qualm about the pill: that it will lead to an increase in promiscuity and premarital sex. The Reverend J. S. Cunningham, chaplain of Hart House at the University of Toronto, doubts that today’s students regard the pill as a means to exploit sex. In general, he feels, students are more mature and responsible about sexual relations than when he was an undergraduate 18 years ago.
Dr. William Francis of Grace Hospital, Toronto, agrees: “I just can’t believe the pill has much bearing on promiscuity.” Dr. Francis was one of the first physicians to prescribe the pill in Canada and now has thousands of patients taking it. “If people are going to have sexual intercourse,” he says, “they are going to have it anyway — with or without the pill.”
In a sense the pill is more an effect than the cause of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Doctors concerned with venereal disease confirm the general impression that there has been an increase in premarital and extramarital intercourse, but this trend was apparent even before introduction of the pill. If we didn’t already have the pill it would be necessary to invent it because of the changing social world we live in. Ultimately, if the pill is reduced to a problem in situation ethics, many church leaders would agree with Prof. James: “If it came to a choice between more premarital intercourse protected by the pill or the continuation of the present level of illegitimacy, I would prefer the first alternative.”
James predicts Canada’s illegitimacy rate will soon start to drop. The reason it has continued to rise in spite of the pill, he says, is not because of increased promiscuity, but because a change in the moral climate has made it less disgraceful to have babies out of wedlock. The great shadow of scandal is lifting. Pregnant girls no longer have to stay in Moose Falls and marry a man they don’t love. They can go to the nearest city and have the baby with the help of a church or welfare society.
Eventually, however, the pill will penetrate to the subculture of Moose Falls. When that happens, says James, who himself has four adopted children, the 10 percent of married women who can't have children of their own are going to find the demand for illegitimate babies exceeding the supply. Adoption societies, which have belatedly made it easier to adopt children, may soon find they want to impose tougher requirements again.
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Who gets the pill? Should doctors be guardians of morality?
How easy is it. in fact, for single girls to obtain the pill? Pretty easy
and. in urban areas, getting easier. Dr. Donald McCulloch, head of the student advisory bureau at the University of Toronto, says co-eds have told him that four out of 10 doctors will give the pill to a single girl. Dr. McCulloch says the medical profession is divided about 50-50 over whether doctors have any special re-
sponsibility to be guardians of morality. He himself strongly believes doctors should avoid becoming moralists: “If a man comes to you with a broken leg, you don't insist that he promise to be a good boy or else you won’t help him.”
Dr. A. D. Claman, a Vancouver obstetrician, thinks teenage girls
should be given information about contraceptives. "But if she herself hasn’t worked out the problem of her own sexual conduct. I don’t think we should give her the pill. In a way it commits her to a certain course of behavior.”
Dr. M. M. Spivak, a Toronto obstetrician who has been doing a study of the pill for four years, says about one third of his 500 pill-taking patients are single. In some cases mothers have brought teenage daughters in for the pill, and Dr. Spivak has dealt with “the odd bright girl” who wants to talk about the pill before she has sexual relations. But most of his single patients are university students or working girls who have already had intercourse. “It is very unusual,” said Dr. Spivak, “to see virgins over the age of 18.”
Contrary to a widespread impression, the pill is not being distributed as freely at Canadian universities as it is on some U.S. campuses. A few health services at big universities are supplying the pill, on request, to the growing number.of married students. The U of T will also supply the pill to girls who are just about to get married. And at the University of British Columbia married students can buy the pill at cost from the university pharmacy.
Yes — and no
But single co-eds find it harder to get the pill. Those with nerve enough to ask for it on the campus are almost always told to consult a regular doctor. However, at the U of T five single co-eds were given the pill “for medical reasons” last year. Dr. G. T. Irvine, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s health service, says no single girl has yet approached him. but if one did “I think I would probably give her the pill.” On the other hand, at the University of Alberta, Dr. J. F. Elliott says, “We just haven’t gone into the business of distributing the pills to any student for prevention purposes.”
University authorities seldom have statistics on unmarried pregnancies (the girls tend to drop out without telling anyone why), but the general impression is that these dropouts are becoming fewer and more girls are staying on to finish their degrees.
There’s certainly a growing awareness of the pill among undergraduates. Last fall one professor, academic chaperone to a group of third-year language students who chose to spend a year at a European university, was startled by a question asked by several girls in the group. They wanted to be sure the pill was available in Germany before deciding to go abroad. (Dutifully, he investigated and found that it is.) Similar considerations influence many girls when applying for posts with the Canadian University Service Overseas. CUSO, if asked, will provide a two-year supply of pills to married couples, but not to single girls.
The pill’s greatest impact at the university level is that it allows married women to take advantage of today’s extraordinary emphasis on higher education. Deans of women report a remarkable increase in the number of married women entering university in their mid-20s. Many of these are girls who have married after high school and then decided that, protected by the pill, they can afford to spend three or four years getting a BA.
And in the graduate schools, the pill is rapidly becoming as indispensable as a typewriter. “There’s been a trend for some time now of women coming back to university after they’ve raised their families,” said Mrs. Sylvia Campbell, academic adviser at York's Atkinson College. “What’s fairly new is that, thanks to the pill, girls can get their BA, marry a working husband and postpone having a family until they’ve completed whatever postgraduate training they want to take.”
So far this trend hasn't done much more than produce a glut of overeducated and underpaid secretaries and a lot of frustrated diaper-changers with doctorates. But sooner or later the growing army of highly educated women will make itself felt, not just in the conventionally female teaching and nursing professions, but throughout the whole economy.
Many employers are already finding that they have to reckon the pill into their staff calculations. “These days when a married woman applies for a job and says she doesn't intend to have children, we believe her,” says the personnel officer of one large business firm. “Naturally, we don’t ask her outright, but we pretty well assume she is on the pill.”
“The pill has certainly made it easier for married women to get jobs,” admits Sherry Wallace, head of Career Girls Unlimited in Toronto. “But single girls who take the pill are more of a job risk. They are inclined to be less responsible and change jobs more often. They are no longer the sweet, demure, frightened little things that many employers like. With their new freedom, they don't have to be coy.”
This new form of independence may annoy the boss but it’s the heart of the whole matter — and men had better get used to it. Fundamentally, all the social ramifications of the pill amount to a change in the age-old biological role of women.
Many women, when they first take the pill, experience a sense of exhilarating release that one girl describes as “almost psychedelic in its intensity.” It could be these women are sniffing power as well as freedom. The pill in its present form places sole responsibility and sole power in the hands of the female. The woman is becoming the effective decision-maker in the planning of families. An ageold male prerogative, which has always been a vital factor in showing his masculinity, is being erased.
This doesn't necessarily mean that men are becoming emasculated. But it does mean women are becoming more masculine in their role in society — and even the possible development of a male contraceptive pill is unlikely to stop this trend. One result, suggests Prof. James, is that women will become more susceptible to the diseases of stress and strain that affect men. Female longevity, currently running
an average of two years beyond that of men, may well start to drop back.
The pill’s social reverberations seem endless. It could change the design of our homes, the distribution of our incomes and the patterns of our schools. In Burnaby, BC, recently a report on future school needs was sent back to the city planner by school councillors because it failed to take into account the obvious effect of the pill. Said Councillor Dave Herd, "The pill is going to do us out of
business.” Eventually, predicts Prof. James, governments will use the pill as a tool to change our tax structure. In an effort to prevent the population clock striking midnight, tax assessments will be altered to favor people who don't have children — eliminating baby bonuses and the higher tax brackets for bachelors.
None of these changes is imminent. Even distributed by the carload, the pill isn't going to revolutionize society overnight. But the basic change, the
change in the relationship between men and women, is already upon us. In Western society before 1960 a woman would plead with a man to have a child. Now, because of the pill, a man may have to do the pleading. And the new career-minded, decisionmaking woman, conscious that childbearing will force her to change her complete role in society, may not be so compliant. The moral of the pill is that the hand that chooses not to rock the cradle also rules the world. ★