It’s been a feminist issue since the early 20th century. It gives humans with uteri (uteruses?) the ability to decide that “no, I do not want a baby in the near future, thank you, very much” and actually protect themselves against the implantation of an embryo in their uterine lining. It also helps many individuals who have hormonal imbalances to deal with those imbalances and can help those who tend to get things like ovarian cysts to, like, not get them. Which is super great!
I mean, birth control has a pretty rocky story for the past century. Margaret Sanger, a major proponent of birth control (and like, women’s bodily autonomy) is a somewhat controversial figure due to her support of the eugenics movement, or the movement to create a better future for humanity by discouraging/preventing some from reproducing.
Many of the clinics she started were in lower-income communities, where a large portion of the populace was African-American, and this resulted in the idea that she wanted to eliminate, or prevent future births of, African-Americans. And this was a part of much of the eugenics movement (that awful thing where people believed that white people were inherently genetically better), but Sanger did not seek that end, and spoke out against embedding racism in the principles of the eugenics movement.
That’s not to say that the eugenics movement wasn’t deplorable (eugenics was largely an ableist movement, though the term did not exist at the time), or that Sanger was right in using it as a means to push birth control.
[It has been suggested by Gloria Steinem that Sanger didn’t truly support the eugenics movement, but used it as a way to further the birth control movement, a possibility I won’t rule out, but also won’t embrace as definite]
Anyway, today’s post isn’t actually supposed to be a history lesson on birth control, so I’m going to move on now.
Hormonal birth control is super common in today’s society. Like, I’m pretty sure that at least 60% of my friends with uteri in college were on birth control of some sort; and it was for reasons ranging from the actual main purpose of birth control (being able to have sex with penis-owning individuals without worrying about unwanted pregnancy) to hormonal/medical/non-birth-control reasons (preventing ovarian cysts, dealing with endometriosis, etc.)
Which is great. Those uterus-having humans got to have a way to practice safer sex and/or not be in super horrible pain.
But I was also on birth control starting my senior year of high school and all through college.
Which didn’t even strike me as odd until spring of my senior year, when, in the midst of a relationship with a fellow uterus-owning student, I realized it was super weird for me to be on birth control.
Like, to start with, I have never engaged in penetrative sex. Ever. I’m super queer, so there is nearly a 0% chance of me finding myself in a sexual situation that could result in pregnancy by my choice (though, apparently, there’s about a 20% chance of being in such a situation not by choice–it’s gotten lower since I’m no longer a college student, when it was a 25% chance). Let’s average that to a total of a 10% chance of finding myself in a situation that could result in pregnancy.
I don’t have problems with ovarian cysts or endometriosis, or even difficult periods that involve super painful cramps. Though, based on family history, it’s likely just a matter of time before something like this could occur.
Really, the only issues I’ve ever had with my period have been that it has almost never been regular, and has certainly never occurred in 28-day cycles (the length considered normal). Come to think of it, this is why I went on birth control in the first place. Because I would get a period, and then nothing for 2-5 months, and then it would come and the next one would come 28 days later and then nothing for months again. My GP told me it was because I was too skinny and estrogen lives in fat cells, so my body wasn’t an environment that fostered estrogen production.
So, long story short, I went off my birth control in April because I wanted to see what my body would do. My gynecologist said that I could just stop taking it after the end of the pack I was on when I saw her, so I did.
Of course, it wasn’t until later that I learned about a lot of the negative side effects that birth control can cause.
Starting with basic things that are definitely, 100% true:
Birth control disrupts the natural function of the reproductive system. It uses hormones to trick the body into not releasing an egg each month. No egg, no embryo, no fetus, no squalling infant in 9 months. (*note: I love squalling infants like 80% of the time but that doesn’t mean I want one).
Birth control can cause worse cramps, acne, nausea, and other side effects in uterus owners who take it. Most of the time, it alleviates cramps and doesn’t affect acne at all, but it can make them worse. I’m not sure what percent of uterus-owners experience nausea on it. But these were among the symptoms cited for the termination of a male birth control injection study, yet they’ve been just another part of sexual freedom for women for decades.
And moving on to things that are more difficult to prove, but have been shown to correlate:
There have been studies that show that those who have taken birth control for extended periods of time are more likely to develop breast, cervical, or liver cancer; though less likely to develop endometrial or ovarian cancer. These links increase with amount of time on birth control, and decrease the longer you’re off, with breast cancer returning to “normal” risk after 10 years off; the risk for breast cancer is highest in those who started the pill as teenagers.
Conversely, it can apparently affect how attractive you are to men, if that’s something you care about (men are supposedly more physically attracted to ovulating women; you know, that whole drive to reproduce thing).
But my biggest concern is that I didn’t know any of this prior to starting the pill.
When the election results came in, with an imbalanced man shouting about “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act, the law that grants healthcare access to many who might not otherwise have it and made birth control free for uterus-owners, there were rallying cries from feminists: “go get an IUD now so you don’t have to worry about birth control during the next few years!”
And while I appreciate the sentiment, that these women, largely white women, were calling out to encourage others to do something that could prevent them from facing some troubles during the new Republican administration’s time. After all, repealing the ACA will likely make birth control not free anymore, cries of “defund Planned Parenthood” are haunting the internet, and the administration under the current president seeks to undo many other important feminist policies (I read somewhere that there was talk of trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, which is probably false, but protections for transgender students using the bathroom that matches their gender identity under Title IX have been overturned, so I guess anything is possible).
I get it, I do. Uterus-owners were encouraging other uterus-owners to do something to prevent having to deal with the consequences of yet more uterus-owners (remember, white women voted for Trump, too) putting an irrational man in the White House.
But what some uterus-owners, specifically uterus owners of color (UOoC if you will, or like WOC or POC if you won’t) don’t hear “go get an IUD now!” and think “wow, those nice people are sure looking out for me,” not after the movement that got birth control into a popular place on the market included individuals who sought to systematically sterilize them. Understandably, it’s not pleasant to be told to get a 5-to-10 year birth control device implanted in your uterus in the face of an already horrifying election season, even if the intention is honest and good (which, I expect, it was–just about “yo if you don’t wanna get pregnant but also don’t wanna pay for birth control for the next few years while we wait this guy out of office, you can do this now while it’s free” and “yo abortion may not be safe, legal, and/or accessible sometime in the next few years if these alt-right people have anything to do with it, so you may wanna clock in to some birth control that’ll last and be effective through these trying times”–not about “you shouldn’t have babies).
And I also understand that this is slightly less relevant now that Agent Orange is in the White House, though he and his administration have been too busy with other questionable and horrible choices/policies to eliminate the ACA/defund PP/re-ban abortion, but it needs to be said.
White feminists need to be better allies to PoC, and understanding the past is part of that, as is listening when our PoC friends share their stories.
Feminism must embrace and benefit not only cisgendered white women. It needs to benefit people of color. It needs to benefit the LGBTQ+ community.
[side note: the rallying cries to get IUDs also really weirded me out bc like, there are harmful side effects that can come with IUDs and it’s terrifying to think that people were so concerned with getting birth control while it was easy and available that they would encourage people to blindly go in and get something like that put in their bodies.]
I’m all about birth control being accessible, but it can’t be at the cost of the comfort of our sisters of color, and we should ensure that the person getting the birth control understands the risks as well as the benefits.
I don’t know if 16-year-old me would have turned down hormonal birth control because of the remote possibility of increased breast cancer risk or the other harmful side effects, but she certainly should have been informed of all of the risks, and not just the “benefit” of having a regular cycle that would eventually diminish to no period at all (bc that can happen on hormonal pills; the lining of your uterus gradually gets thinner and thinner and can eventually disappear). But 22-year-old me, after 5 years on birth control, and with a stronger understanding of how it works and the risks of the pill, as well as the beauty of the menstrual cycle (did I mention that I actually love the experience of my menstrual cycle? You can read about how I came to love it here and here) would love to see a society in which girls and young women aren’t pushed toward suppressing their body’s natural rhythm without full understanding of what the consequences could be.
Just think about it.
The Fierce Feminist