The West is now celebrating 50 years since the invention of the birth control pill. "The pill," it is commonly said, represented a massive gain for women's liberation, allowing them control over pregnancy, sexual freedom and the choice to work and study. But not exactly.
The pill did indeed improve quality of life for some women. There are fewer abortions and it's easier to prevent unwanted pregnancy. The combined oral contraceptive pill, as it's officially known, also has health benefits, reducing the risk of dying young of disorders such as ovarian cancer or heart disease. Still, the pill's benefits are far less widely reported than its risks. In the view of Prof. Daniel Seidman, director of the Israeli Society of Contraception and Sexual Health, "some of this stems from men's discomfort about women's control over their own fertility."
This discomfort not only gives the pill a bad name, it also makes oral contraceptives harder to obtain. In the United States the pill's price has risen, and pharmacists there are even authorized to refuse to administer it for reasons of conscience. In Israel the pill is only included in the government-subsidized "health basket" until the age of 20. For women older than that, contraceptives aren't subsidized at all. Fertility treatments, by contrast, are funded generously, including the freezing of ova for use until the age of 54.
This policy sends an unequivocal message: The State of Israel will spend a hefty sum for you to become a mother and bring forth children - at any age, at any price - but preventing unwanted pregnancy is at your own expense. In other words, women aren't really in control of their own fertility.
The fact of the matter is that women knew how to prevent pregnancy long before the advent of the pill. In 1800 the average American woman had seven labors, and in 1900, just 3.5. But the pill arrived on the scene in the era of mass media, and was therefore the first widely recognized contraceptive, a presence that provoked fierce opposition to it on the part of men.
Thus, though undoubtedly effective in the clinical sense, in the cultural and practice senses women can't really choose not to become mothers. At most, they can chose when to have children (today's Israeli woman averages three children, as if the pill had never been invented ).
Carl Djerassi, one of the chemists behind the pill's formulation, has long called for its continued development to include anti-viral protection against such disorders as AIDS, or to produce a pill that can be taken monthly, or a similar contraceptive for men. Of these suggestions, only methods of ovulation prediction have been developed, for use in fertility treatment. None of this is by chance, in his view: "The truth is that there is already a pill for men; it's called Viagra. That says it all - which pill is developed for women, and which for men."
For men, eliminating the suspicion of pregnancy has turned unmarried women into all the more sexually available. Now, after all, women have no reason to say "no." That's why today's women are more exposed than ever to rape and other forms of sexual coercion, and the sex industry has expanded to its present monstrous proportions.
The history professor Elaine Tyler May writes in her new book that the so-called sexual revolution liberated not women but men, and broadened their possibilities far more than it did for women.
The U.S. feminist Gloria Steinem said as early as 1962 that the real question is whether there are enough liberated men for the newly liberated women. The broader question is one of accepting female sexuality, and the ability to be in control of it.
It is not the pill that will liberate women, but success in winning the battle for the vote, for pursuing higher education, for integrating into the workforce and politics.
Sexuality and fertility are both central to issues of sexual inequality. These are the struggles we need to wage today in the effort to include the pill in the health basket, and have real ownership over our bodies and sexuality.