(This article is dedicated to the women of Puerto Rico who, unknowingly, were the test subjects of the first birth control pill in the 1950’s. Some of these women were given placebo pills and told that they would not get pregnant. Some of these women died from contaminated pills. None of these women were in control of their medical decisions. Every woman who takes the pill is indebted to these women. Find out more about this here.)
After taking the birth control pill for almost half my life, I took my last pill today. I’ve looked forward to this day for years, but now that it’s here, I feel an odd sense of loss instead of the euphoria I had expected. Could it be that I feel my youth receding into an ever more distant past? Not likely. Youth for me was high school, minimum wage customer service jobs, and bad sex with people I didn’t really like. So what is it? Am I mourning the loss of control that comes with more permanent methods? There is something comforting about the tangible aspect of popping a pill each morning, but then again it’s also a pain in the ass. I think the pill is so hard for me to let go of because it was so fucking difficult to get.
You can buy condoms at drug stores, grocery stores, gas stations, even liquor stores. I haven’t checked hardware stores, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find them on an end-cap next to some ridiculously large stainless steel screwdrivers. Yet, birth control pills must be prescribed by a physician and purchased from a drug store. You can get pills at most low-income clinics, such as Planned Parenthood or county health offices, but you cannot walk into a gas station at 3 am and buy a pack of pills.
All those years of waiting in line at Planned Parenthood, listening to the screaming toddlers and the woman with the yeast infection pleading with the receptionist for an immediate appointment, gave me ample time to ask myself: Why is the pill a controlled substance? Why isn’t it an over the counter medication? Other drugs are controlled because they are addictive or dangerous if used incorrectly, but birth control is neither. If used incorrectly, you get pregnant and end up in the same damn clinic getting booster shots for your toddler. I suppose there could be dangerous side effects if you overdosed on your pills. If you were really nervous and took the entire pack in one morning, maybe you’d grow a third breast or lose one. Even if the pill was dangerous, there are plenty of dangerous medications available over the counter. An overdose of acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be, and often is, fatal. The pill is not addictive or dangerous, but it is controlled. Why?
More to the point, why are some forms of birth control (condoms) readily available while others (the pill) are controlled? They both prevent pregnancy and are the two most effective methods of birth control available. So what is the difference? Any guesses? I’ll give you a hint: who uses each one? That’s right, men use condoms—well sometimes we help put them on—and women use the pill.
Now before you discount me as a conspiracy theorist, consider the reaction to birth control on the shelves of your local Rite Aid. What do you think people would say? I imagine, and have heard, statements similar to, “well anybody could go and buy it, even minors!” Minors can already buy birth control, so what are we really afraid of? We are afraid young girls will go buy birth control because when we think of condoms we think of men and when we think of the pill we think of women. I think a discussion of our cultural attitudes about sex, youth and gender is necessary if women, of any age, are ever to gain easy access to birth control.
We have some calamitous expectations about sex, youth and gender. It is generally acceptable and expected for young men to experiment with sex, but it is inappropriate, obscene in some circles, for young girls to think of participating. Yet our society does not condone homosexuality, so there is a problem here. Now of course this is not everyone’s opinion on the matter, but it might as well be because we condone young men’s sexuality by having their method of birth control readily available to them. While simultaneously forcing our young women to make appointments and wait in clinics just to gain control over their bodies. This isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t smart if we want to reduce teenage pregnancy.
I know that young women can also buy condoms, but I used to be a young woman, and I know that very few of us had the self-confidence to buy condoms, ask our boyfriends to wear them and make sure they put them on and took them off correctly. What do you suppose a teenage girl is more likely to do: pop a pill each morning in the privacy of her bedroom, or hand her boyfriend a condom and demand that he put it on?
Youth is so overrated. At least the pill was much easier to get once I was an adult, right? Wrong. Even as an adult, I had to go to Planned Parenthood for my pills. There were two reasons for this. First of all, for a long time I didn’t have health insurance or the money to go see a doctor. So I went where I could get them for free. I dreamed of the day I would be a fully-insured adult! Once I had a decent health insurance plan, I learned a new term: “medically necessary.” That’s right, my wonderful health insurance plan, which paid for dental, vision and even $100 for smoking cessation treatment, refused to pay for my pills. When I looked further into the details of my plan, I found that they would pay for me to have a baby or an abortion, but they wouldn’t pay for birth control unless it was deemed medically necessary by my doctor.
Back at Planned Parenthood, I explained my situation and the frustrated receptionist finally whispered over the counter to me “just lie and say you don’t have any health insurance.”
After years of pursuing the pill, I guess it shouldn’t be any wonder that I have a hard time giving it up. I know I should be happy, and I would be if I knew I could just swing by the gas station and get more should I ever need it again.