In the entire history of the world, the greatest freedom women have been given — greater than equal legal status, greater than property rights, greater than the vote — is safe, reliable contraception.
Before that, biology was indeed destiny; women found themselves chained (as they still are in much of the world) to a hormonal rollercoaster of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth and breast feeding, followed by another, often unwanted, pregnancy; what is extraordinary, given this upheaval, is not how little women achieved but how much.
It is strange to think that this astonishing freedom is new and appeared only recently, easily within living memory, at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that many people haven’t quite caught up with the idea or adjusted their thoughts and feelings to it and find themselves still resisting the idea of contraception, often in terms of a confused moral disgust.
“Charter for promiscuity” was the front-page headline in one newspaper last week; that was the predictable response of self-appointed family groups, so-called pro-life groups and religious spokesmen to the news that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) is recommending that all girls over 16 should be offered long-lasting contraceptives on the National Health Service.
The guidelines now say doctors should suggest alternatives to the pill, such as injections and implants, which last for many weeks, or intrauterine devices, which last for several years. These alternatives, known rather endearingly as larcs (long-acting reversible contraceptives), are cheap, reasonably safe, easy to insert and hugely more effective than pills, if only because a woman doesn’t have to keep remembering not to forget about them — she can happily forget about them. What larks indeed.
You might think this would be seen as a great blessing. Nice estimates that 400,000 pregnancies a year are unplanned. The abortion rate in this country is high and rising. About half of women rely on pills or condoms, although not as heavily as they should; one in five women under 25 forgets to take her pill at least once month. It is hardly surprising that a recent study suggests that if just 8% of women taking the pill switched to a larc, unplanned pregnancies could be cut by 70,000 a year.
I do wonder how anyone arrives at such figures: women are far from frank about contraception or contraceptive “accidents” or about what they really want at all. But it stands to reason that more larcs would mean fewer abortions and fewer unwanted babies and fewer miserable, neglected children, not to mention huge savings for the National Health Service and social services.
So why the outrage from the usual suspects? Why is better contraception somehow worse? They ought to be against unwanted babies and against abortions but what they seem to be against is sex. For reasons I cannot understand they are convinced that larcs will lead to all too many more larks or what they tend to call “experimentation”.
They are wrong. These days there is no inhibition, which larcs might be imagined to remove, standing in the way of having as much sex as one wants or can get, with or without contraception, with or without the prospect of abortion. That revolution has happened. Larcs will make no difference.
I would be surprised, too, if larcs make any difference to sexually transmitted diseases — as the usual suspects are also claiming. A man sleeping with a woman who has an IUD or three-monthly injections might be tempted to forget about condoms, but that same argument (and same risk) applies to people who rely on the pill.
The truth is that it depends on the individuals. Just as people know perfectly well how not to get pregnant, they also know how not to get nasty venereal diseases; what they do depends on how sensible they are, just as it always has, time out of mind. It has nothing to do with the refinements of contraceptive technology such as larcs — people used to take those sexual risks, or avoid them, long before there was any contraceptive technology.
What the contraceptive revolution offered from the first, for all its minor side effects and risks and with refinements ever since, such as larcs, was freedom. Contraception offers freedom from the risk of doing something wrong — bringing an unwanted child into the world. It offers freedom from all the risks and distress — some would say the evil — of abortion. And it offers freedom to women to have a sexual life without sacrificing every other kind of life.
But freedom, like justice, is indivisible. Sexual freedom for one is sexual freedom for all. Some people abuse it — in fact when one stops to think of the confessions and betrayals in the tabloid newspapers and on the airwaves of the bonking-mad love rats and their slaggy chavettes, of last week’s 16-year-old mother of triplets and her deeply depressing daily round and so on, one begins to think that a great many people abuse it — but that is the price of freedom.
As moralists warned when the original contraceptive pill broke the necessary link between sex and conception, there were bound to be social consequences. There certainly have been, as with the bonking-mad love rats, slaggy chavettes and wraparound tumescent TV. But there has also been a moral change.
Traditional sexuality morality — meaning sexual restraint, particularly for women — was based on that connection between sex and conception: it evolved to protect paternity and patrimony. Now the connection has all but disappeared, as has patrimony, and the less connection, the less restraint and the more empty the morality.
For this reason Christian moralists and others are doomed to failure with their quixotic hopes of getting people to say no to sex or to save themselves for married monogamy; they might as well try to put a genie back in his lamp. Because higamous, hogamous we are mostly not monogamous, and we no longer have any reproductive reason even to try to pretend that we are.
For better and for worse, contraception changed sexual morality. But it is surely for the best that long-term contraception will now make it less likely that unwanted babies will be born to unwilling or unthinking mothers. That is a great emancipation by any standards.