Unfortunately, they think this is a bad thing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A few years back, Sara Robinson penned the most incisive blog post I’ve ever read about the War on Science and the fundamentalist mindset (far, far better than most of the wonky poli sci and pseudo-neuroscience one sees bandied about in the bloggysphere–and she beat them to punch to boot). Really, if you read one link today, make it this one.
Robinson is back, and this time she’s writing about the importance of contraception (boldface mine):
When people look back on the 20th century from the vantage point of 500 years on, they will remember the 1900s for three big things.
One was the integrated circuit, and (more importantly) the Internet and the information revolution that it made possible. When our descendants look back, they’re likely to see this as an all-levels, all-sectors disruption on the scale of the printing press — but even more all-encompassing….
The second was the moon landing, a first-time-ever milestone in human history that our galaxy-trotting grandkids five centuries on may well view about the same way we see Magellan’s first daring circumnavigation of the globe.
But the third one is the silent one, the one that I’ve never seen come up on anybody’s list of Innovations That Changed The World, but matters perhaps more deeply than any of the more obvious things that usually come to mind. And that’s the mass availability of nearly 100% effective contraception. Far from being a mere 500-year event, we may have to go back to the invention of the wheel or the discovery of fire to find something that’s so completely disruptive to the way humans have lived for the entire duration of our remembered history.
Until the condom, the diaphragm, the Pill, the IUD, and all the subsequent variants of hormonal fertility control came along, anatomy really was destiny — and all of the world’s societies were organized around that central fact. Women were born to bear children; they had no other life options. With a few rebellious or well-born exceptions (and a few outlier cultures that somehow found their way to a more equal footing), the vast majority of women who’ve ever lived on this planet were tied to home, dependent on men, and subject to all kinds of religious and cultural restrictions designed to guarantee that they bore the right kids to the right man at the right time — even if that meant effectively jailing them at home.
Our biology reduced us to a kind of chattel, subject to strictures that owed more to property law than the more rights-based laws that applied to men. Becoming literate or mastering a trade or participating in public life wasn’t unheard-of; but unlike the men, the world’s women have always had to fit those extras in around their primary duty to their children and husband — and have usually paid a very stiff price if it was thought that those duties were being neglected.
Men, in return, thrived. The ego candy they feasted on by virtue of automatically outranking half the world’s population was only the start of it. They got full economic and social control over our bodies, our labor, our affections, and our futures. They got to make the rules, name the gods we would worship, and dictate the terms we would live under. In most cultures, they had the right to sex on demand within the marriage, and also to break their marriage vows with impunity — a luxury that would get women banished or killed. As long as pregnancy remained the defining fact of our lives, they got to run the whole show. The world was their party, and they had a fabulous time.
Thousands of generations of men and women have lived under some variant of this order — some variations more benevolent, some more brutal, but all similar enough in form and intention — in all times and places, going back to where our memory of time ends. Look at it this way, and you get a striking perspective on just how world-changing it was when, within the span of just a few short decades in the middle of the 20th century, all of that suddenly ended. For the first time in human history, new technologies made fertility a conscious choice for an ever-growing number of the planet’s females. And that, in turn, changed everything else.
With that one essential choice came the possibility, for the first time, to make a vast range of other choices for ourselves that were simply never within reach before. We could choose to delay childbearing and limit the number of children we raise; and that, in turn, freed up time and energy to explore the world beyond the home. We could refuse to marry or have babies at all, and pursue our other passions instead. Contraception was the single necessary key that opened the door to the whole new universe of activities that had always been zealously monopolized by the men — education, the trades, the arts, government, travel, spiritual and cultural leadership, and even (eventually) war making.
That one fact, that one technological shift, is now rocking the foundations of every culture on the planet — and will keep rocking it for a very long time to come. It is, over time, bringing a louder and prouder female voice into the running of the world’s affairs at every level, creating new conversations and new priorities in areas where the men long ago thought things were settled and understood. It’s bending our understanding of what sex is about, and when and with whom we can have it — a wrinkle that created new frontiers for gay folk as well. It may well prove to the be the one breakthrough most responsible for the survival of the human race, and the future viability of the planet.
Leaving aside one minor quibble–I would add the one-two punch of antibiotics and vaccination to the list–Robinson is dead on target.
Birth control is one of the most radical technologies ever invented. As Robison notes, it is truly disruptive, and not in the douchey Silicon Valley meaning of the word either. It means we can have ‘consequence-free sex‘ (as if that’s a bad thing). While women (and men to a lesser extent) are struggling to figure out how to integrate child bearing and rearing with careers and work, that topic wasn’t even on the table two or three generations ago. Men will have come to terms with the notion that more and more traditional male activities and areas are now open to women. Within marriages (and other relationships), the balance of power between men and women is fundamentally altered: it is telling that abusive men often try to get ‘their’ women pregnant by sabotaging birth control–pregnancy as control, not procreation.
So the Scalito Five are correct: birth control is not like other medical procedures. It fundamentally alters the freedom and liberty of women as well as men, which implies that the Court should have defended access to contraception more vigorously than other healthcare procedures. Unless, of course, the Lords of Permissible Fucking don’t want these radical changes.
Come to think of it, that does explain the decision….
Enough of their past, it’s time for our future.