Page 8, 20th November 1998

20th November 1998
Page 8
Page 8, 20th November 1998 — Complex and ambivalent thoughts on the contraceptive pill

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Organisations: House of Lords
Locations: Dublin


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Complex and ambivalent thoughts on the contraceptive pill

IHAVE HAD a letter from a lady in the Co Dublin area who accuses me of being irresponsible in what I have written. in general, about the Pill. Of never "referring to the very serious side effects it can have.

"In case you don't know, there are hundreds of women all over the world who are seriously ill or have died, from having taken the Pill, including my daughter, who got thrombosis (portal vein) and nearly died from blood clots, and will be in an out of hospital for the rest of her life.

"I feel very angry at people like you," Mrs B. understandably continues, "who are allowed to say and write things you know nothing about, and are ignorant of the harm you can do."

Well. I don't wonder that Mrs B. feels angry: her daughter has been horribly damaged from the Pill's sideeffects. She is right to point out that women have died, and very young women too, from the consequences of the Pill.

It was a scandal that Mrs Victoria Gillick lost her vital case, in 1985, when the House of Lords ruled that doctors could prescribe the contraceptive Pill for underage girls without their parents' consent.

Reported in medical journals all over the world, it gave the green light to the idea that under-age teenagers could turn to the medical authorities behind their parents' back. There may be extreme cases where the law could overrule parents — in the matter of parental refusal of blood transfusions, for example, or where parents are forcing a girl to have an abortion, which is not unknown either. But the disastrous ruling in the Gillick case set the precedent for a much wider, normalisation of the medication of children without parental knowledge.

I take the reprimand from Mrs B. very seriously indeed, and in general I certainly agree with her that the media often does blather lightly about matters of grave concern.

And yet, though I apparently have written about the Pill in a way that must seem dismissive, at least to this parent, my own attitude to it is complex and ambivalent. I think we also have to look at this honestly. Women do suffer, yes, from the Pill's side-effects. But women suffered, and died, also, from the side-effects of repeated pregnancy and childbirth. In I 960, the maternal mortality rate in Ireland was 15 mothers per 1,000 (and 10 per 1,000 in the U.K with regional variations). Today, it is close to zero. and lower in Ireland than in Britain. It is a little-known fact that Ireland, along with Finland, has the lowest maternal mortality — that is mothers dying in pregnancy, or around the time of the birth — in the world. This huge improvement in maternal mortality is not due to the Pill in itself, but due to improved maternity health care: but that did start to improve dramatically very soon after the appearance of the Pill, which brought more medical focus onto obstetrics and gynaecology.

In the Christian order of things, suffering and death are sometimes to be accepted, but maternal suffering was perhaps too easily accepted in times gone by.

Catholic women found their own ways around this: my mother told me that she and her friends preferred, back in the 1940s, to have a Protestant gynaecologist because he was thought to have a less flinty attitude to maternal suffering. The Protestant in question told Ma that he knew the name of every saint in the calendar — because he had had so many Catholic women call upon them during the pangs of childbirth.

I do not myself particularly like the Pill; it's a funny idea to demand rights over your own body, and then drug it with a powerful pharrnaceu

tical which controls its every cell.

And I think Humanae Vitae — the Encyclical which finally came out against artificial contraception in 1968

— was a hugely important historical document which stated most poetically, and prophetically, that we must not forget that the purpose of sexuality is the transmission of life. Now that we see scientists airily talking about creating life from cloning, or providing individuals with "spare parts" of themselves for possible future medical cannibalization, the full value of respecting every human life for its unique and divine and mission hits home.

But the matter of the Pill is not a simple matter. It undoubtedly has caused some deaths, yet it must also have saved many lives, if we look at maternal mortality. And perhaps the Pill's real significance was its symbolic impact: that it gave women the idea, backed up for the first time with medical support, that they could be as free as men.

The idea is a flawed one, because we now know, from research on the human brain, that men and women are much more different than was formerly imagined. But it was a powerful one in its time. It begot the modern wave of feminism.

Not an open and shut case, the historical question of the Pill. But Mrs B. 's letter has been a helpful reminder to me that we never even seem to take it seriously enough.

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