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The birth control pill crisis is feminist

· ​A case of ecological conscience ·

When an American woman, today the mother of a family and a militant ecologist, first discussed with her husband how they envisaged their future family, she realized that they were on the same wavelength with regard to the number of children they hoped to have – but not as regards methods of birth control. “The most common method among the young was oral contraception and it still is today. Or else other chemical hormonal contraceptives such as the coil, injections, patches and vaginal rings”, she recounts in her blog. “My husband thought that those methods would not cause me problems but he was very much mistaken. I was not yet trying to live a natural or ecological life, yet I was already 100 percent certain that I would not take hormones or chemical contraceptives. I would not introduce those things into my system or treat my body in that way”.

Giovanni Segantini, “Mother Washing Child”(1886-1887), by kind permission of the Museo Alto Garda, Galleria Giovanni Segantini, Arco

Hers was not an isolated testimony. “Not long ago I decided to stop taking the pill because the chemical regulation of my cycles gave me the sensation that I was losing control over my body”, said Laure, a young 35-year-old French activist. “It’s paradoxical, for I chose this form of contraception precisely in order to have more control over my life.... And instead I was feeling the opposite: I felt cut off from myself, cut off from my feelings and, in a certain way, cut off from the world”. Laure explained that this decision was not due to some religious reason but rather to a sense of inconsistency with her lifestyle and with a certain conception of respect for her body.

“I eat organic food, I give priority to foodstuffs from a short production chain, from local farming, I use only natural detergents, I avoid everything that is chemical in my beauty products and I only take medicines when I am really ill. So it was that I switched to the natural methods of observing my cycle and since then I have the feeling that I have rediscovered harmony with the environment around me”.

For a long time labelled “Catholic”, the natural methods of observation of the cycle are attracting an increasing number of women in ecological circles, such as the American mother of a family (who later chose to undergo sterilization) or, more simply, people who, like Laure, have a more acute environmentalist awareness. “In my consulting room”, affirms Pauline de Germay, a consultant on natural methods of birth control who lives in Paris, “I receive more and more women and couples who want to change to the natural methods because they reject everything that is chemical. Recently one woman spoke to me of her Vegan daughter who has taken up with a boyfriend and has found herself facing a case of ecological conscience! A growing number of people in society think that chemical contraception blocks processes and that women feel less desire when they take the pill. In general, the reawakening of an environmentalist awareness ensures that people pay more attention to what they ingest and that the natural methods appear to them as an extraordinary gateway giving access to rediscovering their profound nature”.

Wilfredo Lam, “Maternity in Green” (1942)

The 2012-2013 crisis of the pill in France was due precisely to this. At the end of December 2012 a young woman who was using a third-generation pill sued a pharmaceutical laboratory after suffering a stroke that disabled her, giving rise to a heated discussion on the risk of a vein thrombosis linked to the use of birth-control pills of the third and fourth generations. The risk of strokes as estimated by the Agence National de Sécurité du Médicament et des Produits de Santé (ansm) [French National Agency for the Security of Medicines and Health Care Products] is 2 in 10,000 for women who do not take oral contraceptives, from 5 to 7 in 10,000 for those who take second-generation pills and from 9 to 12 in 10,000 for those who take third-generation pills. The Health Ministry then decided no longer to reimburse the cost of third and fourth generation pills. The wide-scale media coverage of the case in 2012 led to a further 130 proceedings in France for “personal injury through negligence”, which concerned about 30 brands of third and fourth generation pills, eight laboratories and the ansm. The investigation was closed in June 2017 but it made a deep impact.

According to an investigation published in 2014 by the Institut National d’Études Démographiques (ined) [French National Institute for Demographic Studies], entitled The crisis of the pill in France: towards a new contraceptive model?one woman in five declared that she had changed her method of contraception after what happened in 2012-2013. Thus recourse to the pill dropped from 50 to 41 per cent between 2010 and 2013. It then continued to diminish.“The reduction in the number of women who take the pill seen in those aged 15 to 49 in 2013, subsequent to the ‘birth pill crisis’, continued in 2016, with a significant decrease of 3.1 points between 2013 and 2016”, we read in another report. This decrease came in addition to that of five points noted in the middle of the year 2000 and in 2010. The phenomenon concerned women of every age but was particularly marked among the youngest, especially those below the age of 30. Thus the natural methods, although their use is still marginal in the population as a whole (fewer than one person in 10 uses them in France) benefited from this crisis of faith in the pill, on a par with condoms and coils, whose use is increasing.

Those who still think of the Ogino-Knaus method and its 25 per cent of unplanned pregnancies per year, risk being surprised. In the 20th century contraception put an end to uncontrolled (because still not understood) fertility in women to make way now for the 21st century, in which the methods of observing the cycle have put an end to the hyper-medicalization (because it has become useless) of their bodies! What? A feminist? Me?” a 30-year-old Frenchwoman writes in her blog Cycle naturel [Natural Cycle]. A sign of this renewal: at the beginning of the year a non-denominational group of about 100 health-care workers, including gynaecologists, obstetricians and midwives, published an open letter pressing for better training for health-care workers on this subject. This group asked people in particular not to confuse the methods of observation of the cycle with other so-called “natural” practices whose reliability is inadequate: coitus interruptus, prediction of the date of ovulation with the “calculation” apps for smartphones or basal temperature methods. The group also asked that during university studies more time be devoted to the physiology of the cycle so that health-care workers may be better trained on this subject: “Can it still be normal in the 21st century to conclude our medical studies without knowing the functional aspects of the physiology of the cycle? And without knowing exactly what are the benefits to a woman’s health of the hormones produced naturally during the physiological cycle?”, the group’s members wondered. In their opinion, the question of formation is crucial in order to respond to the increasing questions. “These questions spring from a desire to know and appreciate femininity (and not from an anti-feminism or obscurantism, nor from the mere ‘fear of synthetic hormones’). They are far more than all this”.

In fact what we are witnessing is a movement of “reappropriation” of the body. “Women want to regain possession of their bodies and to be autonomous in the management of them”, the authors of the article observe. “This is what they call empowerment. They say so during visits, whenever there is a space for dialogue”. In this movement of the reappropriation of the body the desire is also manifest for a truly shared responsibility in matters of sexuality and fertility, areas whose management all too often falls only on women’s shoulders. “After a phase of application which is always somewhat complicated, especially after taking the pill, couples note that this creates or renews dialogue, because these methods entail listening and special attention. Women perceive variations in their desire, which changes according to the moment in their cycle. In listening, men see these variations which leads to their greater involvement”, says Pauline de Germay.

Those women who have arrived at the natural methods for ecological reasons often experience a moment of rediscovery of themselves since the observation of the cycle is a demanding process, to which it is necessary to devote more time in order to learn and to observe themselves. It is a paradigm shift for many of these women who saw themselves prescribed the pill de facto from the very beginning of their intimate life, towards the end of adolescence, without any real alternative proposed or any conversation with the gynaecologist, and often even without knowing their own cycle themselves. They embark on a process of becoming acquainted with themselves, with difficulties and stages of discouragement, but also with discoveries about themselves. Frequently criticized as reactionary, even by the whole of another section of ecological circles in which not everyone supports them, the natural methods of conception are today accompanied by a reawakening of a feminist type of awareness which the young author of the blog Natural Cycleexpresses in this way:since knowledge of the female body and of the natural mechanisms of reproduction have made extraordinary progress in the past 50 years, “it is impossible still to call a ‘dinosaur’ something that has become a gazelle”.

Marie-Lucile Kubacki

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