How Capitalism and the Patriarchy Built Our Problematic Birth Control Situation

By Avery Phillips

With articles coming out daily about attempts to rollback birth control coverage and take away reproductive choices, it is easy to think that patriarchal influence over birth control is at an all time high. But if you look into the history of birth control, you’ll find that it has always been heavily controlled by patriarchal and capitalist concerns, and today’s issues are a natural progression of how the system has always functioned.

The Beginning of Birth Control

Talking about the beginning of birth control is complicated, because people have always found ways to avoid becoming pregnant. In ancient times, people made condoms out of plants and animal parts. Some followed rituals and superstitions that were meant to prevent pregnancy. For all of history, some people chose to remain abstinent in order to avoid pregnancy. But more recently there have been fairly reliable ways to avoid pregnancy, while being sexually active.

The most commonly used form of modern birth control, oral contraception, can be traced to Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood in the mid 20th century. Sanger funded research into oral contraception along with her friend and business partner, Katharine McCormick. Clinical trials for the pill had to be held in Puerto Rico, where there were no laws against contraception and there was a well established network of birth control clinics. When the FDA approved use of the pill in the United States, it was only to regulate periods, contraception was listed as a “side effect”.

In 1960, the first oral contraceptive pill was legally approved, though it wasn’t officially legalized by the Supreme Court until 1965, and then only for married couples. In 1968, the FDA approved IUDS. In 1970, safety concerns around oral contraceptives arose and the package insert for prescription drugs was created. The dosage of the pill was also altered to include only the hormones necessary to prevent pregnancy. In 1972, the Supreme Court legalized birth control for all citizens, regardless of marital status. This timeline of birth control covers other interesting and important dates.

Of course, having the legal right to safe, reliable contraception and having access are two different things. Since health insurance in the United States is often tied to employment, many employers believe they have the right to dictate what kind of birth control their employees have access to. Some doctors even refuse to prescribe certain types of contraception to certain people. People under the age of 30 are rarely granted the option to be permanently sterilized, even when they have valid concerns about how pregnancy and/or children would negatively affect their health and lives. Many teens wanting to use oral contraceptives to control acne and other hormones are met with shame. People are expected to know what type of contraception they want to use, and are often met with frustration if they decide they want to change. Side effects are not always taken seriously, and people are not believed when they say they will not want children for 5+ years (yes, an IUD is a viable option for them).

This lack of autonomy and choice is indicative of a patriarchal society that prioritizes reproduction at any cost, and minimizes individual choice, particularly for women and people who fall outside the prized status quo.

Dismissing Concerns

Availability of and access to birth control is an important battle, but the problems with the pharmaceutical industry cannot be ignored. Many people are understandably concerned with how hormones affect their bodies and brain chemistry. These concerns are often dismissed.  Yet, in the last year a male birth control study was launched, but cut short because many participants did not like the side effects, which were the same as those of “the pill.”

There is also the problem of doctors recommending certain procedures and prescriptions based on what pharmaceutical companies pay them incentives for. Many doctors recommended the product Essure as permanent birth control before it was found that Essure makers used flawed data to gain FDA approval. There must be measures for people to find out about the medical treatments recommended to them. There has to be more accountability than currently exists.

The relative accessibility of contraception is also used as a weapon against those who want to exercise control over their reproductive rights. Many anti-choice arguments rest on “if they didn’t want to become pregnant, they should have been on birth control.” This argument not only ignores the existence of non-consensual sexual encounters, but also the fact that no contraception is 100 percent effective. It discounts sex for any purpose other than reproduction and ignores the fact that pregnancy is hard on the human body, causing temporary conditions that can lead to chronic health problems, ranging from blood pressure issues to vulvar varicosities to very serious mental and emotional trauma. This weaponization is compounded by the marketing of most contraceptive methods to people who can be impregnated, rather than people who can impregnate.

Indeed, the only mainstream contraceptive methods marketed toward cisgender males are condoms and vasectomies. Vasectomies are becoming more common, and can be reversible, but are rarely recommended to people who have not already had children. In society at large, condoms are often seen as an inconvenience, and some people resent wearing them. In India, most responsibility for contraception is placed on women, even though the side effects of hormonal contraception and tubectomies are more complicated and harder on bodies than condoms and vasectomies.

Even as contraception is weaponized against those dependent on it, access to it is also being threatened. Religious organizations, corporations, and politicians all have vested interests in keeping contraceptives inaccessible. When people don’t have control over their ability to (or to not) procreate, they end up being marginalized. People stay in jobs they don’t want to be in, spend more money on raising families, and are generally kept “in their place” rather than striving forward.

Suppressing Research

As mentioned above, one of the main problems at the heart of inequality in birth control is the focus on only one type of body. There are many reasons for this, one of the main ones stemming from capitalism.

Just look at the options that are marketed towards cisgender men, as well as the most common form of contraception for cisgender women. Condoms are something that must be purchased for every single instance of intercourse. Oral contraceptives must be taken daily. These forms of contraception are very lucrative because they require repeated purchases.

One of the main reasons touted for the lack of options in male contraception is lack of funding. This then prompts the question, who funds birth control research and why are hormonal side effects a deal-killer for options for men, but not for women?

Not surprisingly, some of the biggest investors in contraception research are the companies that sell contraception. These companies have profited greatly from making birth control a lifestyle drug and have shown little interest in developing new products that don’t require ongoing purchases. Because pharmaceutical companies have so much buying and lobbying power, they are able to block certain innovations that would disrupt their status quo.

There finally are some interesting studies happening in the field of male birth control, many of which are one-time procedures, and completely reversible. Is it too much to hope for that these procedures won’t be suppressed by corporate interests that want to pregnancy to be seen as a “woman’s issue”?