I’m prone to say because of the work I do in bioethics, that “the pill allowed us to have sex, without having babies, and now reproductive technologies allow us to have babies without having sex.” I use Elton John and his partner David Furnish as my illustration. Elton and David came to California to buy eggs from one woman and rent the womb of another to become parents—no sexual act was involved in the creation of Elton John’s two sons. Both sons were carried by the same surrogate mother.
Beginning with “the pill” we began the process of decoupling sex from baby-making, so naturally I was excited to preview the new documentary film, “The Business of Birth Control” based on Holly Grigg-Spall’s book, “Sweetening the Pill.” I read Grigg-Spall’s book back in 2013 when it was released and full-disclosure, I contributed modestly to the crowd funder to make the film because I felt her book would make an informative documentary on the risks of contraception.
“The Business of Birth Control,” produced by filmmakers Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake, has been released, it seems, at just the right time, as the New York Times writes about the continued struggles and push to make oral birth control pills available over-the-counter. This debate has been going on for several years but has been mired with FDA approval hurdles, politics, and activism.
From the Times piece we see the stakeholders’ opposing points of view, with those who reject access to the pill without a prescription being rooted in health concerns compared with the reproductive-right activists who want the pill to be easily accessible to “rural, poor, and historically marginalized communities” for preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Of course, Big Pharma is on board as winners, already selling nearly $3 billion a year in pills, over-the-counter access for women who want to orally contracept will only drive their profits higher. Since Holly Griggs-Spall’s book raises questions about the pill and she leads workshops on going off hormonal contraception, I reached out to her for a comment on the drive to make the pill available over-the-counter and she declined to comment on the record.
Epstein and Lake’s film does a great job of plotting the sixty-year history of the pill that was sold to women and celebrated as it “revolutionized,” “liberated,” and “emancipated” women from unwanted pregnancy and gave sexual freedom. However, the film counts the cost of this sexual liberation by exposing the negative impact of the pill on women’s health.
Powerful testimony of women who suffered complications from the pill as well as several sets of parents whose daughters have died from hormonal contraception shows viewers just how dangerous the pill can be. Karen Langhart and her husband Rick are featured in the film, as their daughter Erika died of a pulmonary embolism caused by the NuvaRing.
The Langhart’s established a foundation after Erika’s death, Informed Choice for Amerika, but Karen eventually took her own life as she “was frustrated by the ‘walls’ she encountered dealing with Congress and the pharmaceutical companies” as stated by her husband Rick. Other women in the film talk about the “3 pages of side effects” listed on the drug package insert, the loss of libido, mood swings, hair loss, depression, heart attacks, and blood clots.
I was happy to see that the filmmakers included historical ties to the eugenicist, Margaret Sanger as the film exposed the “racist legacy of hormonal contraception.” The film includes old Black and White footage of Sanger saying, “I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being, practically delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things, they’re just marked when they are born.”
Even still powerful today, in full exhibition in the New York Times, where reproductive-rights activists’ main motivation is to provide easy access of the pill to the rural and poor or marginalized people, the same people that Sanger would have probably said should not reproduce. Once again, we see the Sanger-style activists forcing their biased opinions onto rural and marginalized women knowing that the pill has all sorts of downsides.
In the end, the debate continues: should obtaining the pill be as easy as walking into the local drug store to purchase shampoo and toothpaste or should providers continue to guard hormonal prescriptions with known risks and adverse effects?
Overall, the information in “Sweetening the Pill” and “The Business of Birth Control” is important viewing for women and medical professionals working with women, but sadly, the filmmakers inserted a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that will be very off-putting to many women, myself included:
“The filmmakers want to acknowledge the use of gendered language throughout this documentary. While menstruation is experienced across the gender binary, the film itself specifically focuses on the historical and lived experiences of cis-women who menstruate. The emphasis on this narrative is not an intentional erasure of men and nonbinary folks around the world who also experience menstruation. We, as well as those featured in the documentary, are always seeking to do better.”
A film for the benefit of women felt the need to issue an apology to the gender activists, lest they be offended for not being included when discussing a subject that involves, sex, biology, and human reproduction.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.