I’m writing in reply to Amanda Marcotte’s article, “The Pill: A Counter to ‘Over-the-Counter.’” As I observed on my own blog, this is not the first time that the Pill has been considered for a switch from prescription only (Rx) to over-the-counter (OTC). The first time this issue was raised was in the early 1990s. Historically, the arguments in favor of OTC status for oral contraceptives have tended to come from public health experts who, like Marcotte, see the prescription as paternalistic and an unnecessary barrier to timely access. While I think this is a legitimate point, I also think it’s unfair to characterize the work of Laura Eldrige as simply “freaking out about the pill.” I also think that Marcotte’s claim that complaints of side effects and criticisms of the Pill itself are due to our culture’s “sex panic” is a simplistic analysis of the situation and overlooks a long history of feminist activism on behalf of women consumers.
For example, the work of Barbara Seaman and the National Women’s Health Network in the 1970s and 1980s exposed serious ethical lapses in human subjects research involving women, especially women of color, and that the possible health risks of various forms of contraception — including the Pill, the Dalkon shield IUD, Depo Provera, and Norplant, were underplayed at the expense of women’s health.
In my opinion, Marcotte’s claim that women’s symptoms while on oral contraceptives are merely the result of “sex panic-driven fears” is just as paternalistic as saying women need a prescription for the Pill. This same argument was made in the 1960s when the first serious side effects from the Pill were reported, i.e. that women who reported problems were just “hysterical” and subconsciously felt guilty about taking the Pill.
I think Laura Eldridge follows in the same tradition as her mentor Barbara Seaman and other founding members of the feminist health movement such as the authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves. In my opinion, providing women with accurate information about the benefits AND risks of various contraceptive methods is an important way to empower women to make their own reproductive health choices. We can have a balanced discussion about this without feeding into “right-wing misinformation.” Indeed, I think a nuanced evaluation of the historical and scientific arguments in favor and against various methods of contraception can help combat conservative opposition. I also think we should respect women’s choices about contraceptive methods, even if they aren’t what we would choose for ourselves.
P.S. Speaking of choices — here’s a top ten list of contraceptive options from Ms. Magazine Blog.