In 2013, we live in a society where contraceptive use is common by both men and women. Margaret Sanger’s efforts had a lot to do with that, as she worked to make available and accessible a wide range of contraceptive methods. But Sanger focused on woman-controlled contraceptives and was reluctant to trust men to take precautions. What would Sanger say to the news that a birth control pill for men that has no major side effects could soon be available?
In an ideal society, no doubt, birth control would become the concern of the man as well as the woman. The hard, inescapable fact which we encounter to-day is that man has not only refused any such responsibility, but has individually and collectively sought to prevent woman from obtaining knowledge by which she could assume this responsibility for herself. She is still in the position of a dependent to-day because her mate has refused to consider her as an individual apart from his needs. She is still bound because she has in the past left the solution of the problem to him. Having left it to him, she finds that instead of rights, she has only such privileges as she has gained by petitioning, coaxing and cozening. Having left it to him, she is exploited, driven and enslaved to his desires. (“A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?,” March 1919)
Sanger would no doubt be pleased with recent advances in the availability of birth control in this country. Sex education for both boys and girls is offered at public schools and birth control devices are explained and encouraged. And while there have been many improvements in woman-controlled contraceptives, until now, men still primarily rely on the condom, the most popular method in Sanger’s day. Sanger didn’t trust condoms, not so much because she thought they were ineffective, but because they relied on men.
She has learned that whatever the moral responsibility of the man in this direction may be, he does not discharge it. She has learned that, lovable and considerate as the individual husband may be, she has nothing to expect from men in the mass, when they make laws and decree customs. She knows that regardless of what ought to be, the brutal, unavoidable fact is that she will never receive her freedom until she takes it for herself. (“A Parent’s Problem or a Woman’s?,” 1919.
The idea that women needed to take charge of family planning was a new one. Sanger’s experiences working with married women with six, seven or eight children was that their husbands did not want to limit the family or did not want any interference in their pleasure. Most of her campaign centered on the idea that women needed to be the primary decision makers because she wanted women to assert control as they were the one primarily affected.
While it is true that he suffers many evils as the consequence of this situation, she suffers vastly more. While it is true that he should be awakened to the cause of these evils, we know that they come home to her with crushing force every day. It is she who has the long burden of carrying, bearing and rearing the unwanted children. It is she who must watch beside the beds of pain where lie the babies who suffer because they have come into overcrowded homes. It is her heart that the sight of the deformed, the subnormal, the undernourished, the overworked child smites first and oftenest and hardest. It is her love life that dies first in the fear of undesired pregnancy. It is her opportunity for self expression that perishes first and most hopelessly because of it. (“Parent’s Problem or a Woman’s?, 1919)
The possibility of a male birth control pill will force women to ask themselves, despite still having to carry and care for the child, is it time for women to begin to trust men in regards to birth control?
A team led by Martin Matzuk of Baylor College of Medicine and James Bradner of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute believe they have stumbled on a potential birth control pill. While testing a drug that would be used in anti-cancer treatments, they have created a drug that controls fertility in men. Tests have only been done on mice at this point, but results show a rapid decrease in sperm production and mobility, and virtually zero side effects. And most importantly, the mice immediately begin producing sperm again once off the drug.
If a birth control pill for men does become available in the upcoming years, it may change the way both genders view contraceptives. Questions will arise for both genders. The pill would be a less permanent alternative to a vasectomy, so married men not interested in having any more children would accept it with arms wide open. But will younger, single men want to take this pill or will a feminine stigma be attached to the pill? We know that Margaret Sanger would not approve of women relying on men, but will women today trust their significant other to take his pill daily when he may not even remember to take out the trash?
In 1919, Sanger asserted that “Conditions, rather than theories, facts, rather than dreams, govern the problem. They place it squarely upon the shoulders of woman.” (“A Parent’s Problem or a Woman’s?”) The development of a male birth control pill will change the conditions under which men and women make family planning decisions. Will women begin trusting their husbands and partners, and give up using the existing woman-controlled methods, many of which have serious side effects? Will men accept the responsibility for family planning in the 21st century and prove Sanger wrong? Only time will tell.
Feel free to comment or answer the questions!
For more information on the male contraceptive, see “Guys, Take Note: Male Birth Control Pill May Be Ready Soon,” Science Daily, Sep. 5, 2012. For the entire article quoted here, “A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?,” Birth Control Review, March 1919.