The main article in Time magazine this week is in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the FDA approval of the Pill. I don’t usually read Time, so I was happy to discover it and read the somewhat surprising things it has to say about birth control. Many people attribute the advent of the birth control with the rise of a sexual revolution and increased promiscuity, but the article argues that there was no such revolution: in the 1960s, people seeking the Pill were required to be married, and by 1953, way before the Pill was approved by the FDA, half of the women studied in the Kinsey Report had sex out of marriage.
So what did the Pill do? They took away an excuse for employers not to hire women, as women would no longer be expected to need to quit for having a baby. It went hand in hand with Title IX in ’72, which banned discrimination in education:
The Pill played a role, argues Harvard economist Goldin, in persuading colleges and graduate schools not to reject female applicants on the assumption that they would just wind up getting pregnant and dropping out. After 1970, as states lowered the age of majority and young people were granted more rights, college and graduate students had easier access to contraception. From 1970 to ’80, Goldin notes, women went from comprising 10% of first-year law students to 36% and from 4% of business-school students to 28%. “I’ve taken a lot of grief by people who insist the Pill had nothing to do with this, it’s all the women’s movement,” she says. But her research showed the connection between the point at which different states allowed access to the Pill and the progress women in those states made.
The Pill did, and has done, a lot for women—opening the door to control over their bodies and procreation. And yes, there are still a lot of problems with it, namely the fact that 63% of young men and women say that they know little or nothing about birth control pills. Education about contraception is clearly lacking, but at least the Pill is there.
So what does Judaism say about the Pill? Traditionally, Judaism encourages sex, but only inside of a marriage. Not only this, but in Judaism it is a Mitzvah to procreate and to have children, and a sin to “waste seed.” So where does contraception come in, in light of this?
More liberal and modern aspects of Judaism allow contraception in all forms. Traditional groups stress that having a baby should not be pushed off altogether, but that contraception may be used when pregnancy or childbirth might harm the mother, to limit the number of children in a family for the sake of the family, or to space out having children. The methods that are generally approved of are the Pill, sometimes the diaphragm, and the IUD, because they do not involve “wasting sperm” like the condom would. There’s also a story of a woman being allowed to drink a potion to make her infertile, which is the precedent in Judaism for the Pill.
It’s weird for me, at least, to have grown up in society where the Pill is so mainstream and condoms are handed out at festivals and concerts, but to be a part of Judaism where there are such limits on what kinds of contraception can be used. And obviously, that’s a very traditional view—Reform Judaism, for instance, encourages people to have babies only when they are good and ready. But still, thinking about it to me is a clash of worlds: the modern world, in which the Pill has changed the way women fit into it, and the traditional religious world, where women’s roles have been somewhat set for generations. And I guess it’s a choice that people make for themselves, choosing the world they see themselves fit into best. And the reason they can make that choice for themselves? Because the Pill is available, accessible, and legal.