Feminists and Contraception

Published Summer 2023

Human Life Review

In January 2023, an article by New York Post columnist Rikki Schlott surveyed a striking trend: a growing wave of young women opting out of hormonal birth control. The writer herself is one such malcontent. “Recently, after six years on it, I decided to stop taking the pill,” she says. “But it isn’t just me. Many of my friends are independently doing the same, whether it’s driven by concern for their mental health, desire for something more natural—or curiosity about what the world looks like when you’re not in a hormonal fog.” She argues that an increasing number of her peers are declining oral contraception because they have “an intuitive sense that hormonal birth control might be messing with us, and our brains.”

Lest readers dismiss Schlott and her friends as a tiny fraction of today’s women, she bolsters her article with input from professionals. “I have noticed that many patients prefer non-hormonal birth control,” Dr. Taraneh Shirazian, a gynecologist at New York University’s Langone Health and director of the Center for Fibroid Care, told the Post. “Many are keen on limiting their body’s exposure to outside hormones so that they can feel more natural and like themselves.”

Schlott also interviews Sarah Hill, a research psychologist who wrote the 2019 book This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences, a project she began after her own experience quitting the Pill. “It seems to me that there is this belief that birth control as an issue facing women has been solved: We have the pills, and so what’s all the whining and fussing about?” Hill told the Post. “Drug companies and others who could be investing in trying to find something better for us are mistaking the fact that so many women are on it for the fact that we don’t need something better.”

The popularity of do-it-yourself books on hormone regulation and fertility tracking—such as Jolene Brighten’s Beyond the Pill and Toni Weschler’s Taking Charge of Your Fertility, both published within the last decade—confirm that this growing discontent is more than a passing fad. The subtitles of these two books are especially revealing: Beyond the Pill: A 30-Day Program to Balance Your Hormones, Reclaim Your Body, and Reverse the Dangerous Side Effects of the Birth Control Pill and Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health. Women feel alone, left to navigate the complicated world of hormones and fertility on their own. They’re turning to books such as these because for decades most in the medical profession have relied on the supposed panacea of oral contraception, prescribing it not only for contraceptive purposes—with little concern for its many side effects—but also as a purported treatment for hormonal ailments of all kinds.

As Grace Emily Stark has chronicled for the Human Life Review, the widespread use and over-prescription of birth control has imposed significant costs, both for women’s health and for society more broadly. “From the vantage point of 2022,” Stark writes, “it is clear that freedom from one’s fertility and suppression of one’s menstrual symptoms have come with two clear costs: an expectation that women accommodate themselves to the male-normative workforce, and a dearth of effective options to treat the root causes of gynecological and menstrual issues that plague women around the world.”

A sampling of the thousands of glowing Amazon reviews for Brighten’s and Weschler’s books underscores this very problem. “What a tool of important knowledge every woman should know,” one Taking Charge of Your Fertility reader wrote. “We literally should have a class on this in high school. Women do not know their bodies. We have suppressed our femininity for too long.” Countless reviews complain about the steep monetary costs and physical effects of birth control and praise the authors for calling attention to the ways in which oral contraception can wreak havoc on female fertility, sometimes long after a woman has ceased using it.

Many are aware that the Pill can cause unpleasant side effects during its use, but because it masks hormonal imbalances rather than treating them, it also can obscure and even complicate potential underlying issues with a woman’s fertility. As Stark explains it, “A woman on hormonal contraception . . . does not experience the natural monthly ebb and flow of endogenous estrogen and progesterone that is responsible for ovulation; the synthetic hormones found in birth control suppress it.” When women cease using the Pill—in many cases, because they are sick of its side effects or begin to desire pregnancy—they can find that underlying issues left untreated reappear, complicating the attempt to conceive and taking women back to square one in the effort to improve their health.

Recent reporting has drawn attention to the psychological and relational complications caused by birth control, suggesting that these effects might be underreported. One article explains that it has been difficult for scientists to fully understand and address the mood changes that birth control inflicts because a study designed to uncover such a link would need to give some participants a placebo, opening up the possibility of pregnancy. In other words, scientists have yet to put sufficient effort into studying whether the mood problems many women report are in fact a significant and widespread problem. Meanwhile, a survey from late last year found that 85 percent of birth-control users say the side effects from hormonal contraception have negatively affected their relationship or marriage.

Those who draw attention to the negative effects of birth control are typically dismissed as at best over-zealous religious conservatives or at worst crusaders to ban birth control. But within the past decade, the conversation has begun to shift, and it seems as if a new generation might be waking up to the harms of both the sexual revolution and the pill that enabled it. As women flock to resources that help them understand their fertility rather than suppress it, a new wave of thinkers, including some who might once have regarded themselves as progressive feminists, are questioning whether the cultural changes of the 1960s and ’70s were an entirely positive thing as we’re meant to believe—and, more than that, whether the Pill’s promise of sexual liberation has actually improved the lives of women.

Critiques of the sexual revolution, in other words, are starting to come from inside the house. In her recent book Rethinking SexWashington Post writer Christine Emba interviewed dozens of young people who expressed deep dissatisfaction with the impersonal, reckless, and often damaging sexual ethic found in today’s dating and hookup culture. Heartbreaking anecdotes reveal that the supposed beneficiaries of the sexual revolution’s “liberation” are experiencing a great deal of confusion and often suffering for markedly little reward.

Writer Louise Perry, meanwhile, last year published a provocative tome titled The Case against the Sexual Revolution, arguing primarily that, far from empowering women, our current sexual landscape is uniquely disadvantageous to women. Another writer who once considered herself more progressive than she is today, Perry began to realize that, instead of creating a social scenario in which women could seek sexual relationships and loving commitment on their own terms—as feminists promised half a century ago—the changes wrought by the sexual revolution have put women in a bind, requiring them to compromise their comfort, satisfaction, security—and all too often their safety—in order to participate in a market oriented toward satisfying male desires.

Both Emba and Perry reach several conclusions that will sound familiar to conservative readers, though it’s surprising and encouraging to hear them from outside the conservative camp: Casual sex is more enjoyable for men than it is for women, pornography encourages objectification and abuse, and consent is not a strong enough moral standard to prevent sexual violence. But neither writer digs deeply enough into the rotten ideological roots of our modern predicament; as a result, neither proposes especially radical solutions.

Both authors are reluctant, it seems, to abandon essential aspects of the sexual revolution’s underlying worldview; Perry, for instance, barely addresses whether widespread use of contraception and abortion is actually good for women, instead depicting these changes as a ratchet necessarily moving in only one direction. This limitation makes it far more difficult for their books to envision a radically different world, and they’re left proposing modest solutions that work somewhat around the edges of the problem, such as delaying sex or eschewing pornography.

A more radical argument can be found in the recent book Feminism Against Progress by Mary Harrington, who opens with the striking line, “What started me down the path towards writing this book was feeling like I wasn’t a separate person from my baby.” A former progressive feminist, Harrington pens a takedown of modern feminism that is particularly strong, because, unlike many critics, she is willing to question the intellectual underpinnings of the entire feminist project, including its origins in progressive political theory. She notes that today’s feminists have built their belief system on progressivism’s inaccurate conception of the human person: a being with an infinitely malleable nature and a body we can constantly transcend via increasingly powerful technology.

It is because of this foundational argument that Harrington’s rejection of feminism in favor of her own “reactionary feminism” is most potent. Unlike other previously progressive or left-leaning critics of the sexual revolution, Harrington goes so far as to reject hormonal birth control, arguing that no truly pro-woman feminism can accept it. “A feminism against progress, in other words, is feminism against the Pill,” she writes. Harrington notes the serious health concerns that the Pill poses for women, but she argues too that the widespread embrace of hormonal contraception has harmed women more broadly by creating and enabling a sexual marketplace disadvantageous to women and destructive to human relationships.

She advocates “rewilding sex,” by which she means rejecting oral contraception both because of its health risks and because it is a severe obstacle to reclaiming meaningful sex. The Pill, she writes, is “a crucial precondition for bad sex, because it de-risks casual hook-ups. . . . Consensual, genuinely consequential sex is profoundly intimate: not least because a woman who refuses birth control will be highly motivated to be choosy about her partners.” Along these lines, Harrington praises modern methods of cycle tracking and natural family planning, commending these methods for their ability to help both women and men increase their awareness of the female body:

One of the open secrets of “natural family planning” methods is that sex really is better when you don’t disrupt it with artificial hormones. Studies have shown that women’s sexual libido peaks just before ovulation, a cycle that makes perfect sense from the perspective of what sex is ultimately for—but if the menstrual cycle is disrupted by hormonal birth control, this effect disappears. And if you don’t want to conceive a baby, having sex anyway assumes a level of faith in your male partner’s self-control that on its own implies real intimacy.

Harrington argues, too, that “rewilding sex” would affirm the reality of human embodiment and would properly reject the notion that male and female bodies are interchangeable and therefore meaningless. “Rejecting birth control is the first and most radical step women can take, in healing the disconnect introduced by technology between us and our own bodies, in the name of freeing us from sex difference,” she writes.

On this point among others, Harrington cites the work of scholar Abigail Favale, whose 2022 book The Genesis of Gender grappled with similar themes from a Catholic perspective. In one of her most striking chapters, Favale explains how our modern beliefs about “gender reassignment” are entirely dependent on—and, indeed, only make sense because of—contraception’s ability to sever human sexuality from procreative potential. She notes that, in the first half of the 20th century, one man who desired to become a woman underwent dangerous procedures to transplant female reproductive organs into his body in a failed effort to eventually carry human life as a woman would. Today, men who wish to pass as women disregard the female capacity for pregnancy entirely, satisfied with mere surface-level changes to make them appear more like women. For this stark shift, Favale argues, we can thank contraception, which has crafted a world in which reproduction is rendered an entirely optional aspect of sex. Empowering a man to “become” a woman seems far more possible in such a social and technological context.

Harrington might be a lonely voice among feminist thinkers, but with much of the argument in her book she locks arms with social conservatives, who have argued for decades that the change in mores brought about by the sexual revolution—enabled primarily by the most effective contraception in history—have altered society for the worse. Particularly interesting is the fact that these criticisms are gaining steam and beginning to come from quarters outside the conservative movement at the same time that an increasing number of women are turning against contraceptive use in their personal lives.

One anecdote that Emba shares in her book underscores that the shift away from the Pill might be fueled by more than the motive of avoiding physical side effects. “The one time we had sex without protection,” one interviewee told Emba, “my period was late. And I freaked out. My boyfriend offered to pay for Plan B, which, thanks, but . . . fifty dollars is the least of my problems right now. And then he said that he would ‘support me in whatever I chose to do,’ which, again, thanks, but . . . it kind of made me feel like I was more on my own. But I mean, in the end, I would have had to decide by myself, right? Like, it would be me who was pregnant, not him.”

As Toni Weschler puts it in Taking Charge of Your Fertility, “While the pill was originally designed to sexually emancipate women, it has also had the effect of burdening the woman with the sole responsibility of birth control.” We might take that a step or two further and note that normalizing birth control has also normalized the notion that there’s something abnormal or, indeed, dysfunctional about the fact that women become pregnant, when in reality, pregnancy is a normal and natural outcome of sex between a healthy man and woman of reproductive age.

To be sure, the young woman whom Emba interviewed didn’t offer any explicit condemnation of contraception, but her discomfort with this experience and her deep sense of lonely responsibility speaks to precisely the problem that Harrington and many critics before her have identified. Far from freeing women from pregnancy, the availability of contraception—bolstered by the backstop of legal abortion—has placed the supposed burden of reproduction even more on women’s shoulders. Far from normalizing childbearing or setting women free from responsibility, contraception has helped to foster a society in which the male mode of reproduction is taken as normative, disassociating women from their bodies in the process. Pregnancy, when not explicitly wanted, is conceived of as a disease, with contraception and abortion as health-care solutions.

Perhaps Perry is right to think that the introduction of contraception into society is something like a ratchet, a technological change that we can never quite turn around in the other direction even if we wanted to. But we would be wrong to ignore these growing signs of discontent. For all the talk of liberation and equality, women seem not to be thriving in the world that the sexual revolution prepared for them—and even those who once believed in its promise seem to be giving up hope.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is author, with Ryan T. Anderson, of the forthcoming book Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing.

EPPC Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on culture and family issues, with a particular focus on abortion policy and pro-life advocacy, as a member of the Life and Family Initiative.

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