How Green Is the Birth Control Pill?

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the FDA’s approval of the birth control pill. The pill was first envisioned by family planning crusader Margaret Sanger as a remedy to the debilitating cycle of perpetual pregnancy for married women. Sanger’s own mother died at the age of 50 after 18 pregnancies; at her funeral Sanger famously confronted her father, telling him, “You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children.”

The pill was intended to proffer women control over their reproductive destinies. But its secondary impact was just as important: women entered the workforce. Before the pill, less than 20 percent of women with a child under 18 worked outside the home. By the end of the last century, that number skyrocketed to 70 percent. Though many women still find themselves choosing between a career and a family, the pill allowed women to better calibrate these decisions. What followed, of course, was a major upheaval in the way we view men and women and their societal roles. Today, we’re still adjusting to that delicious shakedown.

For all the benefits of the pill, the iconic contraceptive has reaped its fair share of criticism. Like the condom, the pill, which is taken by more than 100 million women worldwide, has come under fire for having an iffy environmental track record. In a recent post on Grist.org, Lisa Hymas rolls her eyes at the media’s love note to the pill on its 50th anniversary.

“We’re still agog over a pill that Margaret Sanger dreamed up in 1912 – one that we have to take every single day, one that messes with our hormones, one that has unpleasant side effects for many women, one that contaminates our water supplies.”

Indeed, the pill is widely credited with diminishing certain fish populations. Estrogen, excreted in the urine of pill users, enters waterways where it is consumed by fish. In one Canadian and U.S. government experiment, male winnows exposed to trace amounts of estrogen became feminized. Their testicular development stopped and they began making eggs instead. Unable to reproduce, the fish population in the experiment died out within two years.

In addition to its impact on wildlife, the pill’s estrogen runoff may adversely affect humans, particularly in developing countries where waste water is more commonly recycled for human consumption.

Hymas’ call for a greener pill, a more accessible pill, and even a pill for men, deserves to be seconded. But let’s not forget that the pill has been a major boon for the environment in one regard. If you think the earth is overpopulated now, imagine what things would look like without the contraceptive. And for that reason, we toast the pill on its 50th anniversary.

Image: Phoney Nickle

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