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Waking Up From the Pill

New York Magazine,  Nov 28, 2010
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On a cold night in mid-October, a couple hundred bejeweled women in gowns file into the Pierre with their dates for a very special 50th-birthday party. Before retiring to a three-hour lobster-and-steak dinner in the hotel’s main ballroom, they collect oversize spoons of foie gras as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” blasts from overhead speakers in a robin’s-egg-blue reception room, with a bar festooned with the kind of miniature silver stars that teachers give exemplary students. Neat stacks of East Village party napkins with illustrations of women in vintage clothing rest next to rows of Champagne glasses, each with a different quip at the bottom: “Let’s ignore our mother’s well-meant advice,” says one; “She thought of him fondly as ‘Plan B,’ ” says another; and a wide-eyed Lucille Ball covers her mouth with a yellow-gloved hand in shock at some mishap on the next, asking, “Has anyone seen my hormones?” In the middle of the room, on a tall pedestal, there’s an enormous cake, with lettering that spells out ONE SMALL PILL. ONE GIANT LEAP FOR WOMANKIND. ONE MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN HISTORY.

Yes, the birth-control pill, approved by the FDA in 1960, is the “birthday girl” at tonight’s gala, which is sponsored by Israeli company Teva Pharmaceutical, the biggest maker of generic drugs in the world. Medications don’t usually have their own black-tie events—there aren’t galas for antibiotics, or chemotherapy, or blood thinners—but the Pill, after all, is so much more than just a pill. It’s magic, a trick of science that managed in one fell swoop to wipe away centuries of female oppression, overly exhausting baby-making, and just marrying the wrong guy way too early. “The Pill created the most profound change in human history,” declares Kelli Conlin, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, grabbing the mike on a small stage draped with black curtains dotted with a larger version of the same silver stars from the bar. “Today, we operate on a simple premise—that every little girl should be able to grow up to be anything she wants, and she can only do so if she has the ability to chart her own reproductive destiny.”


The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women’s lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened). Until the past couple of decades, even most die-hard feminists were still married at 25 and pregnant by 28, so they never had to deal with fertility problems, since a tiny percentage of women experience problems conceiving before the age of 28. Now many New York women have shifted their attempts at conception back about ten years. And the experience of trying to get pregnant at that age amounts to a new stage in women’s lives, a kind of second adolescence. For many, this passage into childbearing—a Gail Sheehy–esque one, with its own secrets and rituals—is as fraught a time as the one before was carefree.

Suddenly, one anxiety—Am I pregnant?—is replaced by another: Can I get pregnant? The days of gobbling down the Pill and running out to CVS at 3 a.m. for a pregnancy test recede in the distance, replaced by a new set of obsessions. The Pill didn’t create the field of infertility medicine, but it turned it into an enormous industry. Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect.

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