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In Defense of the Pill: Birth Control Isn't Perfect, But It Liberates Millions of Women from Unwanted Pregnancy

The pill gets a lot of criticism, much of it valid. But for many women, the birth control pill is essential.

A lot of women have been complaining about the pill recently as the little birth control drug celebrates its 50th anniversary. It has unpleasant side effects; it puts the financial and personal burden of contraception squarely on women's shoulders; it  kills libido. There's a whole crowd out there who think the new types of pills which change your menstrual cycle or get rid of it all together are unnatural because they suppress our goddess-given rhythms.

This brand causes migraines. This one creates crazy mood swings. One can switch to the patch or the nuva-ring, but then there are more side-effects. For young woman, birth-control bitching and switching feels like a mandatory rite-of-passage, a hormonal equivalent to dissing skinny jeans and then buying them, or discussing how the Sex and the City movie sucked, but you're going to see the second one anyway.

The fact remains that all the critiques leveled this week are valid: the pill is far from perfect, both medically and socially, and we really do need a male birth control pill. We also have to put pressure on the medical establishment to keep innovating for those women whose options still feel limited. As Geraldine Sealey wrote in her Salon article " Why I Hate the Pilll:

The truth is that the development of innovative birth control methods has virtually come to a standstill. According to a 2008 report by Harper and several colleagues, public and private funds for contraceptive research have dried up in recent years. Most pharmaceutical companies have withdrawn from investing in contraceptive R&D, perhaps due to fears of costly personal injury litigation.

For Sealey and many of her friends, there ought to be better and more options for contraception. She cites a Guttmacher study which shows almost half of all women unhappy with their current methods, and points out that this discontent can lead to unintended pregnancies.

Still, I feel like our little buddy in its colorful plastic, day-by-day case is in need of a defense. Because for many women, the pill remains utterly and completely liberating. Just as it did when it first came out, the pill effectively keeps its satisfied users from the whole "biology is destiny" thing. For the women who refill those prescriptions month after month, a few weird side effects will be endured so that we can enjoy what the pill gives us: freedom.

First of all, there's freedom from even worse side effects--the ones that mother nature bestowed on us. Sealey describes feeling like a freak because hormonal contraception doesn't work for her. But there are a group of women who feel like freaks  without the pill, who need the pill for a variety of physical reasons. I like to joke about this group, in which I'm included, saying that we're solid proof that there's no intelligent design. We're also the modern-day equivalent of those women in Victorian novels who were probably labelled hypochondriacs or hysterics because they were constantly laid up with a "sick-headache" or often left the room "feeling faint." Yep, that's us women with totally irregular or debilitating periods, the ones who watch those commercials for tampons and hip birth control brands and nod vigorously at every symptom mentioned and then some that aren't.

There are women out there with allergies to painkillers or to latex, women with back pain and headaches and cramps that are so bad we wouldn't be able to work or play sports or socialize for many days out of the month if we didn't have the pill. But we have it, and we can function a lot better with it--we don't have to take to our beds or shun mixed company. This is a decided feminist victory. I know that saying "I take the pill for reasons other than birth control" can feel like a cop-out, but its capacity to allow many of us to live normal lives shouldn't be underestimated.

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