Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of the feminist era for many women was being given permission to just say 'No.' Germain Greer famously encouraged this in saying that "man regards her (woman) as a receptacle in which he has emptied his sperm, a kind of human spittoon, and turns from her in disgust"A well-meaning mother to her daughter: "The best contraceptive is an oral contraceptive my dear. Just say 'No.'"
Leaving aside Greer's accusation, it must be acknowledged that without a bit of splish and splosh, it's difficult to have a baby – if you want one.
By way of alternative, you can go to a hygienic supermarket where men 'spit' into a cup. Then a white-coated scientific type using a microscope can tease it, freeze it, and if it pleases the women, use a number of artificial approaches for getting one of his wrigglers to weasel into her egg. Certainly helpful if you can't conceive any other way. But to choose this route for convenience seems a little bizarre. I would opt for the charm of the organic, free-range option – but to each his own.
But what if you don't want a baby? The contraceptive options are much better than they were in the 60s – and especially the oral contraceptives. Contraception has clearly made significant advances in inhibiting fertilization. What is less obvious is that most of the major advances in contraception have delivered enormous benefit to woman who can now be in control of their bodies – and the consequences of sexual relations.
The rhythm method and condoms are imperfect forms of contraception – and ones where information exchange and fair-play are requisite. Using (or not using) either method without informing the other is not likely to be a secret that is easily kept for long.
However, the development of the combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP) through the late 1940s and 1950s clearly changed this.
The history of the development of the combined oral contraceptive is one that is populated by a good number of women. Edris Rice-Wray Carson was a particularly important contributor being involved in important early clinical work. Other women played critical roles encouraging, supporting and facilitating (including financially) the development of the pill: e.g., Margaret Sanger, Katharine McCormick.
However, while women were involved, most of the scientific development was undertaken mostly by men : Russell Marker, Gregory Pincus, Min Chueh Chang, John Rock, Carl Djerassi, Luis Miramontes, George Rosenkranz, Frank Colton, etc.
Despite female involvement, and despite the apparent power that the pill provided, some women were quite vocal in complaining after the combined oral contraceptive was released for public consumption in 1957 in the US. Barbara Seaman published a book called The Doctor's Case against The Pill in 1969. Senator Gaylord Nelson, a man, launched Senate hearings in 1970 to deal with the issue. Alice Wolfsen and other feminists became incensed at the hearings as it was only men that presented evidence to the hearings.
Despite these concerns, the pill continues to be widely distributed today. Like many medications, it has associated risks and benefits. However, it is difficult to imagine that women would permit the pill to be removed from sale in today's era.
The pill provides good contraception. More interestingly from my point of view, it gives control primarily to women. Whereas the rhythm method and condoms require more active participation from both parties, the pill requires no participation from the man. Indeed, the man need not even know that she is taking an oral contraceptive.
Oral contraception gives women a source of power by allowing them to be more sexually active without risking pregnancy and without his knowledge. This offers an interesting strategy to the woman. She can have sex with any number of men until she gets the one she want to father her child. Then she simply needs to continue to have sex with the father-to-be (and others if she wants) until she gets pregnant.
When she becomes pregnant, she can tell Mr. Right, that would be the guy with all the money - regardless of whether he's the father or not! Richie Rich is "presumed" to be the father in the court of law and ongoing childcare payments over the life of the child ensure that the child, and if she has chosen well, she will not need for much.
Not that any women would do this of course. But she can.
Meanwhile, for the man, the truth is difficult to ascertain. Rather dauntingly, if she is successful in conceiving while telling him she is taking a contraceptive, she controls whether he learns of his fatherhood status or not. His status as father is firmly within her control.
It is clearly the case that women control conception in a way that is beyond the comprehension of a man. It is more difficult for the man to deceive a woman and 'make' her fall pregnant.
I have heard of instances of men sabotaging their condoms to make a woman pregnant. Such a deceit is rightly viewed as ugly and disgusting. However, do we hold the same view of a woman who dupes a man?
There is of course, some talk about an oral contraceptive for men. I do not think that such a drug will be very successful. Woman may or may not be consciously aware of the power that they wield through the operation of 'the pill.' However, I suspect they will be very leery of allowing men that power over conception, even though it is the same power that women currently have over men.
A male contraceptive pill will of course allow men at least the power of veto. Like the old chestnut about a man who manages to wear a condom during sex without the woman realizing. After the act, she dreamily speculates, 'What would we call the child if one was to have been conceived.' 'David' he responds from the bathroom while disposing surreptitiously of the condom. Under his breath, 'We'd call him David Copperfield if he got out of that.'
If the male contraceptive pill works, then the man – without informing the woman – can ensure that she does not have a child with him as the father. It does not however give him the choice and the power to have her become a parent to a child without her knowledge.
And even if it did, biology would ensure it would still not be possible to be deceived about who is the mother.