by Adriene Sere
Planned Parenthood is
so concerned about teen pregnancy that it has taken to
pushing pills. Recently, a local Washington chapter put
together ads for cable, network television, and radio,
aired through September and October, which featured a
young African American actress who assured girls and
young women that only good things can come from taking
"Some people say..." the actress began, and
went on to list a series of "myths" about the
pill: that it makes you gain weight, that it is
unhealthy, that it can cause problems with getting
pregnant after you stop taking it. The commercial told
the girls that all these "myths" are untrue.
Not partly true, not sometimes true, but untrue, pure and
simple. And if vouching for the pill' s absolute safety
failed to lure the girls into the clinic, the commercial
extolled the magical "virtues" of the pill,
especially for those with eating disorders and body image
problems. "You want to know the truth?" the
actress states. "The pill sometimes makes you lose
weight." The script ended with, "It's amazing
what this little pill can do for you."
In reality, birth control pills are artificial substances
that tinker, sometimes dangerously, with the female body.
The pill can cause nausea. The pill can make its users
more prone to gum disease. It can cause hair loss, or
excessive hair growth. It can cause serious, recurrent,
or migraine headaches. Many pill-takers experience a
diminished sexuality. Girls and women on the pill are
more likely to experience depression. Some experience
vaginal dryness and bleedings between periods. The pill
can cause a higher rate of yeast infections.
More serious side effects can also occur: liver damage,
gall bladder damage, hypertension, increased risk of
stroke and/or heart attack. Women over 40, and women over
35 who smoke, are particularly at risk. But if the pill
can cause such serious damage to older bodies, it can
also cause damage to younger bodies, even if the damage
has not yet been demonstrated.
The virtues of the pill are in some cases questionable.
While the pill can give females greater control over
their reproductive lives, it does not necessarily give
them more control over their sexual lives. In a sexist
culture in which men and boys are pressuring younger and
younger girls into sex, the birth control pill can simply
make teen girls more sexually exploitable. A poll
published in Seventeen magazine indicated that three
quarters of teen girls who have intercourse do so
primarily because they feel pressured from boys (or men).
Any organization concerned with the social welfare of
females, teens in particular, should be alarmed about the
epidemic sexual objectification and use of girls. A
responsible organization would discourage unwanted teen
pregnancy primarily by addressing the underlying problem:
boys' and men's socially organized sexual aggression
against girls. While it is crucial to make reliable birth
control accessible, it is not difficult to see that what
teen girls need is social respect. They need equality.
They need freedom from sexual abuse and poverty. The last
thing in the world they need is to be shot up with
chemicals by the adult world to make them more fuckable.
Planned Parenthood is playing a contradictory and
deceptive role in their uncritical promotion of birth
control. On the one hand, the organization is playing a
laudable and extremely important role in providing teens
an education (albeit a traditional one) on sexual and
reproductive functions, and in making birth control and
abortion accessible to those who need it.
On the other hand, the organization collaborates with
sexism and racism by prioritizing population control,
particularly among the poor and people of color, over the
actual needs of girls and women. The organization
directly advocates the poisoning of girls and women's
bodies to make them serviceable to boys and men, while
only minimally and indirectly addressing the fact that
(an overwhelming number of) girls and women use
(physically detrimental) birth control for unwanted or
ambivalently wanted sex.
Planned Parenthood's website for teens, Teenwire, is an
example of the organization's inconsistent approach. The
website is an energetic mix of explicit information and
engaging topics of social interest, much of which is
written by teens. It is wonderful, and perhaps even a
life saver, for some teens in that it addresses
"taboo" topics such as homosexuality, social
discomforts, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy
crises, periods. But there is almost nothing said about
the coercive context of sex for most girls who have
intercourse, and nothing on the misogynist meaning of
this socially perpetuated coercion.
Furthermore, the website, like the commercial aired this
fall, misleads girls about the dangers of certain forms
of birth control. The section on birth control reads like
advertisements for Norplant, Depo-Provera, and the pill.
The segment on Norplant begins, "The very idea of
Norplant is enough to turn some girls right off the
notion -- get birth control sticks implanted under your
skin?! Yuck! But it works very well to prevent pregnancy,
is completely easy to use, and lasts five years! Norplant
is amazing--a doctor implants six flexible little pieces
of plastic, each about the size of a cardboard
matchstick, under the skin of your upper arm. Each
contains a hormone...released slowly and gradually over
"Five years? Yup...Just think: Five years without
worrying about pregnancy... You put them in and Bam --
you're protected right away. Want to get pregnant? Take
them out (at a clinic), and in only a few hours the
contraceptive effects have worn off."
This "infomercial" briefly addresses some of
Norplant's negative side affects at the very end, and
minimizes them. "Like any medication, Norplant has
side effects. Many women have irregular periods or
spotting between periods. It may also cause headaches,
nausea, changes in sex drive, decreased natural vaginal
wetness, weight gain, dizziness, and facial hair.
Hormones can do odd things to your body and that can be
scary. Your health care provider can give you details
about the side effects and warn you against using
Norplant if you have health factors that might make it
dangerous for you. The good news is that since there is
no estrogen in Norplant, it doesn't appear to cause the
side effects linked to that hormone."
The warning deliberately conflates the meaning of a
teenager's natural hormones, and the "scary"
changes that follow, with artificial hormones, and the
dangerous havoc they can wreak, particularly when they
are delivered into the body non-stop for five years. And
we're talking about teenage bodies here, bodies that
haven't even stopped growing yet.
Adult women--more than 40,000 of them--found Norplant so
destructive to their health that they filed a suit
against its manufacturer, American Home Products, and
settled out of court for an unsatisfactory $50 million.
The women who had used Norplant had been left with
impaired vision, blindness, migraines, anemia, high blood
pressure, profound depression, chronic fatigue, excessive
menstrual bleeding, infertility, and a high rate of birth
defects among their children.
In light of all this, Planned Parenthood still finds it
suitable to tell teen girls that "Norplant is
By prioritizing the goal of making girls "birth
control-positive," Planned Parenthood is
disregarding the best interests of the teens themselves,
and outright ignoring the sexist social context in which
these girls live.
Feminists around the world have long established that the
single most effective, and only humane, approach to
lowering birth rates is the social and economic
empowerment of females, along with re-education of males.
The problem of unwanted pregnancy among teens has a
Challenging the pervasive disempowerment and sexual use
of girls should be the organization's top priority. The
last thing Planned Parenthood should be doing is using
deceptive advertising to promote detrimental, even
dangerous, birth control to teen girls. Population
control of this kind, of any kind, should be a thing of