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 the pill.
“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.
“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 amazing.”
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 similar solution.
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 the past.