I’ve been naive about birth control.

Not naive in the sense that I believe I won’t get pregnant under a full moon, but in the sense that I’m an engineer raised by a biology professor.  The safe sex talk with a bio professor is remarkably straight forward: chemical X starts activity Y in cells Z.  To stay safe, use physical or chemical means to disrupt the process.  Engineering logic says pick the means that best fits your body, your preferences, and your budget.  Simple, end of story.

Of course,  the real world isn’t that simple.  Technology isn’t just the object or process at hand.  It comes with expectations and meanings that vary from person to person and culture to culture.  A light bulb isn’t just a light bulb.  It’s the child in a developing country who can do his/her homework.  It’s the woman who don’t die tipping a candle onto her nightdress doing sewing at night.  It’s the wonder of Times Square and safety walking to your car at night.  The same goes for birth control.

I realized this after reading about a new rhythm method thermometer whose algorithm estimates fertility periods based on daily temperature readings.  My inner engineer thought this was a positive addition to the various means of managing the X-Y-Z process.  It fits my body, my preferences (Health Data Tracking! No Hormones!), but sadly not my budget ($375!!!!).  It won’t work for everyone but its another option.

Then I read the comments section.  If there was ever a class of technologies that comes with social baggage it’s birth control.  That’s not even counting the baggage that comes with sex, abortion, or sexuality generally.

The article I read positioned the product as an alternative to the pill.  This didn’t bother me since hormone-based contraceptives don’t quite fit my personal preferences.  However, I forgot how the pill has transcended it’s stated function to become a strong symbol of women’s liberation.  Challenging the pill is like challenging women’s freedom in some circles.  Needless to say, there were many strong opinions in that regard.

I also forgot the similarities between the rhythm method employed by the thermometer algorithm and the Catholic church-sponsored natural family planing method.  Anything that smells remotely like the Catholic church invading the bedroom provokes many more strong opinions . . .

We could have endless discussions about this phenomenon.  Why is there so much baggage surrounding women’s contraception, but not men’s contraception?  Why do various birth control methods have such strong proponents and/or detractors?  How do we transcend the baggage and get to a point where contraceptives are a commodity just like any other?

I cannot begin to answer those questions, but from now on I’ll remember that birth control is more than just a technical solution.  It’s very much a socially constructed phenomenon.

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