A Pill for Freedom

I remember my Grandma and Grandpa Sunderland’s Fiftieth Anniversary. The surviving seven children, from an original nine, and uncountable grandchildren came home for a huge celebration and a party in the church basement. A photo shows them standing proudly behind a 3-tiered wedding cake with a silver decoration proclaiming “50” in script. Both smiling. Happy. Grandpa is even wearing a suit and has set aside his beloved Stetson for the occasion. They both have white hair. They are old.

That’s what my mind sees whenever I hear “50th Anniversary” of anything. But lately, other memories crowd out my grandparents. Memories of me as a young woman (am I now old?), memories of my children (surely not that old!), memories that take me back to the 1960s: formative years for my thinking, my politics, my spiritual life, and my family life. The latest of these shocks to my memory came with the announcement of the 50th anniversary, coming in June of this year, of The Pill. 

By the time I was twenty, I had married, birthed two sons, and started on the pill. Granted, I married young, and my sons are close in age, but in the context of Kansas farm family, not radically young. I can still remember the struggle forcing those little pills out of the container and the fear when I forgot or lost one. By the time I was thirty, I’d moved to six states, raised kids, started college, involved myself in politics, anti-war, civil rights, and the feminist movement. The pill offered me a freedom impossible to my mother’s generation.

Margaret Sanger who first envisioned a contraception pill in 1912 was jailed many times for her beliefs. She teamed up with another early feminist, Katharine McCormick, wealthy enough to finance the dream. Together they found the scientists to study and develop the product.

The Roman Church went ballistic. Birth control pills (or condoms, for that matter) went against the “natural law” theory developed by Aristotle and Aquinas. The natural law theory says that sex is for procreation. Not intimacy. Not pleasure. Children. Today, the Church’s moral theology is still ruled by Thomas Aquinas, a theologian from the middle-ages when women were forced into metal contraptions with padlocks called Chastity Belts when their men went off to fight in the Crusades. In other words, if women are free, they threaten church stability.

And so we have hungry and dying children in developing countries tied to Rome, an out of control AIDS epidemic, and women enslaved by their bodies. Surely this can’t be what a merciful God might have envisioned.

We also, however, have women in the priesthood and ministry. Not in the Roman Church, certainly, but any woman in any ministry was scarcely imagined fifty years ago. However, women leaders in ministry were common in the early days of Christianity. They disappeared when control became vested in Rome.

The reforms to Christianity have happened very slowly and over many centuries. First there was the Protestant Reformation and now perhaps these 21st Century decades will someday be called the Feminist Reformation when that which is feminine and divine is once more raised to an equal footing.  

I suppose, in the end, that makes a Fiftieth Anniversary fairly small in scope. Next year, 2011, will be fifty years since I married my children’s father. And while chronologically I’m about the same age as my grandmother when she celebrated her fiftieth, I am much younger psychologically and spiritually, only now reaching for the peak of my work and thought. Freedom, while certainly not free, keeps me young.