Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Pill at 50: Part One

Today is Tuesday, 11 May 2010.

On 9 May 1960, Enovid became the first oral contraceptive pill to be approved by a national pharmaceutical regulatory agency (FDA).

Family size (and by this I mean the number of children surviving to labouring viability) in pre-modern agricultural societies was fundamentally geared to the amount of viable land a family had at their disposal. Given the primitive state of hygiene and medicine during this period, which lasted through most of human history, the challenge was to produce enough children who would live to an age at which they could contribute to agricultural labour, balanced against the amount of land available to the family. Too few surviving children, and the family’s life would be marginal; too many surviving children, ditto.

As agricultural production technology improved, the number of labourers required to produce the same amount of foodstuffs declined.

As societal complexity developed, the number of mouths not directly involved in agricultural production increased (traders, artisans, ruling elites and their minions, etc.). The layers of rulers and their minions, producing nothing but powers of coercion, could only be supported (fed, housed, clothed) by compelling the peasantry to give up a portion of their agricultural, etc. production (food, timber, stone, raw materials for clothing and weapons, etc.). Thus, a peasant family needed to be large enough not only to feed and reproduce itself, but also to provide the various means to feed, etc. and reproduce the non-agricultural members of society.

It was thus in the best interest of rulers to influence peasant families to be as large as the land could support, creating the largest possible “surpluses” for the rulers to expropriate. The nature of that influence changed drastically when the Christian Church became a significant component of the ruling elites during the Early Middle Ages (476 CE to approx. 1000 CE).

(Since it was beneath the "holy dignity" of the employees of the Church (priests, monks, etc.) to do manual labour, sustenance had to be extracted from the peasantry. As well, the ultimate source of the monies to build all those purty cathedrals, etc. was the toil of the peasantry.)

As noted, it was in the interest of both State and Church to influence the peasantry to “be fruitful and multiply” as close to the tipping point into famine as possible. The difference was that the influence the Church could bring to bear was the threat of eternal damnation.

It was this impulse toward creation of the largest possible production surpluses that I believe was one of the two main origins of the hostility of many modern churches and governments to the more efficient methods of birth control.

The problem, of course: at a certain point in the development of industrialization, when machine-aided productivity reaches a certain level (and hygiene and medicine become more sophisticated and effective), fewer workers (both agricultural and industrial) are required to produce the same relative amount of surpluses for confiscation, and thus fewer children are required to be born to sustain the work force. At a certain point during industrialization, larger families mean lower standards of living, and many parents chose/choose to have fewer children, even if it meant/means violating the demands of their religious leaders to shun modern birth control.



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