Of Things Big and Small

The pill of preference

We were facing a regular, usual, oft-repeated, ubiquitous, all-season crisis in our workplace: Manpower shortage. There were load analyses, suggestions, rebuttals and rejections. The shortage has turned critical because of the absence of two staff: One on maternity leave and another on medical leave due to an accident.

The second case surely is accidental but the maternity leave is a planned, foreseen incident. The issue was that pregnancies were causing a constant shortage...! Three years back it was Vani who brought in a bundle of joy (fifth), followed by Naina (first), immediately followed by Sushma (fifth) and Vani again for the sixth! (Only the names are changed to protect the pregnancies!).

And so the tribes increase... Some consider it a blessing to produce and produce while many others want to plan, procrastinate and prevent procreation. Humans are probably the only species who are concerned so much about their own populations.

Why the reproduction of life amongst our own species does cause concern?

Is it because we will have less of everything, if there are more of people?

Is it because that one type of humans (say Indians) will become more than others, causing an imbalance?

Or is it a simple issue of economics of individuals and families?

The International Population Day (July 11), has passed by. According to a latest report, India is set to overtake China in human population. China adopted the single-child policy (rural and ethnic minorities exempted) and has had noticeable success in reducing the rate of population rise. But female foeticide has shown a sharp increase and population is getting more skewed with gender inequality in numbers. And population growth rates are falling in many European countries. While we have difficulty in controlling populations on the one side, is there over control on another side?

Through the ages, human population grew and sexual unions multiplied. But a strange social scenario also emerged: Many preferred the acts but not the consequences. The sexual promiscuousness of modern, material age confirms this. The indulgence has increased in volumes with medical help. To improve performance, there are aphrodisiacs of all kinds: honey, rhino horn, Spanish fly, kuruvi lehyam, exotic herbs, etc. Onions, drumstick, almonds and other rajasic foods are supposed to improve virility and fertility. Sexual libido was believed to rise, reach a peak and diminish with age. Industrialisation changed that. Pornography also proliferated. Man wanted to have sex as much as he could while he lived. Today, performance aiding drugs such as Viagra guarantee satisfaction, while some other drugs promise longevity of pleasures. Both men and women want the pleasure, but not the aftermath...

St. Augustine had declared that man should engage in sex only for the sake of procreation. Going by this, an average man will be able to have sex only about 50 to 55 times in his life time (I can almost see you smiling). Statistics show the average to be about 100 times more! So, where have all the potential homo sapiens gone? The union of many a sperm armies with the eggs in the womb fortresses have been successfully averted. World has descended from beliefs of immaculate conception to beds of immediate contraception... From pleasure aids to prevention aids... This is the complementing side to the carnal pleasure.

Contraceptives are as old an idea as aphrodisiacs are. History shows Egyptians using a pessary of dates, acacia and honey paste. Sheep-bladder sheaths, half lemon cervical caps are on record as forerunners to the modern condoms, intra-uterine devices and diaphragms. But the queen of all contraceptives is the Pill. No other contraceptive has a success track record like the female contraceptive pill. And no other contraceptive has faced so much of debates also. Today, it is estimated that about 100 million women use the pill.

The discovery of the pill is ironical. The research on female hormones was actually focussed on helping women to conceive. Unlike other animals that have short periods of heat, the human female has a fertile period of up to six days in a cycle of about 28 days.

During the initial part of the cycle, the uterus sheds its lining. In the next part, the hormonal system signals the ovum to release an egg. From around the tenth day of the cycle, the egg moves down the fallopian tube and during this process if it encounters a male sperm, the egg is fertilised and is implanted in the uterus to form the baby. Now the hormonal system again signals the ovaries not to release any more eggs, establishing a period of non-productivity during the pregnancy.

The pregnancy stage hormones of this signalling system can be synthesised. When ingested with this synthesised form of pregnancy-period hormone, progesterone, it suppressed the ovulation of the egg. On withdrawing the usage, the woman ovulated due to the reactionary effect of stopping the hormone. Women did conceive after stopping the hormone dosage and there was success at initial stages of research. But destiny turned the progesterone to a dichotomous purpose: If one could simulate this situation (that is if the hormone ingestion was continued as if there is pregnancy), then the egg release will be delayed as the hormone will not signal to release any egg. Since there is no egg, any amount of sperms will cause no pregnancies! Got the picture? The pill did just that. Another good thing was that the pill also had a regularising effect on the biological periods of a woman.

The initial reaction to the pill was hostile - America simply banned contraception. The religions, of course, denounced, derided and declared it devilish. The Church disapproved any form of artificial contraception that terminated life. But the Catholic Church had approved the rhythm method in which married couples practised ‘safe sex’ during the non-fertile periods (periods of no egg movements, etc.) without the aid of any contraceptives. The advocates of the pill argued that the pill only extended this period of non-fertility and there was no killing of any life!

The pill continued its way through many parted lips of women, since the success percentage of the pill was high. Even when there was a failure and conception occurred, it was invariably due to the women missing the dosage and not due to the ineffectiveness of the pill.

The first social impact of the pill was felt in America. With the pill, women freed themselves from the shackles of housebound, child-bearing, child-rearing roles. They assumed roles of a working person, breaking the mould of the traditional housewife.

The dawn is on the window sill,

As I start my day with the pill,

I feel free and free without frills,

As I find pleasure as my heart wills!


Many jobs opened for women and feminists got louder for equal rights. As the pill gained favour, the age of hippydom came by and the pill collected many bad brownie points. From a standpoint of being a convenient contraceptive for the married, the pill was pilloried as an encourager of promiscuous sex. It is hard to say if society has come to terms with the moral issues associated with contraception, but one thing is certain: From the mini-pill to the morning-after pill, the little contraceptive has found social acceptance.

Withstanding the opposition from puritans and conservatives, the pill had a downside - The main components of the pill, estrogen and progesterone, were supposed to cause side-effects such as weight gain, nausea, heart disease, fluctuating blood pressure, interference with fertility, blood clots and even cancer. But the present research is showing that people on pill live longer and are less likely to die prematurely.

However, I have the final word from my friends living in Tirupati, who had almost settled down in Torremolinos. Mala and Chalapathy were hippies when they married and then became regular humans. Mala says, “Definitely, pills as preferred contraceptives did have a big social impact in States. But the pill is not so fool-proof... I would say that abstinence is still the best form of contraception. As regards promiscuousness... Western women feel liberated with the pill, having sexual pleasure as the objective. But we Indians sublimated sexual pleasure with self-liberation as the objective and succeeded also. Just go to Konark or refer to Kamasutra...”

I am checking the flights to Orissa now... See you later...

Oct 20, 2010
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Rajoo Balaji

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