Round-Up: Pill & Pen – Unwanted Pregnancy in Popular Culture

I arrived in snowy Iowa via Chicago (which has a rather funky tunnel linking different parts of the airport)
The conference was held in Iowa where the snow is beginning to clear. I arrived via Chicago (which has a rather funky tunnel — pictured right — linking different parts of the airport) on Thursday.

I’ve just arrived back from the Pill and Pen conference at the University of Iowa, where delegates spent the weekend presenting on and discussing the representation of contraception and unwanted pregnancy in popular culture. It is rare to find a conference at which every paper is of interest and relates in some way to your own research. This is easily the most fascinating and beneficial conference that I have attended.

Professor Djessari's talk was delivered in the beautiful senate chamber of the Old Capitol, a former seat of government.
Professor Djessari’s talk was delivered in the beautiful senate chamber of the Old Capitol, the former seat of government in Iowa.

The End of the Pill?

The highlight of the weekend was the keynote address on Saturday evening by Carl Djessari, chemist turned play-write. Often described as the father of the oral contraceptive pill, he prefers to consider himself the mother. He opened his paper with a breakdown of reproduction in the present world of 7 billion people. On a daily basis, there are 130 million acts of sexual intercourse, of which 1.2 million result in conception.  Of those, 50% are unplanned and 25% are unwanted, leading to an estimated 200,000 abortions (with around 60,000 being carried out illegally).  In the course of his paper, he referred to his 1989 article in the journal Science, in which he created a priority list of six new contraceptive methods, which included the male pill. However, in 2014 — despite recent reports that scientific advances have brought a male contraceptive pill one step closer — he is now adamant that there will not be a male pill. Ever. In fact, his paper, provocatively entitled ‘The Rise and Demise of the Pill’, went as far as to suggest that with advances in artificial insemination and banks for the freezing of sperm and eggs, a trend could emerge in which women opt for sterilisation, reducing the need for other forms of contraception. As he pointed out, between the late 1980s and today, five million people have been born without intercourse. It’s a fascinating argument…

The Influence of the Catholic Church

My own paper focussed on two major story-lines from the RTÉ rural drama, The Riordans, one of which played out behind the scenes. When script-writer Wesley Burrowes proposed to turn eighteen year old Maggie Riordan into an unmarried mother, he was met with opposition by the RTÉ authorities and he only managed to salvage the story-line by changing the identity of the girl in question to the previously unseen Protestant niece of supporting character, Miss Nesbitt. Listening to the range of papers over the course of the three day event, I was struck (though unsurprised) by the number of times that the Catholic Church was mentioned for either having restricted the choices open to women or having exerted an influence over the manner in which information was imparted. Jessica Borge of the University of London, for example, gave an excellent paper on the appearance (or otherwise) of the pill on 1960s British screens. As she explained, the BBC Ulster questioned the advisability of airing one particular documentary early in the decade, concerned that it would offend the 40% Catholic population in the region.

Especially fascinating was Kirsten Kumpf Baele’s paper on Patrice Toye’s 2012 film Little Black Spiders. Briefly: the film is based on the real experience of teenage girls who fell pregnant and were hidden away in the attic of a hospital in Belgium in 1978. Although the girls had far greater freedom and were not subjected to the intensive work undertaken by the Magdalene women in Ireland, the idea of moving accidental or unwanted pregnancy away from society and behind closed doors is strongly reminiscent of the Magdalene experience. Kirsten later mentioned the Irish context, drawing parallels between Little Black Spiders and The Magdalene Sisters (2002).  Unlike the latter, the former focussed more on the lighter side of life hidden-away, and as such drew less criticism of the Church than the Irish production.

Most of the papers were presented at Schaeffer Hall.
Most of the papers were presented at Schaeffer Hall.

Abortion in Film: Just a Sub-Plot to a Fairytale Ending?

In addition to the representation of contraception in various television programmes, including Desperate Housewives and Mad Men, and films, such as Prudence and the Pill and The Girl, The Body and The Pill, several papers also addressed the representation of abortion in film. Reference was made to such productions as Juno and Knocked Up, in which abortion is only ever a minor part of the story-line and the theme of an initially unwanted pregnancy is ultimately resolved with a ‘happy ending’.  The film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days — the subject of Alexandra Cordes presentation — stands in stark contrast. With its focus on the efforts to secure an abortion, it is not a comedy nor is there the traditional happy ending.  With an issue as emotive as abortion, it is hardly surprising that it has not been the focus of more films — serving instead as a sub-plot to what ultimately becomes a fairytale ending.

These are just some of the papers presented over the course of the weekend. Others looked at reality TV as ‘risk tutorials’; how medical advertising of contraception used feminine colouring and — in the case of one company that packaged the pill in a lipstick-style holder — imagery to normalise sexuality; and how the comedic treatment of contraception in film and literature creates a safe distance to deal with a sensitive issue.  Shelley W. Chan gave a really fascinating keynote talk on the first evening on  China’s one-parent policy and what the writings of nobel winner Mo Yan reveals about abandoned children.

It’s been a thoroughly stimulating and enjoyable weekend, and I’ve come away with an extensive list of books and plays I now want to read, as well as films to watch. I’m especially looking forward to re-visiting some of the weekend’s themes at the Perceptions of Pregnancy conference that I’ve organised with Jennifer Evans for July.

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Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

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