Just another way to alter our bodies

// 17 October 2007

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A group of Harvard scientists have developed a new “genetic contraceptive” that promises none of the side effects associated with the traditional oral contraceptive pill, according to a report in The Guardian today.

This new pill will allegedly make it impossible for fertilisation to take place, since the genetic make-up of a woman’s egg will be altered, making it less receptive to any overenthusiastic sperm attempting to gain entry:

“The new contraceptive relies on a technique called RNA interference, which uses tiny fragments of genetic material to block the activity of genes in the body. The process is so powerful it was lauded as a revolution in medical science last year, when two American scientists, Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, won the Nobel prize for their work on it.”

According to the medical boffins, this method works by blocking the ZP3 gene, which is only produced when an egg is ovulating, and stops the development of the zona pellucida, a protein coat that sperm latched onto during fertilisation. As this form of contraception is not based on the use of progesterone and oestrogen, it is believed that common side effects associated with the traditional pill such as weight-gain, blood clots, certain cancers and mood fluctuations will be avoided.

Dr Zen Williams, head of the Harvard team, is enthusiastic:

“If you could block this [zona pellucida development] in a woman you could prevent pregnancy from occurring.”

The scientists plan to undertake full tests on animals within five years, with the pill being made available in a suppository or skin patch form within ten years.

What is interesting is how the female body is consistently subject to “medicalisation,” something that has to be controlled by science. As long as pregnancy, like the common cold, is stopped from “occurring” then all is well it seems. No mention there then of what men should be doing to play a part in the process of stopping the much maligned pregnancy “occurring.” This new pill in itself aims to alleviate the “side-effects” of the traditional oral contraceptive when what it is really hoping to do is to alleviate the unnecessary and inconvenient “side-effects” of sex; pregnancy. How selfish are we to keep ovulating all over the place, making it possible for a sexual tryst to end in fertilisation, when all a man may want to do is to have a good old fashioned fuck with no consequences.

It is interesting that this has been heralded as a breakthrough, a work worthy of the Nobel prize, something for which the men in white coats should be proud of, and yet what they are actually being praised for is for finding new, and more intrusive ways, for a woman to chemically alter her body. When the oral pill was first developed more that 60 years ago it’s no doubt that for women this was a huge step towards liberation. This was a time when sex out of wedlock was frowned upon and abortion was considered a big no-no, and so this provided an effective way for a woman to take control of her sex life and avoid the stigma attached to those naughty girls who did just like to get laid. Not even that, but also to avoid the judgements levied against a woman, who, unmarried but in a committed relationship, ended up up-the-duff. She would have been considered a scarlet woman, the fruit of her womb the bastard offspring of a syphilitic whore, conceiving only when a bolt of lighting shot up her crusty cunt. (That’s how judgemental people were back then.)

In the twenty-first century however, one would hope things were completely different, which is why it is unfair that the responsibility for birth control is not only placed heavily upon us by social stereotypes, but by a medical industry that keeps developing new, more sophisticated means of denying us our bodily functions. There is, every so often, talk of developing the male pill, a magical tablet that will stop man’s ability to impregnate us, but yet this always seems to subside with no promise. For a lot of women, having the ability to control whether or not they get pregnant is a good thing, but why, when a man can rubber up and offer a physical barrier, are we expected to go to such extreme lengths? Just because penetration doesn’t feel quite as good to men as it does when they ride bare back? The ability to get a woman “in the family way” has always been considered a true indicator of man’s masculinity, and so it’s unlikely a male contraceptive pill will ever be successful, as who will take it? If pregnancy is seen as something covered by that huge umbrella term “women’s problems” then are men likely to risk “feminisation” by taking a pill, and therefore taking responsibility for something that we are “supposed” to? Especially if their sex life consists of nothing more than a series of meaningless one night stands, with women they will probably never see again.

It seems that until “science” finds a way of proliferating an army of women with super tight vaginas, and a reproductive system resembling a pair of dried-up old prunes, then we will never be quite good enough.

Photo by your neighborhood librarian, shared under a Creative Commons License.

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