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‘Liberation’ of birth control proves a bitter pill to swallow

by Philip Brasor

On Aug. 16, the Health and Welfare Ministry announced that it had finally approved the low-dosage birth control pill, which will likely become available through prescription in the fall. Oral contraceptives for women have been available in the West for close to 40 years, but in Japan they’ve always been viewed with a distrustful eye by the authorities.

The reasons for keeping the Pill out were never satisfactorily explained by the government, but the two that became uppermost in people’s minds were 1) the possible dangers of known and unknown side effects, and 2) the fear that all women would somehow become sex fiends. A third, much less discussed reason was pressure from obstetricians who drew a good part of their income from legal abortions.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Pill’s belated approval has, in effect, rendered such approval less meaningful than it seems. Coverage in the general news media has been almost nonexistent since it was first revealed a month ago that the Ministry of Health and Welfare was about to reverse its stance. On the day after the announcement was made, Asahi Shimbun was the only vernacular daily to cover it. (In contrast, a friend of mine in Europe said it was reported on CNN.)

The reason so many people find the announcement less than momentous is that surveys have shown that most Japanese women who can take the Pill don’t plan to. The 40-year waiting period has gradually led these women to the conclusion that the Pill must be dangerous. The information that occasionally dribbled out via the media these past four decades was almost exclusively negative. All that most Japanese women know about the Pill is that it may have side effects.

Women’s groups have always claimed that the government kept putting off approval because it was afraid it would present women with one more means of not having babies. Their point sounds like paranoia but gains credibility when you consider how quickly and easily the sale of Viagra was approved.

Viagra treats a dysfunction, but since the men who take it are middle-aged or older it can more accurately be described as a palliative for one of aging’s less pleasant, but no less natural, developments. The low-dosage pill, on the other hand, is not a treatment, but to the average person both drugs have a single purpose: making sex easier if not more pleasurable. However, Viagra theoretically aids in impregnation while the Pill prevents it.

As long as the government approves Viagra, which makes it easier for men to make whoopie and whose health drawbacks have yet to be fully determined, it cannot in good conscience continue to keep out the Pill, which makes women at the very least less nervous about making whoopie and whose health drawbacks have been studied for 40 years.

But since the government understood that most women wouldn’t avail themselves of the Pill, they stopped worrying about it. Similarly, the media, which is still having a helluva good time reporting on anything related to Viagra, has been relatively quiet about the Pill because the idea of female sexual independence is one that most editors (who are men) aren’t comfortable with.

But some are. On June 19, there was an article in the Asahi Shimbun by a female writer that described how the Pill worked, the conditions for obtaining a doctor’s prescription, the possible side effects and probabilities that they would occur and the reasons it took so long for the Pill to be approved in Japan.

The July issue of the woman’s fashion magazine More, which several years ago opened the door to a franker discussion of women’s sexual health with its More Report (often referred to as the Japanese version of the Hite Report), ran a comprehensive seven-page analysis of birth-control methods that was not ostensibly about the Pill, but which had certainly been planned to take advantage of the timing of the approval.

The More piece explains the Pill’s merits and demerits in relation to other forms of birth control and is clear-headed about the side effects. Perhaps because More is mainly a fashion magazine, the article mentioned that the chances of gaining weight — a side effect that other publications tend to stress and the one that scares off young women the most — is actually negligible with the low-dosage pill.

These reports will not change most readers’ minds overnight, but they aren’t meant to. Drugs are always a sticky subject, regardless of their purpose. What’s important is that women have access to information that allows them to make decisions based on their own wants and needs. Minori Kitahara, an expert on women’s sex issues, says in the More article that the main benefit of the Pill’s approval will be “to get couples to discuss contraception more openly.” But the real significance of the Pill is that it allows a woman more control over her sex life regardless of the approval or even the cooperation of her sexual partner.

This is the aspect of oral contraceptives that has always bothered the Japanese authorities, who, history shows, have always kept a tight rein on women’s reproductive choices. The legend about the Pill is that it single-handedly sparked the sexual revolution in the West and brought about women’s liberation. It’s a legacy that many Japanese women are thankful they don’t have to deal with, but I think most of them would agree it’s preferable to having the government dictate what you can and can’t do with your own body.

Whether purposely or not, the media has always supported the government line by discussing female sexuality in terms of what it offers men. Aside from the More Report, sex-related features in women’s fashion magazines tend to dwell on satisfying your partner, presumably so that you can hold on to him. Whenever I see ads for an-an’s annual “Sex Makes You Beautiful” feature, I always ask myself: Beautiful for whom?