Ah, technology. We couldn't live without it. Or, at least, we feel like we couldn't live without it. I can honestly admit that my Good Friday fast from Internet was just as difficult as my Good Friday fast from food.
I sometimes get caught up thinking about the way that technology has changed fertility and the way our culture thinks about fertility. This hit me a few months ago when I caught an NPR book review of Liza Mundy's Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Our World. Amazon shows listing for similar books, as well. Mundy reported that the reproduction industry is currently worth about $3 billion dollars (I believe this was in the U.S. alone, but I could be wrong). Of course, that's nothing to the $93 billion dollar worldwide pornography industry (also largely facilitated by technology). But $3 billion dollars is still a lot of money.
It struck me that it would be really interesting to find out how much the contraception industry is worth and then add these figures together. Then we could get a sense of how much money goes into our culture's having babies and not having babies according to our preferences. I did a quick web search, but couldn't find what seemed to be reliable statistics on the contraception industry. By the number of advertisements available for this or that oral contracption or shot (to limit both fertility and menstrual cycles) and this or that condom or whatever, it seems that the contraception industry is holding its own.
I'm not sure we often think of fertility in terms of an industry, but I think it might be a worthwhile endeavor, especially if we complicate the picture even more with a historical consideration of the "technology" that has brought much of America to feeling that they can't live without fertility technology (whether preventing or facilitating conception).
In Catholic debates about contraception and Natural Family Planning, I've noticed that some assume that a woman who is not using contraception will be fertile pretty much ALL the time. One moral theologian, for example, suggested that if a woman were trying to limit her family size using NFP, she would have to spend most of her life abstaining from sex. The only other option, it seems, is to give birth about once a year.
This perspective didn't sit well with me for a number of reasons. The first reason is that I know a LOT of people who have had trouble getting pregnant. Some never do get pregnant. One friend told me it took 7.5 years. And many learn NFP precisely so that they can increase their chances of pregnancy. Given the $3 billion dollar industry for reproduction, I think it's safe to say that my comments here reach beyond the anecdotal.
When my mother was born, she joined a three year old, a two year old, and a one year old. In other words, my Irish grandmother really was giving birth about once a year - exactly the moral theologian's fear mentioned above. As a good Catholic woman, my grandmother was certainly open to life. But is one baby a year a necessary consequence of not using contraception? In short, no. This brings me to my second observation, namely, that these pregnancies in quick succession were also a result of technology.
Times were tough when my grandmother was trying to raise her kids with her waitress's salary. With an alcoholic husband offering no financial support, she struggled to do what was best for her kids. One of the sacrifices that she made was to cut short her own spending in order to buy formula for all of her infants. This, of course, was because formula was the new, scientific, technological baby food, advertised as far superior to breastmilk. She was poor, alright, but not so poor that she would deny her babies the technologically advanced formula. This dedication brought an early return of her fertility after each birth... thank God, it brought my mom! But it wasn't easy, nor was it optimal for my grandmother in this situation.
Formula has become so much a part of the American landscape that even the most committed breastfeeding mother cannot escape it. I admit no small amount of surprise when a week before my daughter was due a container of formula was delivered to me in the mail from Enfamil. Of course, the medical establishment now recommends breastfeeding. The American Pediatrics Society suggests at least one year of breastfeeding for an infant. And yet, I haven't found our pediatrician to be particularly accomodating to breastfeeding. At the three-month check-up the doctor prescribed flouride drops for Maia. She shook her head and said, "If you were using formula, your daughter would be getting flouride from the water you used to mix up the formula, but, as it is, she's likely to have a mouthful of cavities if you don't give her these prescription flouride drops." Thank goodness they had a technological solution to my backwards breastfeeding, right?! While we filled the prescription, we never actually gave the drops to Maia. I'm sure the cavities will show up any day now.
Anyway, it's obviously a complicated picture. Technology in the form of formula and breast pumps has allowed women to continue working. For many, this is a good (or financially necessary) thing. But it has also led to a decline in lactation amenorrhea. In many areas of the world, children are naturally spaced between two-four years. This, of course, requires sleeping with the infant, not having breastfeeding schedules (another recent invention), not using pacifiers, and not supplementing with formula. As a busy theologian mom, I somehow found this possible.
But for many women, especially with work schedules, it seems this kind of "natural mothering" or "ecological breastfeeding" as it's called, is inconceivable, hence the technology trap. Technology in the form of cribs and a separate room for the infant (with all the appropriate video monitors, electronically-breathing teddy bears, etc.) has also caused a desire for more technology. In American life, the trend is to spend money on contraception. Sometimes spend money on reproduction. Spend money on formula. Use of formula rather than breastfeeding brings an early return of fertility. Hence the desire for more contraception. And the cycle continues. How much of a woman's paycheck does she spend on this technology?
We can debate whether certain technology has been used in positive or negative ways. But I don't think we can debate whether or not contraception, formula, cribs, and reproductive services are an industry. They are an industry, and it seems to me that women ought to be particularly aware of that as they are targeted with ads for eliminating their periods or whatever the technological trend is.