Why Loretta Lynn’s ‘The Pill’ Is Sadly More Relevant Than Ever (Guest Commentary)

Loretta Lynn’s songs are just as relevant now as when the late singer-songwriter, who died Oct. 4 at 90, first sang them — but perhaps none hit as close to home today as 1975’s “The Pill,” which detailed how a woman’s life had changed since she had access to birth control and agency over her own body.

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Until this year, “The Pill,” which Lynn co-wrote with Lorene Allen, Don McHan and T.D. Bayless, was perhaps perceived as a relic of the past, when women’s reproductive rights were in the hands of the government. After all, those under the age of 60 have little first-hand experience of a time when abortions were illegal and birth control may not have been readily available.

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But after the Supreme Court struck down Roe. V. Wade on June 24, triggering laws banning abortions under almost all circumstances in numerous states, legal birth control is also coming under assault decades after it was considered settled law.

Lynn, who was known for telling stories about her life, addressed the liberation and equality brought about by birth control and a woman’s ability to make her own choices in “The Pill,” whose lyrics include, ”All these years I’ve stayed at home/ While you had all your fun/ And every year that’s gone by/ Another baby’s come/ There’s a gonna be some changes made/ Right here on nursery hill/ You’ve set this chicken your last time/ ‘Cause now I’ve got the pill.”

The song, which was recorded in 1972 — the year before the landmark decision in Roe. V. Wade — but not released until three years later, was controversial when it came out. It was consequently banned from some country radio stations, causing it to lose momentum after it hit No. 5 on Billboard’s Country Songs chart.

The publicity garnered by the hot topic led some pop stations to play it, making it the highest-charting pop song of her career when it hit No. 70 on the Billboard Hot 100. A preacher from her home state of Kentucky condemned the song and the Grand Ole Opry nearly banned it, but nothing could stop Lynn from telling — and singing — her truth.

This song wasn’t an attempt to garner attention by addressing a controversial topic. This was a personal matter for Lynn, who married as 15 and had four of her six children by the time she was 20. Lynn was one of countless women who found their lives controlled by pregnancies and child-rearing, until June 1960, when the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive. By 1967, 13 million women had a prescription.

As she told People in 1975, ““If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies, I’d have taken ’em like popcorn. The pill is good for people. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anyone’s, but I wouldn’t necessarily have had six, and I sure would have spaced ’em better.”” The same year, she told Playgirl that doctors told her that “‘The Pill’ had done more to promote rural acceptance of birth control than any official medical or social services efforts.”

Nearly a half-century later, access to birth control is, again, no longer a certainty. After political conservatives found success in the Supreme Court overturning Roe. V. Wade, some are now aiming their sights on birth control.

In Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in Dobbs V. Jackson’s Women Health Organization, which is the case that overturned Roe V. Wade, he wrote that since the court found no constitutional right to abortion, it should next reconsider all of its substantive due process precedents. “Including Griswold,” he continued, referring to the 1965 case (Griswold v. Connecticut) that gave married couples the right to use birth control after finding that the due process clause in the 14th Amendment protects the right to privacy. The same clause also served as the foundation of Roe. V. Wade. Single people were given the right to use birth control with the 1972 ruling in Eisenstadt V. Baird.

In July, the House passed the Right to Contraception Act, legislation that would protect access to birth control, including oral, long-acting reversible and emergency contraceptives. “If you had asked me a year ago, six months ago, would we need a Right to Contraception Act, I would have thought not in my lifetime. But the fact is we live now in the post-Roe era. It is a unique moment in our nation’s history,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) on the Senate floor.  “Not just because the Supreme Court has overturned Roe V. Wade in the recent Dobbs decision, but because for the first time in our history, we are rolling back rights.”

But that momentum was stopped in the Senate, when Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-Massachusetts) effort to get the bill passed by unanimous consent was blocked by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

Some states were focused on addressing birth control before this year. Last year, Missouri lawmakers failed in their attempt to prevent Medicaid from paying for the morning-after pill and IUDs. Missouri state Sen. Paul Wieland, a Republican who helped lead the effort, said, “The bottom line is there is only one time something definitively happens and that’s the moment of conception. Once that happens, anything that happens should not be state funded.”

Before Roe. V. Wade was overturned, elected leaders in Idaho called for hearings to ban emergency contraception.  Idaho state law bans abortion after conception, except when the pregnant person’s life is at risk or in cases of incest or rape (and only if that crime was reported to law enforcement.) Last week, the Washington Post reported the University of Idaho’s general counsel told faculty and staff that the school should no longer offer birth control for students. The general counsel noted that condoms could be provided to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases, but not pregnancies.

As the midterm elections approach, both political parties are highlighting their abortion and reproductive positions in fundraising efforts. Matt DePerno, the Republican candidate for Michigan’s attorney general recently told a group he supports a ban of Plan B, known as the morning-after pill, which he considers to be an abortion and not contraception.

As a Dec. 11 headline in The Washington Post stated, “If the Supreme Court undermines Roe. V. Wade, contraception could be banned,” noting that constitutional protections for birth control could be on shaky ground.

In that Washington Post analysis, Pitzer College Professor Rachel VanSickle-Ward and California State University-Long Beach Professor Kevin Wallsten wrote, “The changing composition of the court, particularly the replacement of reproductive rights champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg with conservative Amy Coney Barrett, increases the chances that legal precedents related to contraception may be overturned,” noting that Barrett declined to answer during her confirmation hearing whether she believed Griswold v. Connecticut was decided correctly. “Barrett’s silence on Griswold, coupled with the court’s new conservative majority, sends the signal to state governments that more restrictive contraception policies might be welcomed,” the professions opined, adding,  “In other words, the court doesn’t have to formally end legal protection for contraception use. If it allows plaintiffs to call contraception abortion, and Dobbs ends legal protection for abortion, then contraception is at risk.”

While it would be wonderful if country radio stations, particularly those that program classic country music, would give “The Pill” a few spins this week during their tributes to Lynn, it is doubtful that few would dare wade into this controversial area. That’s why it’s up to female musical disciples of Lynn to pick up where she left off.

Perhaps those who were influenced by Lynn, a large group that includes everyone from Reba McEntire and Kacey Musgraves to Ashley McBryde and Miranda Lambert –– virtually every female country singer who has recorded since the seventies— can band together and record a new version of “The Pill” and donate the proceeds to women’s reproductive rights. Or, as Margo Price has done before, use “The Pill” as their walk-on music. It would make Loretta proud.

Beverly Keel is Dean, College of Media & Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., as well as a journalist and co-founder of Change the Conversation, a non-profit dedicating to improving the environment for women in country music.

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