Problem-solving, problem-creating America

Pictures courtesy of Mike Willis

Americans love to problem solve[i]. The American genius in problem solving has led us into an era of comfort and ease of living. America has been ahead of the rest of the world from the time they created machines to farm much more efficiently than their European counterparts in the late 1800s to home appliances technology in the 1950’s up to the digital era today.  Sometimes problem solving creates bigger problems, however.  For example, an interesting paradox in problem solving applied to health policy can be seen in the treatment of eggs[ii]. All with the goal of protecting the consumer, the American approach to egg production and handling is the polar opposite of that in Europe.

In the United States, eggs must be washed before they’re sold, whether they come from a small family farm or a huge industrial production. They must then, by law, be refrigerated, because of the risk of salmonella. However, it’s precisely because of the risk of salmonella that European countries and most other countries in the world forbid the washing of eggs.

Europeans have reasons for their policy. Because washing an egg removes its layer of natural protection, the risk of salmonella is actually increased. A side benefit is that the cost of cooling the eggs is eliminated.

In the US, eggs must be washed in part because of the way they’re produced. Industrial chickens are so crowded that eggs are inevitably filthy. Instead, the legislation in Europe forces producers to keep the chickens’ environment cleaner. It’s more demanding for producers and raises those costs. This approach also reduces the lifespan of the eggs. You wouldn’t eat a 40-day-old egg in Europe, unlike here. But fresher eggs, produced in a less industrial way are better.

What’s interesting about this story is the way of thinking. The U.S. food distribution industry had a problem: supplying eggs that look good, that can be produced at the lowest cost possible, in concentrated production settings, and that can last long enough to be transported long distance. So “wash the damn eggs and get it over with.”

Eggs for sale in a French supermarket. Photo by Anna Migeon.
Eggs in a French supermarket. Photo by Anna Migeon.

It’s a bit the same with thinking on contraceptives. Here is how we formulate the problem: having sex can lead to pregnancy. We want to prevent it cheaply and simply, on a large scale with as little demand upon humans as possible, and as effectively as possible.

The scale and complexity of the problem at hand are huge. The solution has to work for millions of women: each with a similar yet unique hormonal balance. To make it harder, the full picture of hormones, their relationships to the brain, and how synthetic hormones affect the body is still fairly obscure.  Yet, medical and pharmaceutical institutions, knowing the demand for preventing pregnancies, are happy to oblige and come up with a series of solutions that blast the risk of pregnancy.

To ensure that it works for most women, contraceptives have to fight nature with mighty power. It’s not unlike the way we throw heavy duty fertilizers and pesticides on our crops, inject our animals with hormones, fill our food with corn syrup and other additives to make them look and taste good longer. It’s how we do things. It needs to work on a large scale and meet the demands of most people, with minimal visible collateral damage. As long as we focus on the short term and the effectiveness of the tool, it’s all good.

Risks and casualties with contraceptives are known, but their promoters justify them with the following logic:

  • Unwanted pregnancies and children are costly (to parents and society)
  • Statistically, there are more casualties from pregnancies that go wrong than from artificial birth control.

So, it becomes legitimate to radically medicate healthy women, even still-developing girls, or to surgically transform women’s bodies to achieve the goal. We call it good because it solves the problem for us.

Curiously, many players in this field, from medical authorities, governmental systems and non-profit agencies, to the media, make major and sustained efforts to convince us of the goodness of these solutions. It seems that all our interests―those of the public and of these organizations―converge.

Yet, I wonder, if there is such a need and such a demand from families, why is there such a need for education and promotion?  If it’s as elementary and healthy as good hygiene, why all the fuss?

It forces me to wonder if there is not indeed, something deeper in us that resists it. Is it because the messy reality of contraceptive solutions? Or maybe people who end up experiencing life and sex free from artificial hormones realize there is a difference. It’s like with the eggs, once we’ve discovered the European egg, gotten over our fear that it wasn’t refrigerated, and that the egg yolk, which is fresher, is a lot yellower, and  learned to appreciate the new taste, we don’t want to go back to the washed, cooled, stale, tasteless and nutrient-poor eggs.

Happily many people get to experience free sex at some point: by that I mean they have relations without the use of contraceptives, and often, once they’re tried it, they can tell the difference. When we tried to get pregnant with our second child, two years after the first one, we used fertility charting to choose the sex of our baby, and there was a difference for us. But we went back to contraceptives afterward, because, conditioned as we were to think contraceptives were a necessity, it didn’t occur to us that these methods would work equally well for avoiding pregnancy.

A couple weeks ago I was talking to a young pharmacist and her future husband, an experienced nurse. They both knew about fertility awareness methods and preferred them, as they were aware of the risks of contraceptive drugs. Yet, the pharmacist was concerned about the ability of young women to learn and practice fertility awareness methods, seeing how difficult it is to get them to take simple medications consistently.

I contended, and still do, that if women where taught charting early on, as methodically and systematically as we teach kids to brush their teeth, and if we raised general awareness about the existence and benefits of these methods, the fertility awareness solution could be widespread and effective. But since there is little political will, no profit to be gained and virtually no funding to promote this way of life, it will be a slow process.

Our hope rests in people’s good sense and in the evident benefits of the natural way.  People’s disappointment in contraceptives and the long term health costs, which we have only now begun to see clearly, is what will open minds to these options. The example and testimony of those who already practice fertility awareness methods further opens the door. Easily accessible training that really teaches women about their fertility markers is what will establish the movement in a durable fashion.

It is time for a new way to think about the “problem” of women’s fertility in America. Join us and spread the word.  You will be surprised of how receptive women and couples already are.


[i] This title is from the subtitle of the last part of Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, which describes the era from 1960 to 1997.

[ii] For more on this subject, read:  and


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