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Happy 50th Birthday Birth Control Pill–on Mother’s Day

May 12, 2010
Ortho Tri-cyclen, a brand of oral contraceptiv...
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Long heralded among women as giving the freedom of reproductive choice, the Pill, short for the ubiquitous birth control pill, turns 50 this year.  It has been 50 years since the birth control pill was made available to American women, and it’s anniversary of release corresponded with Mother’s Day 2010.  While some may see this happenstance as a sad commentary, others hail it as a statement of freedom, allowing women to securely parent the children they have without worry of unintended pregnancy.

Yahoo’s article points out that the Pill was responsible for promoting a safety panel of new medications, responsible for helping women control reproduction and is now something that young women can’t imagine living without:

But some things haven’t changed. Now as then, a male birth control pill is still on the drawing board.

“There’s a joke in this field that a male pill is always five to seven years away from the market, and that’s what people have been saying since 1960,” said Andrea Tone, a history professor at Montreal’s McGill University and author of “Devices and Desires: A History of Contraception in America.”

The pill is America’s favorite form of reversible birth control. (Sterilization is the leader overall.) Nearly a third of women who want to prevent unwanted pregnancies use it. “In 2008, Americans spent more than $3.5 billion on birth control pills,” Tone said, “and we’ve gone from the one pill to 40 different brands.”

There are Yaz, Yasmin, Seasonale, Seasonique and Lybrel — all with slightly different packaging, formulations and selling points. Lybrel is the first pill designed to eliminate menstrual periods entirely, although gynecologists say any generic can do the same thing if you skip the placebo and take the active pill every day.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Ashley Montagu thought the birth control pill was as important as the discovery of fire. Turns out it wasn’t the answer to overpopulation, war and poverty, as some of its early advocates had hoped. Nor did it universally save marriages.

“Married couples could have happier sex with more freedom and less fear. The divorce rate might go down and there would be no more unwanted pregnancies,” said Elaine Tyler May, 62, a University of Minnesota history professor who wrote “America and the Pill.

“None of those things happened, not the optimistic hopes or the pessimistic fears of sexual anarchy,” she said.

And it didn’t eliminate all unwanted pregnancies either. Nearly half of all pregnancies to U.S. women are unintended and nearly half of those end in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which has gathered data on abortions for years.

The pill is often associated with the women’s movement of the 1970s. But the two feminists behind the pill, the ones who provided the intellectual spark and the financial backing, were born a century earlier, in the 1870s.

As suffragists worked for the vote, renowned birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger distributed pamphlets with contraceptive advice and dreamed of a magic pill to prevent pregnancy.

Her grandson, Alex Sanger, 62, now chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, remembers playing catch as a boy with his famous grandmother and eating her firehouse-spicy food.

“My grandmother had the idea for the pill back in 1912 when she was working on the lower East Side of New York,” Alex Sanger said. “She saw women resorting to back alley, illegal abortions. One too many of these women died in her arms and she said ‘Enough.’

Katharine McCormick, a philanthropist with a science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bankrolled the work of Gregory Pincus, the man Sanger convinced to develop the pill. “It was my grandmother’s idea and Katharine McCormick’s money,” Alex Sanger said.

Ironically, when health hazards of the early pill arose — high levels of hormones caused blood clots in some women — young feminists protested that men had invented it and turned women into unwitting guinea pigs.

The FDA’s response to the hazards of the pill led to greater access to safety information for patients, another less-appreciated part of the pill’s legacy.

No matter the legacy, for women, millions of women, the Pill meant freedom.  Now, if we can just get the Pill without prescription and age limits, we’d have true freedom.

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