05 May 2010

The Pill: 50 years on

On Sunday, men and women around the world will mark an event 50 years ago that revolutionised their lives - the approval by the FDA of the birth control pill.

On Sunday, men and women around the world will mark an event 50 years ago that revolutionised their lives - the approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the birth control pill.

The FDA announced on May 9, 1960 that Enovid, a prescription drug that had been used for several years to treat menstrual disorders, was safe to use as an oral contraceptive, and with a pen stroke, millions of women were given the freedom to make choices that previously were not an option for them.

What was to come to be known as simply "the pill" gave women the freedom to choose when to have children and how many to have, and those simple choices profoundly changed their lives.

Follow a career

"With the pill, you didn't have to worry about getting pregnant, you could go to college or finish college, and after you'd gone to college, you'd be free to do something with what you learned," a woman who asked to be named only as Susan K. told AFP.

Susan got a bachelor's and a master's degree in the 1970s before having her first child at 32.

Prior to the pill, unwanted pregnancy was the biggest obstacle to young women getting a university degree, confirmed Priscilla Murolo, director of the graduate programme in women's history at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

"In American colleges in the '60s, the main reason that women used to leave college before finishing was because they got pregnant," Murolo said.

But as of the mid-1960s, many universities in the United States began offering students prescriptions for the pill. "So the pill made it possible to finish school," said Murolo.

Women have advanced degrees

Today, more US women than men have advanced degrees, in stark comparison to the year the FDA approved the pill, when just a quarter of the 3% of Americans who studied beyond a bachelor's degree were women.

The pill not only changed how far women went in their education but also the way they had sex. "You could take a pill in the morning and then forget about it. It made casual sex possible," said Murolo.

"Whether you were married or single, with the pill you could engage in a sexual relationship on terms that were based on the desire both people had rather than on the worry about whether or not you would become pregnant," said Frances Kissling of the Women Deliver advocacy group.


"So the ability of women to control their fertility contributed to equalities in the workplace, in the family, in education and also to equality in the sexual relationship itself," she said. Then there was the positive impact the pill has had on women's health by allowing them to control the number of children they have.

"Beyond women dying in childbirth, the physical health of a woman who has two, three, four children as opposed to eight, nine, 10 kids - her physical health throughout her entire life is going to be much better as a result of being able to control her fertility," said Kissling.

Intentional motherhood

This year's landmark anniversary of the pill falls, by happy coincidence, on the day Americans celebrate Mother's Day. "What an incredible way to celebrate being a mother than to celebrate being an intentional mother," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organisation for Women (NOW).

"We can be proud that today women have the legal right to choose to be a mom," she said.

Illegal in some US states

But American women had to fight for that right. Although 1.2 million women in the United States were using the
pill within two years of it being approved, it remained illegal in several states.

"We had antiquated laws that equated contraception with pornography because a married woman who got pregnant would welcome the birth and an unmarried woman would only have sex if she were a prostitute," said Susan Yolen, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, which covers Connecticut, one of the states in which contraceptives were illegal in the early '60s.

In 1961, in defiance of those laws, then director of Planned Parenthood Estelle Griswold and the dean of Yale University medical school, Lee Buxton, opened a health center in Connecticut to hand out the pill.

The two women were arrested and their case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices decided in 1965 that birth control was a matter of privacy and the government should not interfere.

With the high court decision, the pill became legal in all 50 states, and 50 years after it hit the US market, it remains the most popular method of birth control in the United States, where it is used by one in five women. - (Karin Zeitvogel/Sapa, May 2010)




Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.