The Pill Turns 50

In June, 1960 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first birth control pill for use in the United States. The birth control pill as a method of contraceptive has been around for fifty years now and over 12 million women in the United States use the pill as their preferred method of planned parenthood. In short, the approval of the birth control pill by the FDA signaled an incredible shift in the women’s movement. Prior to the advent of the pill, reproductive rights was a discussion largely omitted in the discourse surrounding women’s rights in the United States. Women’s rights activists such as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, to name a few, brought this issue to the forefront by becoming public advocates for birth control.

At the turn of the twentieth century, women began to demand sexual freedom for themselves; the freedom to enjoy sex without worrying about pregnancy, plan the size of their family, and make their own decisions about their bodies. So, the FDA may have given the green light to birth control, but it was the women who fought for autonomy and self-determination that ushered in an era of birth control and other contraceptives. Check out this fascinating look at the history and controversy of the pill in the latest issue of Time.

I obviously don’t have much first hand experience with the use of birth control and unfortunately cannot offer the most nuanced perspective about its advantages and disadvantages. My general position goes something like this: I like the availability of options. I think women should be able to negotiate the terms of pregnancy and make autonomous choices about their own bodies. The birth control pill offers a lot of women the opportunity to enjoy sex without the lingering fear of pregnancy. I’m all for that.

Offering some criticism of the pill, Christiane Northrup, Board-certified Ob/gyn and bestselling author, makes the argument that the birth control pill not only fits well in the dominant social view of women’s bodies, but also are geared to the interests of the medical industry.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill, a development that ushered in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and gave women unprecedented freedom to explore their sexuality without having to worry about pregnancy. Because of its convenience, the pill remains the most popular method of birth control in the United States. It also fits well with society’s view of the female body as something that requires outside control.

Though there are other reliable methods of contraception, birth control pills have been “pushed” by the medical profession as the optimal method of contraception for the last half century. Other methods, for example diaphragms, condoms and fertility awareness, have been actively downplayed even though, when used properly, they are nearly as effective as the pill. These other methods require more education about the body and more active participation than the pill. They are not geared to the average busy doctor’s schedule.

Many physicians also feel that women will not use barrier methods of contraception, such as diaphragms, condoms, or fertility awareness because they have seen too many “failures.” This is true of some women but not all women. The data show that in the women who are ideal users–who use the method correctly every time–barrier methods and even “fertility awareness” (natural family planning) can be 95 to 98 percent effective. [1]

Optimal use of contraception other than the pill (or an IUD) also requires women to interact consciously with their fertility–and, ideally, to engage their sexual partners in this awareness as well. The reality is that many women still don’t have conscious dominion over their fertility, don’t appreciate their fertility cycles and aren’t in partnerships that respect these cycles either. The pill (and now the patch) is, therefore, an ideal solution for many. We can use it to manipulate our menstrual cycles, avoiding periods altogether or on weekends. In short, it fits our cultural ideal.

The pill is the most-studied medication in history. Unfortunately, because it’s made from synthetic non-bioidentical hormones, it has more side effects than it should! Though we have the science and technology to make safer oral contraceptives (OCs) from bioidentical hormones, there is no profit in doing so–and therefore no support for it. None are currently available.

I like the way Ann Pietrangelo put it.

Like it or loathe it, the Pill profoundly changed women’s reproductive lives, giving them a larger measure of control; but it also changed how women thought in terms of their own futures. Women began waiting longer to marry and family size started to shrink. Women were able to put off having families in order to establish careers, and employers became a bit less reluctant to hire them. It is difficult to point to those changes as a direct result of the Pill rather than part of an overall movement. It is more likely a combination of many things.

Want to educate yourself on the pill that over one million women take each day around the world? Check out this informative run down from Planned Parenthood.

About aj:
Andrew (AJ) is a vehement progressive, youth activist, and reproductive justice organizer. When he's not busy with the movement, you can usually find him dancing in the club or watching trashy reality tv.


  1. freewomyn says:

    This is a great history of the pill. I feel like I should have baked a cake yesterday.

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