A Brief History Of The Birth Control Pill In America

Because there’s no better way to celebrate Women’s History Month.
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Caitlin L.
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Because there’s no better way to celebrate Women’s History Month.

Happy Women’s History Month, you beautiful babes! In the spirit of our celebratory month, it’s important to marvel at the lives of our predecessors and applaud them for their hard work as they chiseled a pathway to women’s equality. We obviously haven’t fully achieved it yet, but we have it better in 2015 than any other point in human history.

For one thing, we have access to birth control--it may not be easily accessible to for everyone, but it’s still there. It exists. And looking back, the birth control pill was arguably one of the most important developments in the history of womankind. 

It Had To Start Somewhere

Women didn’t have access to oral contraceptives until the 20 century and, thanks to a woman named Margaret Sanger, scientists were able to start building and creating chemical contraceptives for women.

margaret sanger

Whoever said one person can’t make a difference has clearly never heard of Margaret Sanger. (photo via)

While Sanger was undeniably racist, she was a pioneer in the women’s right arena, is credited as the founder of Planned Parenthood, coined the phrase “birth control,” and opened the first birth control clinic for women in 1916. 

She also founded the American Birth Control League and published widely to promote contraception and women’s rights. Her activism for women was subject to heavy criticism and she was even arrested for bringing public awareness to these issues.

margaret sanger

Sanger and some of her supporters at the first birth control clinic in 1916. Many of these women, including Sanger, were arrested for violating the Comstock Law, which prohibited the promotion of “obscene” literature. (photo via)

In 1951, at the persuasion of Sanger, a scientist named Gregory Pincus began working on a prototype of the pill. Throughout the early '50s, scientists used hormones from yams, tested on rats, finally found out that it could work, and faced a lot of criticism along the way. By 1954 the pill was ready to test on humans.

Legalization In America

Over the next three years human testing was conducted in the United States and Puerto Rico and in 1957 the FDA approved the pill, then known formally as Enovid, for women suffering from severe menstrual disorders. Not so shockingly, a lot of women--about half a million, to be exact--complained of menstrual disorders to their doctors that year.

envoid

Masters of Marketing: While Enovid was approved for menstrual disorders, it came with a warning label clearly stating a side effect that the pill would prevent pregnancy. (Photograph by Jerry Mosey, AP)

Three years later the pill was approved for the use of birth control, and by 1965 the pill had become the most widely used form of birth control in America, with 40% of married women under the age of 30 and approximately 6.5 million women of all ages taking the pill. Birth control remained illegal in various states for both married and unmarried women until 1972 when the Supreme Court legalized the use for all, regardless of marital status.

Problems With The Pill

Throughout the '60s and '70s the pill was criticized as immoral, the cause of genocide, and was even described as a death pill. Women began to worry about side effects due to books like The Doctor’s Case against the Pill and news articles that highlighted claims of long term physical effects.

anti-birth control poster

The Doctor’s Claim Against the Pill was just one of many publications highlighting the dangers of oral contraceptives.

The FDA ultimately determined a link between the pill and some serious health problems, like pelvic inflammatory disease and ovarian cancer, and officially took Enovid off the market in 1988. Women weren’t out of luck, though, as several low-dosage pills and non-oral contraceptives, like the IUD, were made available.

The removal of Enovid didn’t leave women high and dry--there were still plenty of new and existing products on the market to help them take control of their reproductive health. The Ortho-Novum pill contained lower levels of hormones which made it safer for women to ingest. 

Emergency Contraceptive And Beyond

In 1999, Plan B was introduced as a prescription-only emergency contraceptive product. If taken within 72 hours, Plan B significantly reduces a woman's chance of getting pregnant after unprotected sex. It took over 10 years for Plan B to hit the shelves unrestricted, and even longer for generic brands to be made available. Just like the pill and so many other forms of contraception, Plan B has faced criticism since the moment it hit the market. Opponents often refer to it as an abortion pill--and it has garnered an endless supply of slut-shaming memes around the Internet.  

Today there are over 50 types of oral contraceptives available to women. And just like their historical counterparts, these medications are still subject to criticisms and restrictions from opponents. Pretty much all contemporary contraceptives come with a list of potential side effects, ranging from slight nausea to full on changes in mood. 

The controversy over birth control will probably never go away. And despite personal opinions, women today are incredibly lucky to have access to modern medicine and health education. There’s still a long way to go towards equality, but thanks to the tenacity of the women’s rights movement, women today are one step closer to taking control of their bodies.

  • Do you have opinions on birth control?
  • Have you ever had a bad experience taking the pill?
  • How do you plan to celebrate Women’s History this month? Or, every month?