More than 100 million women around the world begin their day by taking a birth control pill.
I was born in 1959, the same year that G.D. Searle & Co. applied for approval of “the pill.” The FDA gave that approval in May of 1960. Little did this tail-end baby boomer know that she was born into times of such historical significance for women’s reproductive health.
By the time birth control became an important issue in my life, the Pill was readily available by prescription; all it took was a visit to the doctor. That little Pill gave me, and millions of women the world over, the freedom to choose when and how many children we might like to have. Nature is a fickle thing and there are no guarantees, but we had more control over our reproductive lives than any generation that came before us — enabling us to take advantage of unprecedented freedoms.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill. The latest issue of Time takes a fascinating and in depth look at the history and the controversies that began well before 1959 and continue to the present day.
Did the Pill cause the cause the sweeping sexual, gender, and societal shifts of the 60’s and 70’s… or was it simply one wave in a sea of revolutionary changes? One could ask the same question about The Beatles. War; civil rights; the women’s liberation movement, as it was called then; the smashing of gender and sexual stereotypes; rock ’n roll… oh, the times they were a-changin’.
The Pill was — and is — often used as a political pawn. The Pill, it was argued, might cut down on abortion rates and control population, thereby lowering risks of famine, war, and political instability. Opponents, on the other hand, issued grave warnings of sexual promiscuity, adultery, and the breakdown of the family. In fact, in its early years, some states declared it illegal to prescribe the Pill to women who were not married. It was not something “good girls” should want.
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.
Opposition from religious groups was present from the beginning and continues today, from the continuing argument over abortion rights and seeping into contraception issues. Fifty years later, we still have pharmacists and other health care workers who refuse to dispense contraception on moral grounds. The call for a return to more traditional values and less control over reproductive health translates into fewer freedoms for women on every level of their lives. The link between the two cannot be denied.
In a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teens are clearly confused about the Pill. Sixty-three percent of young men and women admit that they know little or nothing about birth control pills, and a lot of what they think they know is incorrect. And that’s 50 years after the Pill made its debut.
I went through my entire reproductive life in a way that my female ancestors, indeed my own mother, could scarcely have imagined. The Pill and other contraceptive choices were always available to me. I have never had to face the dreaded abortion decision, but throughout my reproductive years, I had the peace of mind of knowing that such a decision, difficult though it would be, was mine to make. I, and millions of women of my age group and younger have been most fortunate. We’ve lived a different kind of life than would have been possible in another time and another place.
So the Pill is 50 years old and reproductive rights have come a long way, baby, but nothing is etched in stone. Women of every age need to stay on top of the issues and vigilantly advocate for the freedom of choice. Our bodies. Our choices. Our lives.