General Articles

The Pill Turns Fifty

Coinciding with Mother’s Day, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the birth control pill. Named by the Economist as “the most important scientific advance of the 20th century,” the pill is used today by more than 100 million women worldwide.[i] The pill is widely recognized for providing women with the freedom to control their reproductive system, and has been credited with everything from treating acne and improving the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome to opening up career and educational opportunities for women.[ii] The pill did not cure every social ill that early promoters promised, nor did it result in “sexual anarchy” like its opponents predicted.[iii] It didn’t save marriages, stop wars, or end poverty or overpopulation. But it has contributed significantly to the well-being of millions of women who have been granted the ability to decide if they wanted to have children and the pacing of pregnancies they wanted to have.
When it was introduced in the 1960s, the pill was the first medicine intended for people who were not sick.[iv] The regulators who announced its approval were quick to absolve themselves of moral responsibility: “Our own ideas of morality had nothing to do with the case,” said John Harvey of the FDA.[v] Moral qualms aside, women turned to the pill en masse. Just two years after its debut, more than a million women were taking it.[vi] Today, almost one-third of women trying to prevent pregnancy use it; in 2008, Americans spent upwards of $3.5 billion on the pill. Over the years, great strides have been made in its acceptance and exposure. While in the early 1900s, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was arrested for discussing contraceptive use via the mail system and in the 1960s it was illegal to prescribe it to single women in several states,[vii] by 1992, magazines began running ads for the pill and a recent study showed that 79 percent of women consider the pill preventative health care.[viii]
Today, the pill is known for its impressive medical and social benefits. After early problems with strokes and blood clots resulting from high doses of hormones, the current incarnations of the pill are far safer because they provide these hormones in much lower doses. Taking the pill also “decreases the risk of ovarian cancer and uterine cancer. It’s a real success story,” said Dr. Melissa Gilliam, the chief of family planning contraceptive research at the University of Chicago Medical Center.[ix] A study published in March 2010 found that women who take the pill “are less likely to die prematurely from any cause, including cancer and heart disease.”[x] And since the release of the pill fifty years ago, the number of women who die as a result of pregnancy complications has decreased by half.[xi]
The social benefits have also been dramatic. According to Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, “There is a straight line between the Pill and the changes in family structure we now see. In 1970, 70 percent of women with children under 6 were at home; 30% worked. Now that’s roughly reversed.”[xii] Indeed, in 2009 over half of the workforce was made up of women.[xiii] While the women’s movement and the fight for equal rights in the 1970s paved the way for women to enter the workforce, the pill gave them a necessary tool with which to level the playing field. Gloria Feldt, the former CEO of Planned Parenthood, has pointed out that “If women are going to have control and power in society, they have to be able to control when they have children, and they have to be able to make money. The pill brought together the economics and the fertility timeline in a neat little package.”[xiv]
“SIECUS celebrates the 50th anniversary of the pill, and the successes and opportunities it has provided for women over the years,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “Access to contraceptives, and the information necessary for their proper use, is critical for all women to make informed health decisions that will allow them to determine their own life course.”

[i] Nancy Gibbs, “The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox,” Time, 22 April 2010, accessed 17 May 2010, <,8599,1983712,00.html>.

[ii] Carla K. Johnson, “America’s Favorite Birth Control Method Turns 50,” Washington Post, 7 May 2010, accessed 17 May 2010, <>.

[iii] Elaine Tyler May, “Promises the Pill Could Never Keep,” New York Times, 24 April 2010, accessed 17 May 2010, <>.

[iv] Gibbs, “The Pill at 50.”

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Johnson, “America’s Favorite Birth Control Method Turns 50.”

[vii] Gibbs, “The Pill at 50.”

[viii] Johnson, “America’s Favorite Birth Control Method Turns 50;” see also Planned Parenthood, On 50th Anniversary of the Pill, Poll Shows Eight in 10 Women Say Birth Control Should Be Covered by Insurers, 10 May 2010, accessed 17 May 2010, <>.

[ix] Johnson, “America’s Favorite Birth Control Method Turns 50.”

[x] Gibbs, “The Pill at 50.”

[xi] Planned Parenthood, On 50th Anniversary of the Pill, Poll Shows Eight in 10 Women Say Birth Control Should Be Covered by Insurers.

[xii] Gibbs, “The Pill at 50.”

[xiii] Hannah Seligson, “Beyond the Bedroom: What the Birth Control Pill Really Did for Women,” Forbes, 12 May 2010, accessed 17 May 2010, <>.

[xiv] Ibid.