The Passions Behind the Pill
Helping women in poverty is what drove the development of the oral contraceptive
When the birth control pill was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1957, it was only as a treatment for menstrual disorders. But backers of the pill, and doctors who prescribed it, were keenly aware that it was, first and foremost, a contraceptive. And they well understood all the political, moral, and social baggage that came with it.
The pill didn't emerge from a grass-roots movement or any widespread discontent with available birth control. Instead, it resulted from the passions of four quirky individuals who were committed to the idea of a safe, reliable, andmost importantfemale-controlled type of contraception. "It's not like women were clamoring for a new form of birth control," says historian Elizabeth Watkins. "They were making do with available methods."
But at least one woman was clamoring. Activist Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, had made headlines in the early 1900s with her efforts to educate women about contraceptives like condoms and diaphragms and to make them available to women in poverty. Because her own mother had conceived 11 children and died penniless, Sanger felt a calling "to help poor women have fewer children to be brought up." In the early years of her struggle, Sanger was considered a radical and a socialist, and she took part in several labor strikes.
Charged with obscenity for mailing pamphlets on birth control, Sanger left the country to avoid a jail sentence. But she continued her campaign from Britain, eventually returning to open a clinic in a Brooklyn storefront, where she, her sister Ethel, and a team of nurses handed out information and fitted women for diaphragms. Sanger and her sister were rewarded with 30 days in jail for violating the Comstock Law, which prevented dissemination of information about birth control.
Financial backing. By the 1950s, Sanger had retreated from her socialist connections and brought her fight to the middle class. In 1953, Katharine McCormick, the millionaire widow of the heir to the International Harvester fortune, approached Sanger and offered her financial support. McCormick was active in philanthropy and women's rights and had a strong interest in science, being one of the few women to have graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The two approached Gregory Pincus, a struggling laboratory scientist who was considered a world expert on human reproduction. They offered to fund his laboratory in exchange for his developing an oral form of birth control, a simple pill that could that could be popped like an aspirin tablet. Pincus, despite initial reservations, quickly came up with a simple method. He found that injecting rabbits with a daily dose of the hormone progesterone was enough to thicken their cervical mucus and stop them from ovulating, thereby preventing pregnancy. The fact that the pill also regulated a women's monthly cycle was a happy accident.
To get the drug through human trials, the group needed a medical doctor. They shrewdly settled on John Rock, a highly respected fertility expert who was also Roman Catholic. Sanger, who was fervently anti-Catholic, initially bristled at the idea, but she soon realized that Rock would be useful politically. "Being a good R.C. and as handsome as a god," she wrote, "he can just get away with anything." Indeed, Rock helped bring the pill into the mainstream, and for a while his insistence that the pill was a "natural" method of birth control even seemed to ensure that the church would sanction it for married couples. It wasn't until 1968 that the pope formally denounced the pill as an artificial interference with procreation.
The FDA's 1957 decision forever changed the lives of American women. By the time the pill was approved for contraceptive use in 1960, 500,000 women were already using it. By 1990, 80 percent of all American women born since 1945 had tried it.
Because the pill's popularity coincided with the beginnings of the feminist movement, it became a symbol of the sexual revolution. Watkins says that the pill alone didn't cause the sexual revolution, but, she says, it did cause a contraception revolution. Says Anita Nelson, professor of clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of California-Los Angeles: "The pill gave a woman the ability to control her own fertility."