"The Pill" arrives: May 9, 1960

With one decision, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes a profound impact on marriage, women's rights and sexual relations in America. It approves a new drug called Enovid-10, but it quickly becomes known simply as “The Pill.”

The development of an oral contraceptive is the culmination of a lifelong campaign of Margaret Sanger, a nurse who had spent much of the first half of the 20th century crusading for better sex education and birth control options. Her own mother had died at the age of 50 after having 18 pregnancies in 22 years.

A turning point in her crusade had come seven years earlier when Sanger, then in her 70s, met a scientist named Gregory Pincus, who had achieved dubious fame in the 1930s when he had been able to get rabbits pregnant  through invitro fertilization. The press had deemed him a “Dr. Frankenstein” and despite his groundbreaking research, Pincus was denied tenure at Harvard. Sanger was thrilled when Pincus told her that it should be possible to create a pill that could keep women from ovulating.  She then arranged for him to meet her friend Katharine McCormick, also a women’s rights advocate and an heir, through marriage, to the International Harvester fortune.  McCormick immediately wrote Pincus a check for $40,000 to get him started on the research.

It was an uphill battle. Pincus joined forces with Dr. John Rock, a gynecologist at Harvard Medical School who was doing similar research.Their first trial, with 50 of Rock’s patients, had to be characterized as a study on fertility, due to the very restrictive birth control laws in Massachusetts—legally a person who wasn’t married couldn’t use birth control.  And when, in 1956, they moved forward to do larger clinical trials that would be required for FDA approval, they had to go outside the continental U.S. to  Puerto Rico. The research was a success—the medical director running the trials told Pincus and Rock that their pill “gives 100 percent protection against pregnancy.”  

News about the “magic pill” spread, and after the FDA approved use of Enovid in 1957 for “menstrual disorders,” women started asking their doctors about it. By 1959, an estimated half million American women were taking birth control pills “off label.” 

Once The Pill was officially approved for birth control, sales took off. Within three years, more than 2 million women in the U.S. were using it; within five years, the number had risen to 6.5 million. Sales did drop for a bit in the 1970s after congressional hearings on the potential side effects of The Pill—weight gain, headaches, nausea and even blood clots. But fears about the risks faded when drug companies were permitted to drop the levels of progesterone and estrogen in the medication.  

Legal restrictions also fell away. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a rarely-enforced, but still-on-the-books Connecticut law that banned any kind of birth control, even for married couples. And in 1972, the Court also declared unconstitutional a Massachusetts law prohibiting  the sale of contraceptives to unmarried women.

By the 1980s, more than 11 million American women were taking The Pill, and the impact was clearly felt in the workforce. About 60 percent of the U.S. women of reproductive age had jobs.

Today, more than 100 million women around the world regularly use birth control medication. Prescriptions are still required in the U.S., but two-thirds of the women surveyed in a study released in May, 2013 said they feel birth control pills should be sold over the counter.  And, 30 percent of the women using either no birth control or a less effective method, such as condoms, said they would probably take The Pill if it was sold without a prescription.

A study published in February,2015 concluded that if oral contraceptives were available over the counter and covered by insurance, unintended pregnancies in America could drop by as much as 25 percent.

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