The Pill

The pill, or oral contraceptives as they are more formally referred to, were introduced to the American public in the early 1960’s. But the idea, research, and development for an oral contraceptive was in the works well before this. From 1914-1921 women’s right advocate Margaret Sanger coins the term “birth control, opens America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York and forms the American Birth Control League to help young women take control of their bodies. Although she was curious about bringing some kind of new birth control to her clinic, she didn’t have a new product to push. It wasn’t until 30 years later in 1951 when she met endocrinologist Gregory Pincus at a dinner party and was able to convince him to develop a birth control pill that could be taken daily to prevent pregnancy. Meanwhile, in Mexico, chemist Carl Djerassi creates a birth control pill by synthesizing hormones from Mexican yams. On a chemical level, the pill has been invented, but Djerassi isn’t equipped to test, produce or distribute it. Simultaneously, gynecologist John Rock has already begun testing chemical contraception in women and Frank Colton, chief chemist at the pharmaceutical company Searle, also independently develops synthetic progesterone. After receiving $40,000 from biologist, women’s rights activist and heiress to a great fortune from Katherine McCormick, Pincus and Rock join forces and being testing their combined products on a group of 50 women in Massachusetts. Their pill works! but due to regulations form the US government, the duo are forced to continue their experiments and research in Puerto Rico where there were no anti-birth control laws on the books. After three years of large scale testing the pill is deemed 100 percent effective, however there are some serious side effects like depression, weight gain, blood cots, and death that were not released to the public or FDIC when they approved the pill in 1957 to treat severe menstrual disorders. Three years later in 1960, the pills as approved as an oral contraceptive to prevent pregnancy. Instantly the pill was a hit reaching record numbers of 1.2 million Americans women only after two years of being on the market and 2.3 million after three years. in 1965, after being on the market for only five short years, 6.5 million American women are on pill, making it the most popular form of birth control in the U.S.

The pill, even with staggering numbers, still has many serious critics in the late 1960’s. In 1967, African-American activists claimed that Planned Parenthood (Sanger’s organization of birth control clinics) was providing the pill directly to poor, minority neighborhoods as a way to keep them from reproducing, therefore committing genocide. In 1969 Barbara Seaman publishes The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, which exposes the previously hidden side effects of the pill including the risk of blood clots, heart attack, stroke, depression, weight gain and loss of libido.

Through the 1970’s, a series of senate hearings are held to determine the safety of this pill. Sales drop by 24% as many angry women demand to be heard by the senate on the issue. To make a comeback, the pharmaceutical companies that sell the pill release a new low dose pill that is not only a pregnancy preventer, but treatment for acne, and provides a decreased risk of  ovarian cancer, iron deficiency anemia and pelvic inflammatory disease. And by the 2000’s a new pill called Lyrbel makes the option of zero to four mental periods per year.

The development of the birth control pill has reflects the change in female sexuality of the 20th century. As women broke free from their traditional family norms, they experimented with sex and for the first time sex became a common act outside of wedlock. When the depression hit America, women were unable to provide for their children. And many babies were born into poor families due to the lack of birth control. As an answer the pill was developed as distributed especially to the poorer families who did not have the funds to provide for more children. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Social Eugenics movement also called for a new form of birth control, since their former method of sterilization had been deemed monstrous by the public. With so many powerful advocates for a pill, a wide marketable group to sell to, and scientific support, the pill became the answer for social Eugenics supports, sexually curious females, and families in poverty that did not desire any more children.The impact of the pill was enormous in its early time reaching record numbers of women and quickly becoming the most common form of birth control. It created many long term consequences like a new market for the pharmaceutical companies that still thrives today, especially under Obama Care where many oral contraceptives are free and an increased female sexual openness in today’s society. What I mean by the last statement is that many younger females experiment sexually without being in serious committed relationships. With the birth control pill being heavily marketed, openly acceptable, and easily obtainable, girls feel like it is ok to be more promiscuous. The pill also allowed for clinics like Sanger’s planned parenthood to remain open for decades. 

 

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Resources:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/health/a-brief-history-of-the-birth-control-pill/480/

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/timeline/timeline2.html

 

 

 

 

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About caitlineichlin

History major at California State University San Marcos and aspiring high school history teacher.
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