On May 9, 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced pending approval of the first oral contraceptive, paving the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
A Revolution in Birth Control
The FDA formally approved a 10-milligram version of the Enovid brand contraceptive pill the following month, although it was not marketed. A lower, five-milligram dosage Enovid pill approved in 1961 was the first widely prescribed oral contraceptive.
As the first “non-barrier” contraceptive method and almost 100 percent effective, “the pill” revolutionized birth control by allowing couples much greater freedom and spontaneity. “[I]n a mere six years it has changed and liberated the sex and family life of a large and still growing segment of the U.S. population,” wrote Time in 1967.
A 23-year-old teacher in Indiana told the magazine, “When I got married I was still in college, and I wanted to be certain that I finished. Now we want to buy a home. … With the pill I know I can keep earning money and not worry about an accident that would ruin everything.”
It helped pave the way for both feminism and the so-called "sexual revolution" of the next two decades. Many welcomed the changes, but others did not.
Individual states were not all so quick to approve the social changes brought on by birth control. Connecticut outlawed the pill, even for married couples, until a 1965 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. The high court said the statute was a violation of privacy rights guaranteed under the 9th and 14th Amendments on privacy grounds.
A similar incident occurred in Massachusetts, where access to birth control was restricted to married couples, and even then could be dispensed only by licensed pharmacists or doctors. But the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the state’s distinction between singles and married couples violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment in 1971.
But for many, the pill provided freedom, security and independence. Interviewed for a PBS program on the pill, Sylvia Clark remembers that the arrival of the birth control pill gave her “the sense of ownership of myself.”
In a video segment on the PBS Web site, Clark said, “I could foresee at the age of 23 having another baby and another baby and another baby. And I was very disturbed, myself, about the loss of who I was ... And so the idea that I could do something that would give part of me back to me was very important.”
The Pill’s Effectiveness and Risks
Sources in this Story
- Time: Freedom from Fear
- PBS: Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
- Oyez: Eisenstadt v. Baird
- PBS: American Experience: The Pill
- CNN: Look what's 40—the pill
- Mayo Clinic: Birth control combination pill
Over the years, many have questioned the risks and side effects of the pill. A 2000 CNN article commemorating the pill’s 40th birthday reported that there are still a number of risks associated with oral birth control, but it is much safer than earlier versions.
Robert Hatcher, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Emory University, said, “The blood clots, the pulmonary emboli to the lung, blood clots to the lung, heart attacks and deaths related to oral contraceptives are remarkably decreased now.”
One thing that has remained constant is the pill's high rate of success, at least when taken properly. According to Mayo Clinic, the combination estrogen-progestin birth control pill has a 99 percent clinical effectiveness rate; however, human error lowers this to an average of 92 percent.
The most serious side effects of the pill are an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and blood clots. Arguably less severe side effects include “headaches, breast tenderness, nausea, vomiting, bloating, decreased sex drive (libido) and depression,” according to the site.
Key Player: Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger, a crusader in the fight to legalize birth control, was the daughter of a woman who endured 18 pregnancies, only 11 of which resulted in a living child. Sanger worked as a nurse and a midwife on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century.
Working with her patients, she discovered that many of them wanted to prevent having another baby, often because the family could not afford one. She eventually began circulating pamphlets on sexual health and preventing pregnancy, and began a feminist monthly newsletter called The Woman Rebel.
Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States on Oct. 15, 1916, in Brooklyn, but just days later, the clinic was closed and Sanger was arrested. She was prosecuted under the Comstock law for distributing information on contraceptives. Undeterred, she founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
FindingDulcinea’s Web Guide to Women’s Health includes information on birth control methods and their side effects, feminine wellness and links to other Web Guides about types of cancer affecting only women.