Thursday, May 9, 2013

Happy Birthday to the Pill Which Changed Everything

The Original Pill--No fancy dispensers or counters.

Today in 1960 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally approved marketing G. D. Searle Pharmaceutical Corporation’s Enovid as an oral contraceptive.  That makes May 9 sort of the birthday of The Pill. 
Of course its story goes back earlier.  Pioneering birth control advocate Margaret Sanger had long sought a safe and reliable form of contraception that’ unlike condoms, women themselves could use and control.  In 1953 she brought her long-time associate and supporter Kathariane McCormick together with noted hormonal biology researcher Dr. Gregory Pincus who had been trying to develop a contraceptive since 1951.  McCormick, a wealthy widow, agree to finance Pincus’s research and pay for trials of a breakthrough drug. 
Pincus had tried to convince Searle to support his research, but the company was afraid of becoming involved in such a controversial project.  A Searle researcher, Frank Colton, however had accidently discovered a formula that had a contraceptive affect.  Pincus was allowed to use it in his research and conduct trial tests.  Two million dollars of McCormick’s money financed the tests. 
In 1957 Searle agreed to market the drug when the FDA approved it for use in treating hormonal imbalances in gynecological cases.  Doctors recognized that it also was an effective and safe contraceptive and began to prescribe it for that purpose even without official FDA approval for that use.  Searle marketed the drug, but kept a low profile. 
Sanger and her organization, Planned Parenthood, actively campaigned for FDA approval.  That approval finally came on this date in 1960.  
Timid and reluctant Searle quickly realized that they had a license to print money as women stormed their doctors’ offices to demand the Pill. 
Although the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960, contraceptives were not available to married women in all states until Supreme Court ruled in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 and were not available to unmarried women in all states until the Eisenstadt v. Baird case in 1972.
The Pill is widely viewed as having far reaching cultural and behavioral consequences.  Just as conservatives had feared, one of the first notable affects was to liberate women sexually.  With the Pill they could, and did become sexually active in the way that only men could be before.  The Sexual Revolution   of the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s would not have been possible without the Pill.   
The Pill liberated women from the slavery of compulsory motherhood.  Women were able to be sexual beings, delay marriage and/or motherhood and enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers as self-supporting human beings. 
Most women did eventually elect to become mothers, but it was more on their own terms, at a significantly older age, and they tended to have small families with one or two children instead of the big, multi children families that had earlier been standard.  The children that were born were both wanted and planned for.  The Pill both changed and enhanced the experience of motherhood. 
Although the Sexual Revolution was slowed by the stark realities of the AIDS  epidemic in the 1980’s, women still relied on the Pill—now available in a variety of compositions and dosages—to regulate family planning.  It became second nature and taken for granted. 
While big cultural battles were being fought over abortion, however, a combination of quiet but persistent agitation by the religious right, soaring costs, and the increasing lack of insurance has meant that in recent years contraception is harder for many women to find and afford. Encouraged by the capture of several state governments by ultra conservative who began to succeed in limiting Abortion by making it as difficult and expensive as possible to obtain, Religious Right operatives turned to similar strategies to make it harder for women to obtain contraceptives.
Unplanned pregnancies, particularly among the young and uninsured, are once again of the rise.  Women are slowly becoming aware that gains thought secure forty years ago must be fought for again.    
It may be hard for the American Taliban to force the genie of independent women back into the bottle.  But they are trying mighty hard.  Perhaps it’s time for women and their allies to smash the bottle itself.

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