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The Birth Control Pill Turns 50

by @ 10:04 am on May 9, 2010. Filed under Health, In The News


It was fifty years ago today the the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive for use:

CHICAGO — A world without “the pill” is unimaginable to many young women who now use it to treat acne, skip periods, improve mood and, of course, prevent pregnancy. They might be surprised to learn that U.S. officials announcing approval of the world’s first oral contraceptive were uncomfortable.

“Our own ideas of morality had nothing to do with the case,” said John Harvey of the Food and Drug Administration in 1960.

The pill was safe, in other words. Don’t blame us if you think it’s wicked.

Sunday, Mother’s Day, is the 50th anniversary of that provocative announcement that introduced to the world what is now widely acknowledged as one of the most important inventions of the last century.

The world has changed, but it’s debatable what part the birth control pill played. Some experts think it gets too much credit or blame for the sexual revolution. After all, sex outside of marriage wasn’t new in 1960.

The pill definitely changed sex though, giving women more control over their fertility than they’d ever had before and permanently putting doctors — who previously didn’t see contraceptives as part of their job — in the birth control picture.


The pill is America’s favorite form of reversible birth control. (Sterilization is the leader overall.) Nearly a third of women who want to prevent unwanted pregnancies use it. “In 2008, Americans spent more than $3.5 billion on birth control pills,” Tone said, “and we’ve gone from the one pill to 40 different brands.”

There are Yaz, Yasmin, Seasonale, Seasonique and Lybrel — all with slightly different packaging, formulations and selling points. Lybrel is the first pill designed to eliminate menstrual periods entirely, although gynecologists say any generic can do the same thing if you skip the placebo and take the active pill every day.

One’s view of the birth control pill likely depends on which side of the political/cultural divide you fall on. Traditionalists tend to see it as the beginning of sexual licentiousness, ignoring the fact that men and women were having sex outside of marriage long before May 8, 1960. Those on the left will tend to emphasize its positive effects, while ignoring the fact that one of it’s consequences has been that infertility has become a huge issue because men and women are delaying having children until well into their 30s in some cases. What both sides miss, I think, is the fact that the pill, like every other technological and medical advance, has given people more choices about how to live their lives and, positive or negative, that is always a good thing.

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