Top 10 Facts About the Invention of Birth Control (the Pill) that Everyone Should Know
10. Birth control has been around for centuries
As the popular saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” For centuries men and women have felt that it was necessary to control when they would bring children into the world. Birth control has been practiced for a long time as individuals have been sexually active. In ancient Egypt, women used various methods for preventing pregnancies, including suppositories made of animal dung, or a combination of honey and acacia leaves. In ancient Greece, a combination of olive oil and cedar oil in ointment form was used as a spermicide. There were also various materials used to make cervical caps and condoms, including fish intestines and linen. There were early remedies that might be called the forerunners of today’s oral contraceptives. However, rather than preventing pregnancies, those mixtures ended pregnancies.
In the U.S. during pre-industrial times, it was not unusual for women to take elixirs made from strong herbs and other substances to induce miscarriages. Most likely, some of these early solutions gave rise to the idea of a pill that could be taken like a daily medication. During the 1800s birth control took a new turn when condoms were invented as a result of rubber becoming a popular material that could be used to manufacture all types of items. Rubber cervical caps were also invented during this period. Rubber condoms and cervical caps would certainly have been more convenient and preferable to birth control methods fashioned from animal dung, animal intestines or plant matter.
9. The Pill was born during the Baby Boom
The timing of the work on a commercially available birth control pill coincided with the period of U.S. history known as the baby boom. This was the time after World War II when soldiers returned home and there was an explosion of births. The fertility level was high and this phenomenon spanned several years. There was a decline in birth rates in the years leading up to World War II; however, after the war the number of births is described by some as “unprecedented.” This wave of births began in 1946 and did not let up until 1964, a period in which the United States saw eighteen years of high fertility rates.
According to Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) there were 2.9 million births in 1945, with an increase of about a 20 percent to 3.4 million births in 1946. During the remainder of the 1940s, births continued to increase. This trend continued into the 1950s when it reached a peak of 4.3 million in 1957. The last year of the baby boom was 1964, and by 1965, the baby boom ended, with births falling below the 4 million mark. It is interesting that this level was not exceeded again until many baby boomers started having their own children in 1989. Although births have not reached the peaks that were seen during the baby boom, in the years since, births have stayed near the three million mark in spite of the pill and other birth control methods being widely available.
8. An artist, scientist and a playwright and the pill
People might be surprised to learn that the chemical that gave rise to the modern-day birth control pill came from Mexican yams and that one of its inventors, was a man of many talents. Carl Djerassi was both artist and scientist. He was known as an author, playwright and a chemist. In 1951, as associate director of chemical research at a small company, Syntex SA in Mexico City, Carl Djerassi led work on a synthetic versi
on of progesterone, a hormone secreted by the female reproductive system. His version of the pill was made from diosgenin a chemical found in Mexican yams. That drug was called norethindrone. Along with Djerassi, George Rosenkranz a chemist and Luis Miramontes, a doctoral student developed this early prototype of oral contraceptives. Initially, Djerassi and his crew were looking for a solution to infertility. The problem with Djerassi’s discovery is that he did not have subjects on which he could test his pill. Although he is known as the father of the birth control pill, the formula for the pill discovered by Djerassi and his team were not sold commercially in the U.S. until several years after his 1951 discovery. Norethindrone has proven very helpful to women who suffer with various reproductive problems. In addition to being the active ingredient in several brands of birth control pills, Norethinrone is also used to treat endometriosis, a condition in which uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus into other parts of a woman’s body, resulting in pain and heavy bleeding. Norethinrone has been used to treat irregular periods and heavy menstrual bleeding. The drug does not cure the condition but is a successful treatment for many women who suffer from endometriosis.
7. How birth control pills work
Just like today’s birth control pills, the early versions worked by hindering ovulation. When a woman ovulates, she releases an egg that may be fertilized by sperm during intercourse. However, when no egg is released, there is no worry about getting pregnant. The pill can also make the uterine lining inhospitable to a fertilized egg, meaning that if fertilized, the egg will not attach to the lining; therefore, it cannot develop. Birth control pills must be taken according to the directions for the type of pill prescribed.
A woman is usually prescribed a 21 or 28-day cycle pill. With the 21-day pack, a woman takes one pill each day for 21 days and then stops to allow monthly bleeding to occur that is similar to a menstrual period. After seven days, the woman starts a new 21-day pack of pills. With the 28-day pack, the last seven pills are placebos that allow monthly bleeding to occur. After she finishes the seven placebo pills, a woman begins a new 28-day pack. Those women who use the 28-day pill pack can skip the placebos if they choose. If a woman follows the directions and takes the pills as prescribed prior to the seven-day break, she will be protected from getting pregnant.
Healthcare providers suggest that when a woman misses a pill, she should take it as soon as she remembers. This underscores the importance of taking birth control pills as prescribed to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Women who have questions about how to take the pill should not hesitate to ask a health care provider for further instruction.
6. Margaret Sanger, the mother of the birth control pill
Margaret Sanger could be called the mother of control since her work led to what is now known as Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger, a nurse and activist opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. Sanger began her journey as an activist for women’s reproductive rights by writing a newspaper column titled “What Every Girl Should Know” is 1912. Sanger believed that women should decide when and if they would give birth.
Sanger pushed the edge of the envelope when she published “The Woman Rebel” magazine in 1914 and had to flee the country to avoid being jailed for violating obscenity laws. A couple of years later, she returned to the U.S. and opened a clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. At this clinic, Sanger and her staff provided contraceptive information and fitted women for diaphragms. The clinic was short lived, and she was arrested for violating decency laws. Sanger continued her quest to help women take control of their own bodies. She wanted more than diaphragms and douches to protect women from pregnancy and became committed to the development of a pill that would prevent pregnancy.
Sanger continued working toward her goal of a birth-control method that would be simple for women to use. In 1921, she organized the American Birth Control League and opened the first legal clinic in 1923. For years she worked tirelessly toward the birth control goal and in 1952, she finally succeeded in convincing Gregory Pincus, a reproductive expert to develop what would become known as “The Pill.”
5. Other pioneers and fathers of the birth control pill
In addition to the work done by Djerassi in Mexico City, there were men known as the fathers of birth control in the U.S. Gregory Pincus, whom Margaret Sanger recruited, studied hormones for other reasons. Pincus worked as a researcher at Harvard University but when he developed in vitro rabbits, the negative media attention resulted in his losing his job at the university. Pincus ended up at Clark University in Worcester Massachusetts. He established the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, but the foundation was so cash- strapped that Pincus could not pay a janitor. Despite these obstacles, Pincus continued studying all things reproductive.
Margaret Sanger heard about Pincus’ work and as a result, Planned Parenthood provided a small grant to the foundation. Sanger persuaded one of her colleagues to support Pincus’ work. In 1951 Pincus’ assistant, Dr. Min-Chueh Chang learned that progestins could prevent ovulation. Searle Pharmaceuticals provided some funding to help with research after this revelation. Pincus and Chang continued their work and created an estrogen-progestin combination that they felt would suppress ovulation. The team ran into issues with testing their product because in the State of Massachusetts, all contraception was illegal. This meant that Pincus and Chang had to find another place to test their product. Clinical trials were conducted in Puerto Rico with success, and this led to the FDA approving the drug for menstrual disorders. Ironically the numbers of women claiming menstrual disorders to get the pill resulted in the FDA approving it for birth control in in 1964. The name of this first approved pill for birth control was sold under the name Enovid.
4. Pill research was financed in part by a woman
Margaret Sanger met one of the pill’s early supporters through suffrage activities. Katharine McCormick was a wealthy woman from a well-known Chicago Family. McCormick was married to an heir of the International Harvester Fortune. McCormick’s husband, Stanley, suffered from schizophrenia and McCormick was convinced that the condition was related to a hormonal imbalance. Although she was a biologist and only the second woman to graduate from MIT, her concerns fell on deaf ears. However after her husband died, scientists discovered that a chemical imbalance does play a role in schizophrenia. It has been said that McCormick did not desire children because she did not want to bring babies into the world that might inherit their father’s schizophrenia.
After her husband died, McCormick was to inherit his fortune. After legal battles with his family and paying inheritance taxes, what she inherited made her a wealthy woman. She consulted Margaret Sanger about regarding projects that she could fund with her inheritance. This created a perfect opportunity for Sanger to help advance birth control research. She recommended that McCormick support the work of Gregory Pincus. McCormick donated over two million dollars to Pincus’ research, demonstrating faith in the work he was doing even when other funders stopped giving to his cause.
Mrs. McCormack is recognized by MIT for her role as a leader in science. Few people know the contribution of this early supporter of women’s reproductive rights. However, without her financial and moral support, the development of the pill as it is known today may have taken several more years to develop and bring to market.
3. The Pill had Racial Implications
Although many women were anxious to have a method of birth control that was simple as taking a pill every day, not everyone was happy about this new contraceptive. During the early history of birth control Margaret Sanger had spoken of the pill being the answer to poverty. Although Sanger would be considered far ahead of her time in progressive thinking regarding women’s reproductive rights, she remains a controversial figure because she reportedly supported the Eugenics movement, which advocates for reducing births to eliminate poverty and suffering. Additionally, the Eugenics movement pushed for the Aryan definition of beauty, worth and fitness of people. For many, this thinking is synonymous with getting rid of those who are not part of the pure white race and promoting Black genocide.
The Eugenics movement also stripped those suffering from mental and emotional problems from bearing children through involuntary sterilization. The concerns about Eugenics were not unfounded since during the pre-civil rights era poor black women and those in mental institutions were routinely sterilized to prevent them from having children or having additional children. Within the black community there were those who agreed that birth control should be practiced as a way to improve a family’s economic well-being while others felt that birth control was simply a way to decrease the numbers of minorities and poor people.
Sanger is credited with statements regarding birth control as being a way to control over population and suggested that the world would need a cheap and safe contraceptive that could be used in poverty stricken areas, in jungles and among those who are ignorant. It is these statements that angered many in the Black community and caused them to believe that the pill was given out in poor black neighborhoods as a means of eradicating the race.
2. Promoting contraceptives was punishable by jail time and fines
In 1873, the Comstock Act was passed as a way of preserving decency in the United States. The act was named after Anthony Comstock, a man who was said to be a zealous crusader against immorality. This act did not allow for advertisement of birth control, nor did it allow it to be sold. The law focused on obscene materials and articles that were designed for immoral use. The latter is described how many felt about birth control devices and information during Margaret Sanger’s time. As a result of this law being on the books, when Margaret Sanger opened her first clinic, she was arrested for violating decency laws and her clinic was deemed a public nuisance.
The Comstock Act was no joke for those who were caught peddling materials or information that were considered indecent. There were stiff penalties that included jail time and fines. Mailing obscene material and importing anything that was considered obscene were considered illegal under the Comstock Act. That meant that the activities of Margaret Sanger, such as providing women with information about birth control and smuggling diaphragms from overseas were illegal. The parts of the Comstock Act related to contraception endured until the 1970s. During this decade, language related to contraception and legal abortion was removed from the act.
1. The Pill was first tested as a fertility drug
Another early pioneer in the birth control movement was Dr. John Rock, a Catholic gynecologist who had a practice dedicated to helping couples conceive. It was ironic that Dr. Rock would provide an opportunity for Dr. Pincus to test the birth control pill on women. As a gynecologist, Rock saw women suffer because of the inability to conceive as well as not having a sure method for controlling unwanted pregnancies. As a Catholic, he broke with his religious traditions, supporting the desire of married couples who wanted to use birth control. However, he was not known for advocating birth control as a woman’s right. He did support it as a way to reduce poverty and the medical issues that can arise from pregnancy.
Pincus was fortunate to find Rock because it was through Rock’s infertility research that the pill could be proven as a way to prevent ovulation. Rock gave women with infertility issues a combination of estrogen and progesterone to give their bodies a rest from ovulation. After stopping the regimen, some women who had not been able to conceive in the past did become pregnant. Pincus and Rock could disguise their research on the pill as fertility experiments. Pincus and Rock found that the estrogen and progesterone combination could indeed work in suppressing ovulation in women, preventing them from getting pregnant.
In 1956, Rock presented his findings to a conference of scientists. While his clinical trials were not explicitly to develop the pill, his colleagues recognized the value of his studies and the fact that this hormone combination could temporarily halt ovulation without any permanent side effects. Once this discovery was made the pill was on its way to becoming a routine method of birth control for married and single women throughout the U.S.
The history the birth control pill is filled with stories of perseverance, controversy and hard work and while it has been accepted as a safe and effective way to prevent unplanned pregnancy, there are still those who believe that it has caused problems. Today, some say that the availability of the pill encourages reckless sexual activity, especially among teenagers. Some studies show a slight increase in the risk for breast cancer among birth control pill users. However, women who have used the pill for many years have not experienced any major problems. Today there are many types of birth control pills available, making it possible for a woman to choose one with a lower level of hormones. Additionally, research indicates that the pill has also shown some positive benefits such as lighter menstrual periods and a reduced risk for endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease.