Roots of the Pill
One of the early female graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Katharine
McCormick believed in science and in the advancement of women. Margaret Sanger
witnessed unwanted pregnancies -- and desperate abortion attempts -- when she worked as
a nurse among New York's poorest women. Though they came from different worlds, the
two women set out to improve women's lives through "birth control," a phrase Sanger
When Sanger and McCormick first met in 1917, women had been working for decades to
achieve the vote. Thirty-nine years had gone by since a constitutional amendment for
women's suffrage was first proposed, and three more years would pass before the states
ratified it. At a time when women struggled for voting rights, job opportunities, or access to
education, both McCormick, a suffragist, and Sanger, a birth control proponent, were
outspoken advocates for giving women more control over their own lives.
Thirty years later, McCormick's sizable inheritance combined with Sanger's tireless advocacy
would bring about the birth control pill and spark a revolution. "An estimated eighty percent
of all American women born since 1945 have taken the Pill," says historian Andrea Tone,
giving them the ability to plan their reproductive lives.
People & Events: Katharine Dexter McCormick (1875-1967)
In the 1950s, when the United States government, medical institutions and the
pharmaceutical industry wanted nothing to do with contraceptive research, funding for the
development of the Pill came from a very unlikely source -- a single benefactor. Katharine
McCormick provided almost every single dollar necessary to develop the oral contraceptive.
Not a Typical Lady
For a woman once described as being "rich as Croesus," philanthropic acts were nothing
unusual. However, McCormick's willingness to fund such a controversial project, at a time
when 30 states still had laws on the books restricting the sale and use of contraceptives,
was a bold move. But McCormick was not a typical society matron.
An Unusual Education
Born into a prominent Chicago family in 1875, McCormick's roots went straight back to the
Mayflower. Unlike many women of her class, McCormick was encouraged by her father to
pursue an education. In 1904, she was awarded a bachelor's degree in biology from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Despite her education and interests, McCormick did what was expected of a woman of her
class. After graduation, she married Stanley McCormick, the wealthy heir to the
International Harvester Company fortune. Their storybook marriage, however, was soon
crippled by tragedy. Two years into the marriage, her dashing young husband developed
schizophrenia and was soon lost to dementia. It was widely believed that schizophrenia was
hereditary. McCormick, loath to pass on the terrible disease to her offspring, vowed never to
Voting Rights for Women
Katharine turned her attention to philanthropy and activism. An early feminist, she was
deeply committed to winning women the vote and was a prominent member of the National
American Woman Suffrage Association. She firmly believed that a woman's right to control
her body was as important as her right to vote. It was during her suffragist days that she
first crossed paths with legendary birth control activist Margaret Sanger.
Committed to the Cause
The two activists met in 1917 when McCormick attended a lecture Sanger gave in Boston.
Afterward, they kept in touch. McCormick was committed to Sanger's cause, and even
helped out by smuggling diaphragms into the country for Sanger's birth control clinics
during her trips abroad in the 1920s. Yet, despite her great wealth, she was not ready to
provide substantial funding for birth control research. Enmeshed in a bitter battle with her
husband's family over control of his wealth, McCormick chose to focus her philanthropy on
family-approved areas such as schizophrenia research.
In 1947 Katharine McCormick's husband died, and everything changed. She was awarded
full control of his estate, placing $15 million at her disposal. At age 75, she was finally free
to pursue her personal ambitions. McCormick turned her attention to birth control.
As soon as Margaret Sanger told her about her vision of a pill as easy to take as an aspirin,
McCormick was hooked on the project. She too believed in the importance of female-
controlled contraception. This was the age of the polio vaccine and other miracle drugs, and
McCormick, educated as a scientist, placed great faith in biochemistry. At first Sanger tried
to convince McCormick to spread out her donations and fund research at various universities
in the U.S. and abroad. But McCormick had little confidence in the academic approach. She
wanted results, not pure research, and she wanted it fast. She was determined to see an
oral contraceptive in her lifetime.
An Important Meeting
On June 8, 1953, Sanger took McCormick to a small lab on the outskirts of Worcester,
Massachusetts. They met with a scientist Sanger thought capable of developing her pill. At
the end of their first meeting, McCormick took out her checkbook and wrote Gregory Pincus
a check for $40,000, a small fortune at the time. It would be the first of many checks she
would write over the course of the research.
Not content to be a silent donor, McCormick moved east from Santa Barbara to actively
monitor the development of the birth control pill. She followed every stage of the project
and constantly urged the researchers to move faster with the drug trials. The nearly six-
foot-tall McCormick was described by Dr. Pincus' wife as a warrior: "she carried herself like
a ramrod. Little old woman she was not. She was a grenadier."
When the Pill came on the market in 1960, the scientists and doctors involved in developing
the Pill were thrust in the national spotlight for their contribution to science. McCormick's
remarkable contribution was soon forgotten. Her death on December 28, 1967, at the age
of 92, did not even merit an obituary in any of the major papers. Although few recalled
Katharine McCormick's role in the development of the Pill at the time, in recent years,
historians have recognized her contribution.
People & Events: Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
Margaret Sanger devoted her life to legalizing birth control and making it universally
available for women. Born in 1879, Sanger came of age during the heyday of the Comstock
Act, a federal statute that criminalized contraceptives. Margaret Sanger believed that the
only way to change the law was to break it. Starting in the 1910s, Sanger actively
challenged federal and state Comstock laws to bring birth control information and
contraceptive devices to women. Her fervent ambition was to find the perfect contraceptive
to relieve women from the horrible strain of repeated, unwanted pregnancies.
Tragedy Leads to Commitment
Sanger's commitment to birth control sprung from personal tragedy. One of eleven children
born to a working class Irish Catholic family in Corning, New York, at age nineteen Margaret
watched her mother die of tuberculosis. Just 50 years old, her mother had wasted away
from the strain of eleven childbirths and seven miscarriages. Facing her father over her
mother's coffin, Margaret lashed out, "You caused this. Mother is dead from having too
Nurses Botched Abortions
Determined to escape her mother's fate, Sanger fled Corning to attend nursing school in the
Catskills. Eventually, she found work in New York City as a visiting nurse on the Lower East
Side. It was there that Sanger saw her personal tragedy writ large in the lives of poor,
immigrant women. Lacking effective contraceptives, many women, when faced with another
unwanted pregnancy, resorted to five-dollar back-alley abortions. It was after these botched
abortions that Sanger was usually called in to care for the women. After experiencing many
women's trauma and suffering, Sanger began to shift her attention from nursing to the need
for better contraceptives.
Anger Turns to Militancy
Although married and the mother of three young children, Sanger devoted more and more
of her time to her mission. Sanger's anger turned into militancy, and her family took a
backseat to her crusade. In 1914 she coined the term "birth control" and soon began to
provide women with information and contraceptives. Indicted in 1915 for sending
diaphragms through the mail and arrested in 1916 for opening the first birth control clinic in
the country, Sanger would not be deterred. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control
League, the precursor to the Planned Parenthood Federation, and spent her next three
decades campaigning to bring safe and effective birth control into the American
Still More to Do
But by the 1950s, although she had won many legal victories, Sanger was far from content.
After 40 years of fighting to help women control their fertility, Sanger was extremely
frustrated with the limited birth control options available to women. Since the 1842
invention of the diaphragm in Europe and the introduction of the first full-length rubber
condom in the U.S. in 1869, there had been no new advances in contraceptive methods.
Sanger had championed the diaphragm, but after promoting it for decades, she knew it was
still the least popular birth control method in America. The diaphragm was highly effective,
but it was expensive, awkward -- and most women were too embarrassed to use it.
Worried about Population Growth
But Sanger, now in her seventies and in poor health, was not ready to give up. She had
been dreaming of a "magic pill" for contraception since 1912. She was no longer just
concerned about women suffering from unwanted pregnancies. Now, a firm believer in the
theory of population control, she was also worried about the potential toll of unchecked
population growth on the world's limited natural resources.
A "Magic Pill"
Tired of waiting for science or industry to turn its attention to the problem, Margaret Sanger
set out on a mission. She sought someone to realize her vision of a contraceptive pill as
easy to take as an aspirin. She wanted a pill that could provide women with cheap, safe,
effective and female-controlled contraception. Her search ended in 1951 when she met
Gregory Pincus, a medical expert in human reproduction who was willing to take on the
project. Soon after, she found a sponsor for the research: International Harvester heiress
Katharine McCormick. Their collaboration would lead to the FDA approval of Enovid, the first
oral contraceptive, in 1960. With the advent of the Pill, Sanger accomplished her life-long
goal of bringing safe and effective contraception to the masses.
A Dream Achieved
Not only did Sanger live to see the realization of her "magic pill," but four years later, at the
age of 81, Sanger witnessed the undoing of the Comstock laws. In the 1965 Supreme Court
case Griswold v. Connecticut, the court ruled that the private use of contraceptives was a
constitutional right. When Sanger passed away a year later, after more than half a century
of fighting for the right of women to control their own fertility, she died knowing she had
won the battle.
People & Events: The Pill and the Women's Liberation Movement
In the decade after the Pill was released, the oral contraceptive gave women highly effective
control over their fertility. By 1960, the baby boom was taking its toll. Mothers who had four
children by the time they were 25 still faced another 15 to 20 fertile years ahead of them.
Growing families were hemmed into small houses, cramped by rising costs. "By the end of
the fifties, the United States birthrate was overtaking India's," Betty Friedan would write in
The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Both men and women were beginning to ask, "Is this all
An Era of Change
As the 1960s progressed, the women's liberation movement gained momentum alongside
the civil rights and anti-war movements. It was a time of tremendous change, especially for
women. Though popular culture had glorified the image of the happy homemaker, in reality,
vast numbers of American women worked outside the home. The female employment rate
had dipped after World War II, but by 1954 more women were in the workforce than during
the height of the war. Most women worked at low paying jobs as teachers, nurses,
waitresses, secretaries or factory workers. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which
prohibited employment and educational discrimination, helped make it possible for women
to go into professional fields, the Pill also played a significant role. With almost 100%
fertility control, women were able to postpone having children or space births to pursue a
career or a degree that had never been possible prior to the Pill.
Freedom for Women
A generation earlier, Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the "mothers" of the Pill,
had insisted that female control of contraception was nothing less than a precondition of the
emancipation of women. Since women disproportionately bore the burden of pregnancy and
child rearing, they believed women should have a contraceptive they alone controlled. To
achieve their goal, they enlisted the help of scientists and physicians. In creating the Pill,
the two elderly activists ushered in what one historian called "the contraceptive mentality" -
- the belief in the right of a woman to control her own fertility.
Backlash Against the Pill
After a decade on the market, the wonder drug that had been lauded by women as
"liberating" and "revolutionary" came under attack by feminists. Senate hearings in 1970
brought the health risks of the Pill to the attention of the nation. Many women were furious.
Feminists now saw the Pill as yet another example of patriarchal control over women's lives.
Women's disillusionment with the Pill fed into the new feminist critique of American society.
Women started asking questions such as: Why should birth control be a female
responsibility? Why do men control the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry?
Do women's health interests suffer as a result? For a growing number of women, the Pill
was proof positive that the personal was political.
The Pill controversy galvanized feminists to organize and protest the status quo in science
and medicine. As women stood up, spoke out and refused to be passive participants in their
health care, they achieved lasting changes in the American health care system. Yet
questions surrounding the Pill remain unresolved as feminists and women's health care
advocates debate who should control pregnancy prevention.
Timeline: The Pill
1951 The Catholic Church remains resolutely opposed to artificial
birth control, but Pope Pius XII announces that the Church
will sanction the use of the rhythm method as a natural
form of birth control. Previously, the only option approved
by Rome was abstinence.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America runs 200 birth control clinics.
Margaret Sanger has been successful in fighting legal restrictions on
contraceptives, and birth control has gained wide acceptance in America. Still,
Sanger remains deeply unsatisfied, because women have no better methods for
birth control than they did when she first envisioned "the pill" over 40 years
January/February: Margaret Sanger, now 72 years old, makes one last ditch
effort to find someone to invent her "magic pill." At a dinner party in New York
City she is introduced to Gregory Pincus and implores him to take up her quest.
To her surprise, he tells her that it might be possible with hormones, but that he
will need significant funding to proceed.
April 25: Sanger manages to secure a tiny grant for Gregory Pincus from Planned
Parenthood, and Pincus begins initial work on the use of hormones as a
contraceptive at The Worcester Foundation. Pincus sets out to prove his
hypothesis that injections of the hormone progesterone will inhibit ovulation and
thus prevent pregnancy in his lab animals.
October: Pincus goes to the drug company G.D. Searle and requests additional
funding from them for the pill project. Searle's director of research tells Pincus
that his previous work for them was "a lamentable failure" and refuses to invest
in the project.
October 15: Unbeknownst to Pincus or Sanger, a chemist named Carl Djerassi
working out of an obscure lab in Mexico City creates an orally effective form of
synthetic progesterone -- a progesterone pill. The actual chemistry of the Pill has
been invented, but neither Djerassi nor the company he works for, Syntex, has
any interest in testing it as a contraceptive.
1952 January: In less than a year, Pincus confirms that progesterone
works as an anti-ovulent in rabbits and rats. He informs Planned
Parenthood of his findings and requests more funding. The
organization, deciding his work is too risky, decides not to continue
funding his research. The Pill project stagnates for lack of funding.
Frank Colton, chief chemist at G.D. Searle, independently develops
another oral form of synthetic progesterone.
At a scientific conference, Pincus has a chance encounter with the renowned
Harvard obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. John Rock. Pincus is astonished to learn
that Rock has already been testing the chemical contraceptive on women and
demonstrating that it works. Rock has been giving the same drug to his infertility
patients with the eventual goal of stimulating pregnancy after his patients finish a
3 to 5 month regimen of progesterone injections.
1953 June 8: Sanger realizes McCormick can fund Pincus' research and brings her to
Shrewsbury to meet the scientist. The visit is a huge success. Katharine
McCormick writes Pincus a check for a huge sum -- $40,000 -- with assurances
she will provide him with all the additional funding he will need. The Pill project is
1954 Pincus knows progesterone will work, but in order to get FDA approval he will
need to test the drug on humans, which only a clinical doctor can do. Finally with
adequate funding at hand, Pincus joins forces with Dr. John Rock to test the drug
on Rock's female patients. In Massachusetts, a state with extremely restrictive
anti-birth control laws, Rock and Pincus begin the first human trials with 50
women, under the guise of a fertility study. Searle provides the pills for the trial.
The Pill regimen still in use today is established. Pincus persuades Rock to
administer the progesterone for only 21 days, followed by a 7-day break to allow
for menstruation. They know the Pill will be controversial and want oral
progesterone to be seen as a "natural " process, not something that interferes
with the normal menstrual cycle.
1955 Katharine McCormick, eager for results, stays in Boston for the winter to keep
tabs on Rock and Pincus' progress.
The results from the first human trials are conclusive. Not one of the 50 women
in the experiment ovulates while on the drug. Pincus and Rock are positive that
they have found the perfect oral birth control pill.
October: Margaret Sanger invites Gregory Pincus to the 5th Annual International
Planned Parenthood League conference in Tokyo, Japan, where Pincus announces
the results of his progesterone study. Despite the magnitude of his
announcement, the press at the conference remains skeptical and does not pick
up the story.
December: At the prestigious Laurentian Conference on Endocrinology in Canada,
before an audience of scientists involved in hormone research, Rock presents a
paper stating that the progesterone pill inhibits ovulation. Word spreads quickly
through the scientific world and drug industry that Pincus and Rock have found a
birth control pill.
1956 After comparing the data from studies using both Syntex's
and Searle's drugs, Rock picks Searle's formulation, called
Enovid, to be the first birth control submitted for FDA
approval in America.
April: Since anti-birth control laws in Massachusetts and
many other states make it impossible for Rock to conduct the larger human
studies necessary for FDA approval, Rock and Pincus launch the first large scale
clinical trials for the Pill in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
November: The news of the Pill spreads to the general public. An article in Science
magazine informs readers that women have taken a synthetic hormone as an oral
contraceptive and it works.
December: The medical director in charge of the Puerto Rico trials informs Pincus
and Rock that "Enovid gives 100% protection against pregnancy," but reports that
the Pill causes too many side effects to be "accepted generally." Pincus and Rock
proceed with the trials, convinced that while the Pill may cause discomfort, it is
Pincus and Rock discover that Searle has been sending them pills contaminated
with a minuscule amount of synthetic estrogen in addition to the progesterone --
a major set back for the trials. However, after testing new shipments of
uncontaminated Enovid, they conclude that the combination of estrogen and
progesterone (the same combination still used today) reduces some problems like
1957 Rock selects a high dosage for the Pill in order to be absolutely certain that
Enovid will prevent pregnancy without fail.
Spring: In addition to the Puerto Rico trials, Pincus also sets up full-scale trials in
Haiti and Mexico City.
Summer: The FDA approves the use of Enovid for the treatment of severe
menstrual disorders and requires the drug label to carry the warning that Enovid
will prevent ovulation.
1959 President Dwight Eisenhower states in a press conference that birth
control "is not a proper political or government activity or function
or responsibility" and adds emphatically that it is "not our
Less than two years after FDA approval of Enovid for therapeutic
purposes, an unusually large number of American women
mysteriously develop severe menstrual disorders and ask their
doctors for the drug. By late 1959, over half a million American
women are taking Enovid, presumably for the "off-label" contraceptive purposes.
Oct. 29: Excited by the vast potential market for the Pill, Searle files an
application with the FDA to license the 10 milligram Enovid -- the same pill
approved for menstrual disorders -- for use as a contraceptive. The application is
based on field trials with 897 women, making it one of the most extensively
tested drugs to ever come before the FDA for approval.
1960 With an eye on maximizing profits, Searle attempts to license
lower doses of Enovid (2.5 and 5 milligram doses), but the FDA
demands complete field trials for the lower dose versions as well.
Winter: The FDA reviews Searle's application for the first drug in
history to be given to a healthy person for long-term use. Searle is
doing $37 million in annual sales of the Pill for "menstrual
disorders" and pushes the FDA for approval.
April: John Rock tells the national press that the Pill, since it simply extends a
woman's "safe period," should be considered an extension of the Vatican-
approved rhythm method.
May 11: Searle receives FDA approval to sell Enovid as a birth control pill. Searle
is the first and only pharmaceutical company to sell an oral contraceptive and it
has a lucrative monopoly.
1960s As soon as Searle completes the requisite field tests demonstrating
the effectiveness of the Pill at lower doses, the FDA approves the
drug for contraceptive use at 2.5 and 5 milligrams.
The pharmaceutical industry awakens to the huge market for
effective contraception, and 13 major drug companies, nine of
them American, work to develop new birth control methods and
their own versions of the Pill.
1961 December: It is still a crime to use birth control in Connecticut. In bold defiance
of Connecticut law, Dr. C. Lee Buxton, the chairman of the Yale Medical School
department of obstetrics and gynecology, and Estelle Griswold, the executive
director of Connecticut Planned Parenthood, open four Planned Parenthood
Clinics. They are promptly arrested, but their case brings national attention to the
anachronistic state laws.
The American public learns that Thalidomide, a sedative given to pregnant
women in Europe to control morning sickness, causes horrible birth defects. In
the U.S., the drug has never received FDA approval, but the age of faith in
"wonder drugs" appears to be over, and the American public begins to question
the safety of drugs. In the wake of the Thalidomide tragedy, the FDA will enact
stricter regulations for human drug tests.
1962 With 1.2 million American women on the Pill, Searle's corner on the Pill market
comes to an end. Syntex receives FDA approval to sell the drug Carl Djerassi
developed in the 1950s under the trade name Ortho Novum.
September 1: Word of serious side effects, such as blood clots and heart attacks
caused by the Pill, begins to spread. Searle receives reports of 132 blood clots,
including 11 deaths, but the company declares that there is no conclusive
evidence demonstrating that the blood clots are a direct result of the Pill.
1963 2.3 million American women are using the Pill.
In his crusade to make the Pill acceptable to the Catholic church, John Rock
publishes The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor's Proposal to End the Battle
over Birth Control, and becomes the de facto public spokesman for the Pill.
1964 One quarter of all couples in America using birth control choose the Pill. Parke-
Davis, another drug company eager for a share of the market, sells its version of
the Pill. Despite the competition, Searle earns $24 million in net profits from Pill
sales, but neither Gregory Pincus nor the Worcester Institute receive any
Less than a decade after President Eisenhower declared that the government
should not get involved with birth control, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushes
through legislation for federal support of birth control for the poor.
The Pill becomes the most popular form of reversible birth control in America.
Despite general public approval for birth control, ghosts of the Comstock Laws
linger (On March 2, 1873, Congress passes the Comstock Law, an anti-obscenity
act that specifically lists contraceptives as obscene material and outlaws the
dissemination of them via the postal service or interstate commerce. At the time,
the United States is the only western nation to enact laws criminalizing birth
control.). Eight states still prohibit the sale of contraceptives, and laws in
Massachusetts and Connecticut still prevent the dissemination of information
about birth control.
1965 June 7: Estelle Griswold and Lee Buxton take their Connecticut
case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. By a vote of 7-2 in
Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court strikes down the Connecticut
law prohibiting the use of birth control as a violation of a couple's
right to privacy.
Just five years after the Pill's FDA approval, more than 6.5 million
American woman are taking oral contraceptives, making the Pill
the most popular form of birth control in the U.S. Searle still
dominates the market, and does $89 million in sales of Enovid.
1966 An FDA task force looks into the issue of side effects from the Pill, especially the
danger of blood clots, cancer and diabetes. The task force finds no smoking gun,
but does allow the drug companies to bring lower doses of the pill to market with
less red tape.
September 6: Margaret Sanger dies in Tucson, Arizona, just shy of her 87th
1967 Over 12.5 million women worldwide are on the Pill.
Massachusetts liberalizes its birth control laws, but still prohibits the sale of birth
control to unmarried women.
August 22: In the prime of his career, Gregory Pincus dies in a Boston hospital at
age of 64 from myeloid metaplasia, a rare disease of the white blood cells, due to
exposure to lab chemicals.
December 28: Katharine McCormick dies at the age of 92 in Boston,
Massachusetts. No major newspaper gives her an obituary, and with her passing,
her contribution to the birth of the Pill is forgotten.
December: The Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP charges that Planned Parenthood
clinics, which provide the Pill and other forms of birth control in low income and
minority neighborhoods, are devoted to keeping the black birth rate as low as
possible. In a public statement the organization declares that birth control is
being used as an instrument of racial genocide. A strong accusation, it touches a
cord in minority communities and the term "black genocide" catches on.
In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower emphatically told the nation that the
American government would not and should not support birth control, stating,
"That's not our business." With the advent of the Pill that position changed sooner
than anyone ever expected. Just five years later, President Lyndon Johnson
established federal funding of birth control for the poor. Although many social
welfare advocates applauded the move, not everyone welcomed the
development. Within the African American community, federal funding sparked a
serious controversy over birth control, especially the Pill.
Well Grounded Fears
In the 1960s, many African Americans around the country deeply distrusted the
motivations behind government funded birth control clinics, fearing it was an
attempt to limit black population growth and stunt black political power. Their
fears were well grounded in past experiences. In the South, black fertility had a
long history of being controlled by whites. Under slavery, African American
women were encouraged to have children to increase a plantation owner's
wealth. After the Civil War, when African Americans were no longer valuable
property, the view among white supremacists abruptly shifted. It became
desirable to decrease the African American population in the South. Sterilization
abuse of African American women by the white medical establishment reached its
height in the 1950s and 1960s. Women who went into the hospital to deliver
children often came out unable to have more.
Women's Personal Needs
African American women were caught in a bind. Although they shared some of
the same suspicions and resentment about the mostly white-run clinics, in the
end their need to control their fertility prevailed over racial politics. Black
liberation activist Tone Cade spoke for many women when she wrote, "I've been
made aware of the national call to Sisters to abandon birth control... to picket
family planning centers... to raise revolutionaries.... What plans do you have for
the care of me and my child?"
In Pittsburgh, the epicenter of the controversy, approximately 200 women arrived
together at a town council meeting to save their clinic, and the Planned
Parenthood office was reopened. In the decades that have followed, African
American women have continued to choose the Pill based on personal, not
1968 Sales of the Pill hit the $150 million mark. American women
can now select from 7 different brands.
David Niven and Deborah Kerr star in the Hollywood film
Prudence and the Pill. Birth control, once considered
obscene and vulgar, is now a pop culture icon.
July 25: Pope Paul VI reveals his decision on the Pill in an encyclical titled
Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). To the dismay of Catholics around the world --
and ignoring the recommendations of the Papal commission on birth control -- the
Pope states unequivocally that the Church remains opposed to all forms of birth
control except the rhythm method.
1969 September: Medical journalist Barbara Seaman publishes the controversial book
The Doctor's Case Against the Pill and brings national attention to the dangers of
1970 Catholic Americans make their own decisions about birth control. In spite of
Church doctrine, two-thirds of all Catholic women are using contraceptives, and
28% of them are on the Pill.
January - March: Influenced by Seaman's book, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson
convenes Senate hearings on the safety of the Pill. Radical feminists disrupt the
male-dominated hearings and demand women taking the Pill be informed of all
the potential dangers and side effects.
People & Events: The Senate Holds Hearings on the Pill (1970)
When the Pill came on the market in 1960, it was enthusiastically embraced by
the medical profession and the public. But by the end of the decade, after a crisis
over the drug Thalidomide (which was prescribed for morning sickness and caused
birth defects) and increasing reports of potential health risks from the Pill,
confidence in the drug was ebbing. In 1969 concerns came to a head with the
publication of The Doctor's Case Against the Pill. In this controversial book,
medical journalist Barbara Seaman combined the testimony of physicians, medical
researchers, and women who had used oral contraceptives to build a case against
the safety of the Pill and to indict the medical-pharmaceutical establishment that
had marketed it.
Taking on the Pill
Shortly after publication, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson read Seaman's book.
Nelson was in the midst of conducting hearings on the pharmaceutical industry,
investigating abuses in the use of antibiotics, barbiturates and tranquilizers. After
finishing Seaman's book, he decided to take on the birth control pill as well.
A Hearing Without Women's Voices
In January 1970 experts assembled in the stately Senate chamber and began
giving their testimony on the hazards of the Pill. Alice Wolfson, a member of the
radical collective D.C. Women's Liberation, was sitting in the audience listening to
the experts. Her group had come to the hearings because they had all taken the
Pill at one time or another and had experienced side effects. The group was
outraged that their doctors had never informed them of the risks when they
prescribed the Pill. As they sat in the chamber and heard one male witness after
another describe serious health risks, they were furious that there wasn't a single
woman who had taken the Pill there to testify.
Outrage on Two Accounts
After hearing one expert say, "Estrogen is to cancer what fertilizer is to wheat,"
the women spectators could no longer contain their anger. They stood up and
started hurling questions at the men on the dais. The feminists set the room
abuzz when they demanded, "Why are you using women as guinea pigs?" and
"Why are you letting the drug companies murder us for their profit and
convenience?" When told by Senator Nelson to sit down and remain quiet, they
retorted, "We are not going to sit quietly! We don't think the hearings are more
important than our lives!" Although Senator Nelson was the driving force behind
the hearings, the young protesters were so angered by his failure to include
women in the hearings -- and by what they viewed as his patronizing behavior --
that they went on the attack. The group decided to protest the structure of the
hearings and the men leading them, in addition to speaking out about the medical
dangers of the Pill.
Making National News
The feminists' grievances gained national attention. National television networks
covered the proceedings, and Wolfson's group appeared frequently on the nightly
news during the hearings. An estimated eighty-seven percent of women between
the ages of twenty-one and forty-five followed the hearings. Eighteen percent of
them quit taking the oral contraceptive as a result of the hearings.
Impact of the Hearings
In the hearings' aftermath, hormone levels in the Pill were lowered to a fraction of
the original doses. A few years after the hearings, prescription rates rebounded,
and the number of users in the United States peaked at approximately nineteen
The real impact of the hearings was not on Pill usage, but on the nascent
consumer health movement. D.C. Women's Liberation succeeded for the first time
in making informed consent a national issue. In the aftermath of the hearings, the
U.S. government would require the pharmaceutical industry to include a patient
information sheet with complete information on side effects in every package of
birth control pills sold. The growing women's movement was prompting women to
assert control over their bodies, and in doing so it changed forever the way
Americans take prescription medications.
June: In a victory for feminists and the women's health movement, the FDA
orders that all oral contraceptive packages must contain a patient information
insert detailing possible side effects from the Pill.
1970s In the wake of the Pill hearings, sales drop by 20%, but the oral contraceptive
remains America's birth control method of choice.
Scientists determine that smoking is major factor contributing to blood clotting in
Pill users, but that the lower doses of pill not only greatly reduce the risk of clots
but also reduce other side effects such as weight gain, headaches and nausea.
1972 March 23: The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird that a state
cannot stand in the way of distribution of birth control to a single person, strikes
down Massachusetts law prohibiting the sale of contraceptives to unmarried
1973 Although sales of the Pill dropped for a brief period after the
Senate Pill hearings, American women return to the drug in record
numbers. The number of users reaches 10 million.
1974 Just 15 years after President Eisenhower declared that birth control is not the
government's business, the government supports birth control clinics in 2,379 of
the nation's 3,099 counties. Of all the methods dispensed, the Pill is most popular.
Early The FDA reports that 10.7 million American women are on the Pill. Confidence in
1980s the safety of the pill has risen dramatically in the years since the Pill hearings.
1980s In spite of the Pope's ruling against the Pill and birth control, almost 80% of
American Catholic women use contraceptives, and only 29% of American priests
believe it is intrinsically immoral.
New versions of low-dosage oral contraceptives are introduced. These products
vary the amount of progesterone and estrogen in the drug during the 21-day
cycle. Only 3.4% of birth control pills on the market are the original high-dosage
1982 The Pill's impact on women in the work force is significant. With highly effective
birth control now at their disposal, 60% of women of reproductive age are
employed in America.
1984 December 4: John Rock dies at the age of 94 in Temple, New Hampshire.
An estimated 50 to 80 million women worldwide take the Pill.
1988 At the FDA's urging, drug companies remove the original high-dose oral
contraceptives from the market.
Surveys show that birth control has disappeared from the list of medical
research's 35 top priorities.
1990 According to the annual FDA Consumer report, the Pill is considered safe and
effective by the government, medical establishment and public.