The birth control pill has been called the second-greatest pharmaceutical discovery after penicillin. Its discovery faced both scientific and political challenges. In the 1940s and 1950s Margaret Sanger, a leading women’s rights activist personally funded early research into a pill to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The organization that is now Planned Parenthood led the efforts to develop a birth control pill.
It was Katherine Dexter McCormick, a friend of Sanger’s and heir to the International Harvester fortune who provided the bulk of the funding for the research. She also had a science background and could understand the research process. The total funding she provided would be equivalent to 60 million in today’s dollars (2023).
It was a medical folk tradition that led to the scientific breakthrough necessary for the discovery of the active ingredient in the first birth control pill. From the Aztecs, generations of Mexican women had eaten a wild yam for contraception. It was from these yams that the research team, led by Gregory Pincus, was able to obtain progestin. The combination of estrogen and progestin was the breakthrough needed for the first birth control pill.
Dr. John Rock conducted the initial clinical trials that proved the efficacy of the birth control pill, but longer-term studies were needed. Dr. Rock, a Roman Catholic, faced a serious challenge in his work. Contraceptives were illegal in Massachusetts, and the mobility of women of childbearing age made trials in the U.S. problematic. He settled on Puerto Rico as the place for the sustained trials needed.
The FDA approved the use of the pill in 1957 to regulate menstruation. The initial acceptance of the pill was not for birth control purposes. In fact, the package of the original pill warned about the use of the pill for contraceptive activity. It wasn’t until 1960 that the pill was approved for contraception.
Critics of the pill continued. There were some side effects and these were used to initiate Congressional hearings. Most of the critics made false claims. One of the most prominent critics had a financial stake in an alternative birth control device. Women were not allowed to speak at the Congressional hearings. The result of the hearings was a requirement that birth control packages contain an insert describing the risks of using the pill. Protests from women’s groups and the AMA led the FDA to reverse its decision on the insert.
Over time, the birth control pill has been found to have immeasurable societal benefits. There have been numerous medical benefits not directly related to contraception. The benefits of preventing unwanted or dangerous pregnancies, while not measurable, are profound.
The birth control pill is an example of an innovation that was the initiative of activists. Its funding came from women. The pill is an example of how a vision becomes a reality.
* * *
All these years, I’ve stayed at home
While you had all your fun
And every year that’s gone by,
Another baby’s come
There’s a-gonna be some changes made
Right here on Nursery Hill
You’ve set this chicken your last time
‘Cause now I’ve got the pill
This incubator is over-used
Because you’ve kept it filled
But feeling good comes easy now
Since I’ve got the pill
It’s getting dark, it’s roosting time
Tonight’s too good to be real
Aw, but Daddy don’t you worry none
‘Cause Mama’s got the pill
Oh, Daddy don’t you worry none
‘Cause Mama’s got the pill (McHan, 1973)
The Pill (Sung by Loretta Lynn)