"The Pill" Turns 50

William E. May
© Culture of Life Foundation
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

In 1960 the Food and Drug Administration approved the oral contraceptive known as "The Pill." To celebrate the Pill's 50th birthday Elaine Tyler May, Regents Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota, has published America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (New York: Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2010, 214 pp.).

May's hailing of the Pill for its "empowering" of women

May's book is essentially a celebration of the Pill and the role that it has played in changing the lives of women in the United States and indeed throughout the world. She begins the Conclusion to her book by asking: "After fifty years on the market, has the pill fulfilled the utopian dreams it inspired in 1960?" She says that "The answer is both yes and no. The pill did not solve…the population explosion [or] put an end to war on poverty [or] eradicate unhappy marriages, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, or unwed motherhood etc." But although "the pill was not responsible for the emancipation of women, it did provide an important tool for millions of women to effectively control their fertility, freeing them from fears of pregnancy and constant childbearing, and enabling them to take advantage of expanding opportunities for education, employment, and participation in public life." Today 98 percent of all women use some form of contraceptives, and 82 percent have used oral contraceptives. Since 1982 the pill and sterilization are the most widely used form of contraception, and 79 percent of all women use some form of contraception when they have sex the first time, with the condom being most used and followed by the pill. In short, "The pill contributed to the empowerment of women not only by allowing them to control their fertility, but also by changing the relationships between women and their doctors and by mobilizing women to take on large pharmaceutical companies, the Catholic Church, and the government. In their personal lives, women found that the pill opened up conversations and contributed to increased intimacy not only with their male partners but also with their female friends and relatives. For many women, the process of deciding whether or not to take the pill led them to greater awareness of their bodies, their sexuality, and their reproductive choices…." (pp. 170-171).

Surprising news: Many women today (and their gynecologists) reject "artificial" methods of contraception and rejoice over the natural method of FAM (Fertility Awareness Method)

Despite her praise of the Pill and its "empowering" of women, May is honest enough to report, in the final chapter of her book, "The Pill Today," that among young women who responded to an Internet inquiry (details are given in note 8 of Chapter 7, p. 196) many reported that the Pill decreased their libido. But more significantly, the same Internet inquiry showed that today some gynecologists refuse to prescribe artificial contraceptives and instead advise couples to use a natural method, FAM (Fertility Awareness Method) to regulate conception. One woman, Sue G, voices the view of many young married women today who reject artificial methods and think that "cutting off one of my body's natural, normal functions just does not set well with me" (p. 160). Another participant in the survey, Jacqueline G, is a FAM enthusiast who had originally taken the Pill when she was 26. She said that as a result of doing so "for the next two and a half years my body felt numb, my sexuality dimmed, and my brain felt cloudy and dull." When she heard of FAM she said: "I was stunned to hear about scientific birth control that was completely natural and engaged both partners in the method…I told my husband about the method as soon as I got home, and he was as excited about it as I was. We both loved how natural the new method is." They took an eight-hour course that "pretty much blew our minds." They learned how to chart temperatures and analyze cervical secretions to determine scientifically the exact times she was fertile. "Suddenly," Jacqueline says, " my fertility wasn't something wild or uncontrollable…I find it deeply satisfying to be so attuned to my own body's rhythms and fertility signals….It's like we both [her husband and herself] learned a new language