The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox

In May 1960, the FDA approved a new oral contraceptive. Somehow we are still fighting about it half a century later — whom it helped, whom it hurt, what it meant and why it mattered

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SSPL / The Image Works

Combined monophasic early contraception pill, 1960. Pink contraceptive pills (marked 'PD') in a circular blue plastic dispenser.

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The Catholic Conundrum

Searle, which was family owned, worried about a backlash. Would Catholics object and boycott the company's other products? While maintaining its view that contraception — or "sterilizing" the act of intercourse — was morally wrong, the Catholic Church in the 1950s had accepted the rhythm method as a valid approach to family planning; since women were fertile only during certain days around the midpoint of their menstrual cycle, the idea was that couples would limit intercourse to the woman's "safe" period. But this was by no means foolproof, especially for women with irregular cycles.

Rock thought the Pill provided an exquisite chemical escape hatch. With the Pill, there was no barrier preventing the union of sperm and egg; all the Pill did, Rock argued, was mimic naturally occurring hormones to extend the safe period, so that sex was safe all month long. The church wouldn't need to change its historic teaching, he suggested; the Pill just fell outside its definition of contraception.

In 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, many lay leaders and clergy anticipated a relaxation of restraints on family planning as part of a general liberalization of church teaching. By the time his successor, Pope Paul VI, appointed a commission to study the issue two years later, roughly half of American Catholics were already practicing birth control. Leaked reports of the commission's findings suggested that nearly all its theologians and a majority of the Cardinals favored changing the church's teaching on the immorality of contraception — but the following year, Paul?VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he sided with the minority. The teaching against contraception stayed in place. Hundreds of American theologians issued a statement that this was not an infallible teaching and that Catholics could in good conscience dissent. And in any event, it was too late to reverse the trend; by 1970, two-thirds of Catholic women were using birth control, more than a quarter of those the Pill.

Social and Sexual Revolution

Meanwhile, the Pill's promoters had gained traction with a different line of argument. As East and West waged proxy wars in the developing world, anti´┐Żcommunist crusaders saw in the Pill a new weapon: control runaway population growth, and you reduce the risks of war, famine and political instability that left young countries vulnerable to communist infection. Others hoped the Pill might help bring down abortion rates, which in countries like East Germany matched the number of live births and which Planned Parenthood's Alan Guttmacher called "the most severe pandemic disease in the world today."

Whatever the public arguments in its favor, the Pill was embraced by millions of women for a very personal reason: it provided, for the first time, an effective, convenient and nonintrusive means of avoiding pregnancy. The number of women using it climbed from roughly 400,000 in 1961 to 1.2 million a year later, then triple that in 1965.

Alarmists were inclined to see the Pill as the catalyst for harrowing change. A 1966 cover story in U.S. News & World Report asked, "Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy?" There were reports of the Pill turning up in high schools. "A wife swapping' scandal made headlines in California," the magazine reported, "while Long Island's suburbs were rocked by police accounts of housewives earning money as prostitutes — some with the knowledge and consent of their husbands."

But as is so often the case with vast and complex social changes, the seeds were many and the roots deep. In 1920, in This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald alarmed mothers by telling them "how casually their daughters were accustomed to being kissed," and studies showed that premarital sex was common even then. Ernest Hemingway provided the manifesto: "What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after." In 1964, TIME declared that the "second sexual revolution" was built on the message that "sex will save you and libido make you free." Open-mindedness was the new normal; the pursuit of pleasure overtook the pursuit of happiness. As Methodist bishop Gerald Kennedy of Los Angeles put it, "There is more promiscuity, and it is taken as a matter of course now by people. In my day they did it, but they knew it was wrong."

But just because the arrival of the Pill coincided with a liberalization of attitudes does not mean the Pill caused it. The Pill hadn't yet been invented, after all, when the Kinsey Report was published in 1953, asserting that half the women studied had had sex before marriage and 1 in 4 had committed adultery by her 40s. More important, there was no way to know: studies of contraceptive use in the 1960s focused on married women — which made sense, since the vast majority of women on the Pill were married. In some states it was illegal to prescribe it to single women; fewer than half of U.S. college health clinics offered it, though one elite school would give a prescription to girls if they brought a note from their minister attesting to their impending wedding date. Even Planned Parenthood required that patients be married to get the Pill.

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