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

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For that to change, a new generation of feminists fought to expand the opportunities that the Pill made possible. Title IX, enacted in 1972, ended discrimination in education, throwing open the doors of colleges, law schools and medical schools to women. But the Pill played a role, argues Harvard economist Goldin, in persuading colleges and graduate schools not to reject female applicants on the assumption that they would just wind up getting pregnant and dropping out. After 1970, as states lowered the age of majority and young people were granted more rights, college and graduate students had easier access to contraception. From 1970 to '80, Goldin notes, women went from comprising 10% of first-year law students to 36% and from 4% of business-school students to 28%. "I've taken a lot of grief by people who insist the Pill had nothing to do with this, it's all the women's movement," she says. But her research showed the connection between the point at which different states allowed access to the Pill and the progress women in those states made.

Looking back, women talk about lives transformed. "Eliza" and her boyfriend had had sex only a few times when she got pregnant in 1978. "If they offered birth control counseling at my school, I don't remember it," she tells TIME. "But there was no way I was going to tell my parents I was having sex. I was raised Catholic. I thought I was going to go to hell." She did have the book Our Bodies, Ourselves, which had grown out of Barbara Seaman's women's-health movement. She would read the chapter on the rhythm method over and over again. "I can remember going back over it and thinking, How many days has it been?"

When her parents found out she was pregnant, it was crushing. "My mother came to me and said, 'You made your father cry.' It was horrible. My mother said to me, 'Do you realize how much you could embarrass the family?' There was never even the idea that I would keep the baby." She had an abortion. And then she went on the Pill. "I picked it up from the pharmacy myself. I didn't like it. It said I was having sex. It meant that anyone waiting on me at the pharmacy knew." "Margaret" recalls the college powwows about what a girl should do if she decided to sleep with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend didn't want to use a condom. "I was too scared of getting pregnant to risk using nothing," she says, "though he tried to convince me." So she got a diaphragm from her doctor — and hated it. "I thought, Well, this is what you have to put up with. Birth control is inconvenient." When she finally went on the Pill, it was a revelation. "The second I went on the Pill, all the mess and the worry and holding my breath every month to see if I got my period was completely lifted off my shoulders. I wish I had used it from the get-go. You forget how that anxiety can rule your life."

Slowly but surely, the availability of the Pill changed the way women viewed their choices. And for many people watching the ground shift beneath the American family, that was the whole problem.

Backlash

Opposition to the Pill among conservative Catholics was consistent from the beginning, but it was only after it had been in widespread use for years that some conservative Protestants began rethinking their views on contraception in general and the Pill in particular. "I think the contraceptive revolution caught Evangelicals by surprise," observes Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "We bought into a mentality of human control. We welcomed the polio vaccine and penicillin and just received the Pill as one more great medical advance."

But beginning in the 1990s, many conservative Christians revisited the question of what God intends in marriage and pondered the true nature of the gift of sexuality. The heart of the concern, in this view, is that using contraception can weaken the marital bond by separating sex from procreation. The ideal of marriage as a "one-flesh union" places the act of intercourse, with the possibility of creating new life, at the center of the relationship. "Go back a hundred years," Mohler says. "The biblical idea you'd have adults who'd intend to have very active sex lives without any respect to the likelihood of children didn't exist. And it's now unexceptional." This is not to say that everyone has an obligation to have as many children as possible; Mohler has two, not 12, he notes, and as long as a couple is "not seeking to alienate their sexual relationship from the gift of children, they can seek to space or limit the total number of children they have." But the ability to control human reproduction, he says, has done more to reorder human life than any event since Adam and Eve ate the apple.

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