Revolution in a Pill

A look back at the battle for safe and effective contraception and the miracle tablet that became the opening salvo in a new war

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Drew Morris for TIME

Nancy Gibbs at TIME

Of the momentous inventions of the 20th century — television, the microchip, the Internet, to name a few — none affects us so intimately as the birth control pill, which was approved by the FDA 50 years ago, on May 9, 1960. It was a medical breakthrough many years in the making, the most convenient and reliable form of birth control ever invented — but it quickly became much more. Arriving at a moment of social and political upheaval, the Pill became a handy proxy for wider trends: the rejection of tradition, the challenge to institutions, the redefinition of women's roles.

Over the years, battles would erupt over the Pill's safety, morality and effects on the American family. TIME put it on the cover in April 1967. "'The pill' is a miraculous tablet that contains as little as one thirty-thousandth of an ounce of chemical," the story began. "It costs 11¢ to manufacture; a month's supply now sells for $2.00 retail. It is little more trouble to take on schedule than a daily vitamin. Yet in a mere six years it has changed and liberated the sex and family life of a large and still growing segment of the U.S. population: eventually, it promises to do the same for much of the world."

In 2010 the importance of women's health is more pressing than ever: hundreds of thousands of women die in pregnancy and childbirth each year. Countries that educate and empower women tend to be less violent and unstable and more likely to develop socially and economically. The Pill has changed the world by changing lives one at a time, giving women greater control over how those lives unfold and the new life they create.

Months ago, executive editor Nancy Gibbs pitched the 50th anniversary of the Pill as a cover story, and it was an easy sell. Since Nancy has written more covers than any other writer in TIME history, I knew the story would be superb. But in the meantime, her research and writing became so rich and riveting that we decided to try something we'd never done before: publish an abridged version of her work as a cover story in the magazine and the longer piece of writing as an e-book. Love, Sex, Freedom and the Paradox of the Pill: A Brief History of Birth Control is available exclusively at Amazon's Kindle Store and can be read on the Kindle and — with the Kindle reading app — on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, plus the BlackBerry, PC and Mac. You can get your copy by searching "the Pill on Kindle" in the Kindle Store or at time.com/pillonkindle It's a rich and thoughtful social history of the past half-century told through a single innovation that changed millions of lives.