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The Magic Pill: History and Consequences of the Oral Contraceptive

Updated on December 7, 2018
Margaret Sanger. Founder of Planned Parenthood.
Margaret Sanger. Founder of Planned Parenthood.

The Beginning

Margaret Sanger was born in 1879, to a large family. Her mother died when she was 19 years old, after giving birth to 11 children, and suffering 7 miscarriages. Young Margaret was beside herself with grief and declared that her mother’s death was caused by having too many children. She began her studies in medicine and based her life around her passion to find safe and accessible ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies.[1] Her life’s work lead to the creation and distribution of the contraceptive pill, which changed the world as we know it.

The research and development of The Pill was met with extreme social and legal opposition. Any form of contraception was generally seen as immoral because of religious influence. Most prominent religions such as Catholicism, and Orthodox branches of Christianity considered sex to be sinful when done for any reason other than that of bearing a child. This view extended even to married couples. Therefore, any method of contraception or birth control was frowned upon. Even seeking out information about menstrual cycles as a means of decreasing likelihood of fertility at a certain time was considered sinful.[2] Because of the popularity of these beliefs, Sanger’s mission was constantly under fire. People in America were not ready to accept that sex is something that humans do for many reasons.


[1] Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61

[2] Gibbs, Nancy, Deirdre Van Dyk, and Kathleen Adams. “Love, Sex, Freedom and The Paradox Of the Pill. (Cover Story).” Time 175 (17): (2010) 40–47

Legal Opposition

Another issue that Sanger and her colleagues faced was the law. The Comstock Act was a federal law passed in 1873 which banned the distribution of obscene materials. This included things like pornography, sexual aids, and contraception.[1] Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the US in 1915 and was arrested for it, only 9 days later. Her cohort and the person who provided almost every penny of funding to the pursuit of the birth control pill was Katharine McCormick, who would sometimes smuggle diaphragms into the country for Sanger to distribute at her clinic.[2] This was a blatant violation of the Comstock Act, and every individual involved in the operation was in danger of legal repercussions.

The FDA approved the pill that scientist Gregory Pincus developed for Sanger and McCormick for contraceptive use in 1960, after successful human trials in Puerto Rico. The pill was based on a hormone called progesterone, which Pincus had previously learned worked as an anti-ovulant in mammals. Pincus had been vilified in the scientific community for his work with reproductive science in animals and was having great difficulty finding work in the bad economic climate because of his reputation. It was only a short time after meeting with Sanger and McCormick that he had a safe and working contraceptive pill and was ready to put it to trial. Despite having created the pill and found it to be effective after its trials in Puerto Rico, and even after it was approved by the FDA, it was still five more years before it could be distributed legally in the US.[3]


[1] Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61

[2] Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–617

[3] Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61

Gregory Pincus. Lead scientist in the development of the oral contraceptive.
Gregory Pincus. Lead scientist in the development of the oral contraceptive.

The Right to Choose

It became legal to sell contraceptives in 1965, which allowed Sanger’s clinics to provide women with The Pill. She worked tirelessly to make sure that it was available even for the poor who needed it. This was important because historically, it has always been more difficult for the poor to receive adequate medical care. The Comstock Act was deemed unconstitutional in 1983, finally making all of these endeavors legal in the United States.[1] Finally, Margaret Sanger and her colleagues had achieved their dream of a “magic pill” that would save lives, help to prevent abortions, allow women control over their own reproductive and sexual lives, and even alter the American understanding of the family unit.

The foremost social impact of this whole endeavor is that it finally gave women a fair and reasonable opportunity to take control over their lives and their reproductive health. Before the development and distribution of The Pill, women were forced to rely upon contraband diaphragms, condoms, menstrual cycle-based planning. If women couldn’t access any of the information that they needed, or any medical treatments to help them regulate their fertility, whether they risked getting pregnant was more the responsibility of the men involved. Ultimately, it was men who had the power to decide if they would practice safe sex and use a condom. This just put the woman’s health and future into the hands of the men, rather than in their own.

In his book Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century, Alexander Sanger dedicates a chapter to discussing the shared reproductive responsibilities of men and women. He discusses how men often don’t feel as though they have any responsibility as far as birth control, abortion, and other sexual health decisions for women. However, he examines that there is indeed an important responsibility for the men, and that especially before the invention of The Pill, it was often up to them to make sure there wasn’t an unwanted pregnancy. Condom use is the primary focus in this sense. Without any other easily obtainable preventative items, women had to rely upon men to use condoms during intercourse.[2] Finally having a something that was entirely under the control of the woman was a huge step toward equality and women’s right to take power over their own bodies and reproductive choices.


[1]Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61

[2] Sanger, Alexander. Beyond Choice : Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century. Vol. 1st ed. (Pages 149 – 154). (2004) Public Affairs

Change in the Family Unit

The Pill gave women the chance to decide if, and when they were ready to have children and start a family. The number of unplanned children dropped almost immediately after The Pill became available. As stated in an article which discusses the impact of the contraceptive pill, “In 1960 the typical American woman had 3.6 children; by 1980 the number had dropped below 2. For the first time, more women identified themselves as workers than as homemakers.”[1] These numbers are evidence of a very important fact that is often overlooked. Women, for the most part, did not want to have as many children as they were having. Over the course of human history, there had never been an option for women to completely control the number of children that they would have. It’s staggering to think of what a difference this would have made in the world overall had it been invented earlier. Just a few decades sooner may have had a major impact on how the world grew and evolved. But never once until this point had women been able to effectively say “No. I don’t want to have a child right now.”

Due to the decrease of unplanned children, people started to marry later in life. According to Jona Schellekens, there was a “marriage boom” which took place shortly after WWII. The “marriage boom” was characterized by an unprecedented increase in marriages, possibly related to the simultaneous “baby boom.” Around 1970, this stopped suddenly in what Schellekens refers to as the “marriage bust.” Schellekens states that it took until the 1970’s for the introduction of birth control to make its impact on marriage rates because it wasn’t until then that the oral contraceptive was available to single women rather than to only married women.[2] Historically, it’s been the norm to marry your partner if children were expected or already born. This is in part because of religious views that have dictated social standards over the centuries. It is worthwhile to note that at the time, there were also other revolutions going on and that religious fundamentalism was losing its once unparalleled grip on America. Though Margaret Sanger was also Catholic, and she expressed her religious views about the sanctity of life and even abhorred abortion under most circumstances. But it was her belief that stopping unwanted pregnancies would help to prevent abortions, and therefore contraception did fit into the parameters of religious ideals. However, without the bearing of children, it was far more acceptable for the religious and the non-religious alike to wait later to be married. In this way, the expectations of the family unit were changed in America forever.


[1] Gibbs, Nancy, Deirdre Van Dyk, and Kathleen Adams. “Love, Sex, Freedom and The Paradox Of the Pill. (Cover Story).” Time 175 (17): (2010) 40–47

[2] Schellekens, Jona. “The Marriage Boom and Marriage Bust in the United States: An Age-Period-Cohort Analysis.” Population Studies 71, no. 1 (March 2017): 65–82

More Women in University

All the extra time that women had before starting families allowed them to pursue higher education and careers in the largest numbers to be seen in the US at that time. Ingrid Mundt, writer of Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand For Birth Control, mentions in her historical paper that, “Along with the greater availability of contraceptives, this decline (in child birth) allowed more women to pursue higher education, and to seek work outside of their homes. Women with access to The Pill were 20% more likely to enroll in college than those who did not." [1] Before the distribution of the contraceptive pill, most women never had the time to go to college because they were already burdened with the responsibilities of raising children and maintaining a home for their family. The US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement published a statistical portrait which includes data that expresses a huge and sudden increase in the number of women who completed four years of college, starting in the 1970’s.[2] The statistical portrait does not cite any specific reasons for this increase, and only shows numerical data in the form of tables and graphs. However, the increase of women completing college degrees did happen at the very same time that contraceptives became widely available.

The massive increase in women achieving degrees in turn boosted the number of women in management positions or advanced careers. In this way, The Pill boosted the US economy by churning out more earning power. More women in the labor force meant more productivity and economic growth. Martha J. Bailey published an analytical article in an economic journal which covers how access to birth control impacted the labor force in America. She states that, “legal access to the pill before age 21 significantly reduced the likelihood of a first birth before age 22, increased the number of women in the paid labor force, and raised the number of annual hours worked.”[3] Her article suggests that The Pill had “durable and far-reaching effects on the women’s labor market.”[4] This includes not only more women entering the workforce, but more women maintaining long term careers, more woman friendly environments for new female employees that came later, and adjustments to allow greater access to different jobs for women.


[1] Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61

[2] The National Center for Education Statistics.120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. (Page 8). (January 1993

[3] Bailey, Martha J. “More Power to the Pill: The Impact of Contraceptive Freedom on Women’s Life Cycle Labor Supply.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 121, no. 1 (February 2006): 289–320.

[4] Bailey, Martha J. “More Power to the Pill: The Impact of Contraceptive Freedom on Women’s Life Cycle Labor Supply.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 121, no. 1 (February 2006): 289–320.

Savings in Federal Funds

Another influence that effective contraception has had on the economy is simply that when fewer unplanned pregnancies happen, more money is saved in federal medical funding. According to Planned Parenthood, for every single dollar invested into Planned Parenthood, four dollars is saved, federally.[1] Impoverished families have always been more likely to become pregnant with unplanned children, because of lack of access to medical treatment or contraceptives. While these things are more easily available to everyone today, economic status is still a major hurdle for many people. When poor families who receive healthcare benefits from the state are suddenly expecting a child, they require more medical care, utilizing more funding. By investing in the prevention of these pregnancies, the federal funding for healthcare actually benefits.[2]

There are some economists who suggest that the invention of affordable contraception may have had a negative impact on the economy, however. According to an economy focused article titled Contraception and Development: A Unified Growth Theory, it is possible that people having less children means less people entering the labor force later.[3] In this article, citizens are referred to as “human capital.” It has yet to be seen for certain if the number of women joining the labor force will equal the human capital created by children eventually becoming part of the labor force. Considering this, the economic effects of contraception are somewhat complicated and ever changing. However, the immediate result was a greater work force. As time goes on, economists will see if that human capital lost because of fewer children will equalize.

The lasting impact of the oral contraceptive has reached far beyond just the personal lives of women in America. It has changed cultural standards entirely. Some can say that this is a bad thing and that family values and purity have been destroyed or put at stake. Whether people believe it is a positive change overall or not, there is no denying that The Pill has left its mark on the world. The Pill was created and distributed at a very important time in America’s history. It was then and during those surrounding decades that many social revolutions took place. The sexual freedom movement came at around the same time, likely both aiding and hindering the development of the oral contraceptive. The women’s rights movement was in full swing, and feminists were speaking out about their rights to education, sexual freedom, and their own careers. Civil Rights laws were being fought for in the 1960’s, as people tried to find equality in an unjust system. It was in general a time for change, and The Pill played its role well.


[1] Planned Parenthood. Birth Control: We all Benefit. (Pages 2-3)

[2] Planned Parenthood. Birth Control: We all Benefit. (Pages 2-3)

[3] Strulik, Holger. “Contraception and Development: A Unified Growth Theory.” International Economic Review 58, no. 2 (May 2017): 561–84.

There are now many variations of the oral contraceptive.
There are now many variations of the oral contraceptive.

Bibliography

Bailey, Martha J. “More Power to the Pill: The Impact of Contraceptive Freedom on Women’s Life Cycle Labor Supply.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 121, no. 1 (February 2006): 289–320. doi:10.1162/003355306776083491.

This article is a detailed explanation of the economic effects that the oral contraceptive has had. It details the numbers of women joining and remaining in the labor force and compares this with the numbers of women who use oral contraceptives.

Gibbs, Nancy, Deirdre Van Dyk, and Kathleen Adams. “Love, Sex, Freedom and The Paradox Of the Pill. (Cover Story).” Time 175 (17): (2010) 40–47. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=49741947&site=eds-live&scope=site.

This is a brief but informative periodical explaining the ways that the availability of oral contraceptives, or “The Pill” has changed the world and how people are still arguing about how it has changed things even 50 years later. This work discusses changes in family life, religious backlash, and how it influenced changes in people’s understanding of sexuality.

Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=126740170&site=eds-live&scope=site.

This is a detailed record of Margaret Sanger’s endeavors to create and provide oral contraceptives for women. The author covers the whole journey from start to finish, with extra details about Margaret Sanger and her colleagues.

The National Center for Education Statistics.120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. (Page 8). (January 1993) This source is directly from the Department of Education, and has over one hundred pages of graphs and tables that detail enrollment and graduation trends over a 120 year period. There is a table or a graph depicting everything concerning sex, race, age group, etc at any given time.

Planned Parenthood. Birth Control: We all Benefit. (Pages 2 - 3). This short PDF by Planned Parenthood details the economic benefits of the institution. It details how money invested into the Planned Parenthood programs supports and boosts the economy overall.

Sanger, Alexander. Beyond Choice : Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century. Vol. 1st ed. (Pages 149 – 154). (2004) Public Affairs. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=104973&site=eds-live&scope=site.

This book provides insight to certain changes in responsibility that can be traced to the availability of birth control methods. It addresses the extra responsibilities placed on women, as well as the responsibility that is removed from men. The book describes how choices are being affected by new medications, abortion, and new interpersonal relationship dynamics.

Schellekens, Jona. “The Marriage Boom and Marriage Bust in the United States: An Age-Period-Cohort Analysis.” Population Studies 71, no. 1 (March 2017): 65–82. doi:http://www-tandfonline-com.proxy-library.ashford.edu/loi/rpst20.

This analytic study discusses the trends in marriage in the United States throughout the 1900’s. The source looks at data gathered throughout the decades and compares it with historic events to analyze reasons for those trends.

Strulik, Holger. “Contraception and Development: A Unified Growth Theory.International Economic Review 58, no. 2 (May 2017): 561–84. doi:10.1111/iere.12227.

This is a detailed study about the effects of contraception on the economy. There is emphasis on the importance of child bearing, so that more people can enter the workforce later. This is referred to as human capital. Graphs and equations are shown to explain the complicated relationship between economy and contraceptives.


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