On May 9, 1960, Margaret Sanger spent her day at her home in greater-Tucson, Ariz. It was a normal day, uneventful even. No calls came in from Washington, from the drug firm G.D. Searle and Co., or even from doctors John Rock and Gregory Pincus, for whose research she had raised $3 million in funding.
Sanger, who is now known as one of the “mothers of the Pill,” did not find out about the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the oral contraceptive Enovid-10 until the following morning.
Time Magazine reported in its “80 Days that Changed the World” series that Sanger’s son Stuart and granddaughter Margaret found a quick five-paragraph about the approval in the newspaper. Rushing it over to the Sanger—who conveniently lived next door—they found Sanger eating breakfast in bed.
“It’s certainly about time,” said Sanger.
The sixth of 11 children born to an Irish Catholic family, Sanger watched her mother die at the age of 50 from what she believed to be exhaustion from constant childbearing and lack of access to a contraceptives.
This experience instilled in Sanger what social historian and America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation author Elaine Tyler May called a “socialist and militant feminist” ideologies. She began publishing The Woman Rebel in 1914, in which she advocated the use of contraceptives as a means of population control. In 1915, she is said to have coined the phrase “birth control.”
Sanger’s promotion of family planning was controversial and, during that time, illegal. She was first arrested in 1914 for recommending contraceptives in The Woman Rebel. In 1916, Sanger went to prison for opening the first birth control clinic in the United States.
Sanger’s efforts were—for the most part—in vain, until she met the wealthy Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Katharine Dexter McCormick, who financially supported the development and study of the first oral contraceptive. Joined with Rock and Pincus, they set about looking into contraceptive options for women.
“[Sanger and McCormick] understood that this was going to be a critically important tool for the emancipation of women,” said May. “And that’s what it became.”
But on the day that her dream came into fruition, Sanger could not even persuade her son and granddaughter—who were about to head to work—that the news was worthy of a glass of champagne. So, she toasted the “emancipation of women” alone.
While many women went to their doctors to demand a prescription for a birth control pill, several organizations tried to stand in their way. The most prominent was the Roman Catholic Church.
Prior to the approval of the birth control pill, the Church had condoned the use of the rhythm method as a form of family planning. But the Pill and its “artificial contraception” proved morally offensive.
“Period continence—the rhythm method—is suitable for some couples but is not inherently superior from a moral point of view,” read a statement from the National Council of Churches—Protestant churches, that is—as was published in the Christian Science Monitor on February 24, 1961.
In the early 1960s, the Church’s stance on the rhythm method provided a glimmer of hope of its acceptance of the Pill. According to America and the Pill, the Rev. John O’Brien, who was a professor at theology at the University of Notre Dame, told U.S. News and Report that, “there was a large area of agreement among Catholics, Protestants and Jews on the need for family planning.”
Dr. Robert E. Hall, the director of the birth control clinic at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York and a contributor to The Nation, argued that this “area agreement” was not enough. America and the Pill stated he found the Church’s stance hypocritical, especially in light of the fact that half of Catholics admitted to using artificial contraceptives.
But the hopes of lay and clergymen alike were not enough to sway the more conservative members of the Catholic Church. The New York Times reported on April 20, 1963 that Cardinal Cushing of the archdiocese of Boston “rejects birth pill view voiced by Catholic Doctor’s book.” Rock, one of the developers of the oral contraceptive and a Catholic, argued that the Pill was “the first effect physiologic means of fertility control” in his book The Time Has Come. Cushing told the Times that the book “contain[ed] several statements which are theologically incorrect and certainly misleading.”
In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued a formal encyclical banning any form of artificial birth control. Over 20 years later, the Catholic publication Commonweal published a defense of Humanae Vitae.
“We are dealing with a question of maintaining a responsible and deliberate Christian ethics that will allow the church to be a prophetic, believable voice in the effort toward peace, justice and the safeguarding of creation,” concluded “Does God Condemn Contraception,” published on February 10, 1989.
The Church maintained a steadfast position on the birth control pill despite public unrest. On August 8, 1968, the Los Angeles Sentinel published a survey of responses to the papal encyclical.
“I think that the Pope is an old fool,” chimed in interviewee Velena Dismukes. “I don’t believe that he is being honest to Catholics who have to follow his decrees and doctrines.”
In the following decade, Rock continued to convince the Church that the Pill was a “natural” form of birth control, despite the claim that it was a stimulus for premarital sex.
“It made it safer and easier for some people,” Rock told Newsweek on August 30, 1976. “And I thoroughly approve of safety—even in illicit intercourse.”
In May 2010, the Pill turned 50. It is still the most popular form of contraception in the United States. It is now taken by 100 million women around the world. Its approval was named the most important scientific advance of the 20th century by the Economist.
“The Pill had a history that was unanticipated, and it’s interesting to look back and see because it tells you so much about the time in 1960,” said May. “The things that people thought would happen—good, bad or otherwise—didn’t happen. And other things that people weren’t really talking about at the time actually did happen.”
In 1960, proponents of the Pill argued it would curb population control, decrease the divorce rate and make every baby a wanted baby. Opponents claimed it would cause social and sexual chaos and lead the moral demise of America. Others believed it sparked the sexual revolution.
“It didn’t do that,” said May. “It didn’t do any of that.”
During her research for “The pill: 50 years after,” Roan was surprised to find that the approval of the Pill did not even decrease the percentage of unwanted pregnancies. Today, half of all pregnancies are unintended. Twenty-two percent end in abortion.
“Early on, people probably thought [the Pill] would make family planning easier and for some women it does, but it did not have an effect on everybody,” said Roan.
Despite the grumbling about what the Pill failed to do, it did not receive an accolade from the Economist for nothing. Forbes reported that a recent CBS poll from that 56 percent of people say the Pill has made women’s lives better.
“It allowed women in my generation to be the first generation of women who could have sexual freedom without this intense fear of an unintended pregnancy,” said Roan.
“As it turned out because the feminist movement came along at about the same time as the Pill was entering the market, lots of new opportunities were opening up for women,” said May. “The Pill made it possible for women to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Photo courtesy of Psychology Today