The History and Impact of the Oral Contraceptive

Updated on December 12, 2018
Margaret Sanger. Founder of Planned Parenthood.
Margaret Sanger. Founder of Planned Parenthood.

The Pill's Architect and Origins

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 she 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 influences. Most prominent religions such as Catholicism and Orthodox branches of Christianity considered sex to be sinful when it was done for any reason other than procreation. This view applied to single people and 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 the likelihood of fertility at a certain time was considered to be 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.

Legal Opposition to Oral Contraceptives

The law also hindered Sanger's work. The Comstock Act of 1873 banned the distribution of obscene materials. This included pornography, sexual aids, and contraceptives.3 Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1915, and she was arrested for doing so nine days later. Her cohort and financial sponsor was Katharine McCormick. In addition to supporting Sanger's work, McCormick was known for smuggling diaphragms into the country for Sanger to distribute at her clinic.4 This was a blatant violation of the Comstock Act, and every individual involved in the operation was in danger of facing legal repercussions.

In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the contraceptive pill that scientist Gregory Pincus developed for Sanger and McCormick after its successful human trials in Puerto Rico. The pill was based on a hormone called progesterone, which worked as an anti-ovulant in mammals. Pincus had been vilified in the scientific community for his work with reproductive science in animals, and he was having a difficult time finding work in the bad economic climate because of his reputation. Pincus developed a safe and effective contraceptive pill shortly after meeting with Sanger and McCormick. Despite the pill's creation, the FDA's approval, and its proven efficacy, it still took five more years before it could be distributed legally in the U.S.5

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, and Sanger’s clinics were allowed to provide women with the pill as a result. She worked tirelessly to make sure that it was available and accessible for people who needed it, including the poor. This was important because historically, it has always been more difficult for the poor to receive adequate medical care. The Comstock Act was eventually deemed unconstitutional in 1983.6 Finally, Margaret Sanger and her colleagues had achieved their dream of creating a “magic pill” that would save lives, help to prevent abortions, allow women to control 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, and menstrual cycle-based planning. Because women couldn’t access any of the information that they needed or any medical treatments to help them regulate their fertility, they lacked control over an important aspect of their lives. This put the woman’s health into the hands of men who would be responsible for deciding whether or not to use condoms and practice safe sex.

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 regarding birth control, abortion, and other sexual health decisions that impact women. However, he explains 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 that an unwanted pregnancy did not occur. Condom use was the primary focus in this sense. Due to a lack of other easily accessible preventative options, women had to rely upon men to use condoms during intercourse.7 Legalizing a contraceptive method that was entirely under the control of the woman was a huge step toward equality and women’s right to take control over their own bodies and reproductive choices.

The Pill's Impact on 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.” 8 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 if the pill had been invented earlier. If it had been invented just a few decades earlier it may have had a major impact on how the world grew and evolved.

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, which were possibly related to the simultaneous “baby boom.” Around 1970, this suddenly stopped 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 both single women and married women.9 Historically, it’s been the norm to marry your partner if children were expected or already born. This was partially due to the the fact that religious views have dictated the social standards throughout 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. Margaret Sanger was 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, because of the pill and the accompanying decreased likelihood of unplanned pregnancy, it became far more acceptable for the religious and the non-religious alike to wait longer before getting married. In this way, the expectations of the family unit were changed in America forever.

More Women Enter the Workforce and Enroll in Universities

Thanks to the pill, all the extra time that women had before starting families allowed them to pursue higher education and careers. The number of women in college and women with careers significantly increased during this 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." 10 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 U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement published a statistical portrait which includes data that shows a huge and sudden increase in the number of women who completed four years of college starting in the 1970’s.11 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 U.S. economy by churning out more earning power. More women in the labor force meant that there was an increased amount of 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.”12 Her article suggests that the pill had “durable and far-reaching effects on the women’s labor market.”13 This development enabled more women to enter the workforce, maintain long term careers, adjust professional environments to be more welcoming to female employees, and pursue a variety of career paths.

The Pill's Impact on 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 are saved federally.14 Impoverished families have always been more likely to become pregnant with unplanned children because of a 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 expecting a child, they require more medical care, which utilizes more funding. Federal funding for healthcare actually benefits from investments in the prevention of these pregnancies.15

There are some economists who suggest that the invention of affordable contraception may have had a negative impact on the economy. According to the economy-focused article, Contraception and Development: A Unified Growth Theory, it is possible that people having fewer children means fewer people will enter the labor force later.16 In this article, citizens are referred to as “human capital.” It has yet to be determined for certain if the number of women joining the labor force will equal the human capital created by children who may eventually become part of the labor force. Considering this, the long term economic effects of contraception are somewhat complicated and ever-changing. As time goes on, economists will see if human capital will decrease because of the decreased amount of children born.

The lasting impact of the oral contraceptive has reached far beyond 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. Many social revolutions took place at the time that the pill became widely available, and more revolutions occurred during subsequent decades. The sexual freedom movement came at around the same time, and that movement both aided and hindered the development of the oral contraceptive. The women’s rights movement was also in full swing, and feminists were speaking out about their rights to education, sexual freedom, and their own careers. The Civil Rights movement was also occurring at the same time. It was an era of change in many capacities.

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

References

  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
  3. Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61
  4. Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–617
  5. Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61
  6. Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61
  7. Sanger, Alexander. Beyond Choice : Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century. Vol. 1st ed. (Pages 149 – 154). (2004) Public Affairs
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61
  11. The National Center for Education Statistics.120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. (Page 8). (January 1993
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Planned Parenthood. Birth Control: We all Benefit. (Pages 2-3)
  15. Planned Parenthood. Birth Control: We all Benefit. (Pages 2-3)
  16. Strulik, Holger. “Contraception and Development: A Unified Growth Theory.” International Economic Review 58, no. 2 (May 2017): 561–84.

Bibliography

  1. 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.
  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. This is a brief but informative periodical explaining the ways that the availability of oral contraceptives, or “the pill” have 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.
  3. Mundt, Ingrid. “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control.” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (November 2017): 123–61. 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, and includes extra details about Margaret Sanger and her colleagues.
  4. 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 it has over one hundred pages of graphs and tables that detail enrollment and graduation trends over a 120 year period. There are tables or graphs depicting everything concerning sex, race, age group, etc. at any given time.
  5. 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 Planned Parenthood programs support and boost the economy overall.
  6. Sanger, Alexander. Beyond Choice : Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century. Vol. 1st ed. (Pages 149 – 154). (2004) Public Affairs. 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.
  7. 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 1900s. The source looks at data gathered throughout the decades and compares it with historic events to analyze reasons for those trends.
  8. 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 an 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 used to explain the complicated relationship between the economy and contraceptives.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Yamuna Hrodvitnir

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, soapboxie.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://soapboxie.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)