Living

Happy Birthday, Pill

In the 50 years since its approval, the birth-control pill has gone from revolutionary to passé. But we'd do well to remember its legacy

This month, the birth-control pill (BCP) turns 50. It’s been a half century since the American Food and Drug Administration approved the pill for sale as birth control in 1960. Canada got the pill the same year, though doctors would prescribe it only for “therapeutic uses” (wink, wink). In 1969, the BCP turned legal and Canadian women could finally ask for the birth-control pill because they wanted to control birth.
There was a lot of pressure on little Enovid, born to predictions of earth-shaking future achievement. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote: “In its effects
I believe that the pill ranks in importance with the discovery of fire.” Yet half a century later, in the hearts and minds of many women, the pill is less inferno than a steady burning candle — a dull, unscented Ikea votive. Despite being highly effective (97 to 99 percent pregnancy prevention) and used by 80 million women around the world, it’s a yawner contraceptive method.
Since the 1980s, condoms have shoved aside the pill as the most promoted form of birth control, the one that stops babies, HIV and a range of STIs, which is two-thirds more than the pill could ever do. The BCP lacks the no-think allure of other hormonal contraception like the patch or the injection (the pill’s progeny). These days, some women are even (re)turning to natural family planning (NFP), the next generation of “rhythm,” marking the days on a calendar, getting to know your cervical mucus, checking your temperature. A 36-year-old considering NFP told the Edmonton Journal she was ditching the pill after a decade simply because it creeped her out: “I just didn’t like the idea of taking something each day that fools your body.”
In contrast to the positive media spin on NFP, with its very now, cloth-shopping-bag, anti-big-pharm vibe, the pill — if mentioned at all — has been blasted with negative attention. In part because some women have delayed having children until later in life, infertility is a bigger issue than ever. Some women spending their forties at the IVF clinic may feel a little ambivalent about having spent their twenties on the pill. While researchers are unanimous that the pill cuts the risk of ovarian cancer, Bayer, the maker of the pills Yaz, Yasmin and Yasminelle (the sole BCPs on the market that contain drospirenone), is facing more than 1,000 lawsuits in the U.S. and Canada over a laundry list of brutal side effects, including strokes. So the BCP’s birthday party may contain a lot of lawyers, which is never anyone’s idea of a good time.
What happened? By giving women control of their reproductive futures, the pill was supposed to deliver to us the same quality of life that men had been entitled to forever; the playing fields of both bed and office would be razed flat. Montagu pronounced that with the pill would come the end of man’s “predatory exploitative attitude toward the female.” Time magazine put the pill on its cover in 1967. The harbinger of the sexual revolution would spark the social revolution.
But the sexual revolution left a confusing, untended mess. One word: Hooters. The casual objectification of women is unobjectionable to most these days. On the other side of the extenda-mix booty shaking of the past decade is a sex-fearing mood of moralistic finger wagging. Directors of art-house films are pressured to edit out sex scenes, and the private lives of athletes are scrutinized for un-priestlike behaviour.

The social revolution hasn’t been victorious either. Yes, women have been freed from a life of pinballing from one pregnancy to the next, and 73 percent of Canadian women with children under 16 work outside the home. But there’s still no public childcare program to adapt to this reality. And women remain woefully underrepresented in government and in the upper echelons of business. And women still do most of the housework. And this is choice?
There it is: choice, a battered word, pushed and pulled in every direction. But in the early 1900s, only a few women dared utter it at all. American birth-control activist Margaret Sanger watched her mother endure 11 births and 18 pregnancies, dying at 50. As a nurse, Sanger saw women bleed to death from back-alley abortions. Contraception was illegal, but in 1916, Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic, a precursor to Planned Parenthood. She posted flyers around New York with her clinic’s Brooklyn address in English, Yiddish and Italian: “Do not kill, do not take life, but prevent.” She was arrested and jailed, and her boxes of diaphragms and condoms were carted away by police and confiscated.
Sanger’s ideal of the oral contraceptive she called the “magic pill” was realized only when she enlisted an heiress and fellow suffragette named Katharine Dexter McCormick to bankroll research. McCormick’s husband had suffered, violently, from schizophrenia. Trained as a biologist, McCormick did not want to pass on her husband’s genes. Birth control became her life’s work. When these two women joined forces in 1950, they were both in their seventies. McCormick donated $3 million to doctors Gregory Pincus and John Rock, who came up with the first-generation BCP.
This is about imagining. Sanger and McCormick bequeathed to generations of women the profound permission to imagine their lives in any shape, in any story. Untethered to biology, women could enter a wealth of narratives where they had never been permitted before.
But in some corridors, the gift of this history appears to be fading from memory. For eight years, President George W. Bush funded abstinence-only education — to the tune of $1.3 billion — all but eradicating contraceptive education. Two words: Bristol Palin. In the U.S., pregnancy in 15- to 19-year-olds rose 3 percent from 2005 to 2006, to almost 750,000.
In Canada, public sex education remains contraception based, and our teen-pregnancy rate is low. But since 2006, when the Harper government won its first minority, federal funding for programs by not-for-profit institutions like the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health has dried up. Harper’s deputy chief of staff, Darrel Reid, is a former leader of the Canadian arm of Focus on the Family, an evangelical group that is anti-gay-rights, anti-choice and — oh, my — anti-daycare. I don’t think he’ll be at the pill’s birthday party.
But I’ll go, and I’ll raise a glass to the troubling little pill and ask a question: What will we do with all this choice that came so easily to those of us not yet born in 1960? Demand better, safer birth control? Vote our way to funded childcare and partner with people who clean the toilet? The pill had only a little magic in it; it proved to be a unicorn covered in mud. But it allowed women to imagine possible worlds. Better the mud than no magic at all.