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A brief history of the birth control pill

Photo: Flickr/mharrsch

Antiquity: Ancient Egyptian women use a combination of cotton, dates, honey and acacia as a suppository, and it turns out fermented acacia really does have a spermicidal effect. The Bible and the Koran both refer to coitus interruptus (the withdrawal method).

1914-1921 Activist Margaret Sanger coins the term “birth control,” opens first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and starts the American Birth Control League, the precursor to Planned Parenthood.

1934 Endocrinologist Gregory Pincus creates a test tube rabbit — and is vilified as a Frankenstein.

Katherine McCormick & Margret Sanger. Courtesy: Smithsonian Institute

1951 Sanger and Pincus meet at a dinner party in New York; she persuades him to work on a birth control pill.

1951 Meanwhile, Carl Djerassi, a chemist in Mexico City, creates a pill by synthesizing hormones from Mexican yams. On a chemical level, the pill has been invented, but Djerassi isn’t equipped to test, produce or distribute it.

1952 The race is on. Pincus tests progesterone in rats and finds it works. He meets gynecologist John Rock, who has already begun testing chemical contraception in women. Frank Colton, chief chemist at the pharmaceutical company Searle, also independently develops synthetic progesterone.

1953 If Sanger is the activist behind the pill and Pincus the scientist, Katherine McCormick — biologist, women’s rights activist and heiress to a great fortune — is the money. She writes Pincus a check for $40,000 to conduct research.

1954 Rock and Pincus conduct the first human trials on 50 women in Massachusetts. It works.

1956 Large scale clinical trials are conducted in Puerto Rico, where there were no anti-birth control laws on the books. The pill is deemed 100 percent effective, but some serious side effects are ignored.

1957 The FDA approves the pill, but only for severe menstrual disorders, not as a contraceptive. An unusually large number of women report severe menstrual disorders.

1960 The pill is approved for contraceptive use.

1962 It’s an instant hit. After two years, 1.2 million Americans women are on the pill; after three years, the number almost doubles, to 2.3 million.

1964 But the pill is still controversial: It remains illegal in eight states. The Pope convenes the Commission on Population, the Family and Natality; many within the Catholic Church are in favor.

1965 Five years after the FDA approval, 6.5 million American women are on pill, making it the most popular form of birth control in the U.S.

1967 The controversy over the pill takes on a new dimension when African-American activists charge that Planned Parenthood, by providing the pill in poor, minority neighborhoods, is committing genocide.

1968 Pope Paul VI ultimately declares his opposition to the pill in the Humanae Vitae encyclical.

1969 Barbara Seaman publishes The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, which exposes side effects including the risk of blood clots, heart attack, stroke, depression, weight gain and loss of libido.

1970 Senate hearings on the safety of the pill are disrupted by women demanding a voice on the issue.

1979 Sales of the pill drop by 24 percent in four years due to publicity about health risks.

1988 The original high-dose pill is taken off the market; an FDA study shows the heath benefits of newer pills, including a decreased risk of ovarian cancer, iron deficiency anemia and pelvic inflammatory disease.


1997 Not just a contraceptive any more — the FDA approves Ortho Pharmaceutical’s Tri-Cyclen pill as treatment for acne.

2000 The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules that prescription contraception must be covered by health insurance offered by employers.

2003 The FDA approves Seasonale, a pill that gives women only four periods a year.

2007 What could be next? Lybrel makes the annoying period a thing of the past for those willing to try it.

2010 Fifty years after the FDA approval, problems remain: there are currently 1,100 lawsuits pending against Bayer Healthcare Corporation regarding blood clots, heart attacks and strokes allegedly caused by the popular pills Yaz, Yazmin and the generic Ocella.



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  • bob

    It was interesting to read about the history of the birth control pill. I never knew that insurance wasn’t required to cover birth control until 2000. I now know more about birth control than I ever thought I would.


  • guest

    Thanks for the share. I never knew birth control pill have come a long way till reading this article.

  • best birth control

    It is estimated that there are over three million unplanned pregnancies every year
    in the United States. Half of these unplanned pregnancies happen because a
    couple does not use any birth control at all, and the other half occur because
    the couple uses birth control, but not correctly.

  • Morgan A Bond

    That was very informative!! Thanks so much!!!

  • Catalinaarco

    It is sad that women think they can take poison and not have consecuences. what about controling oneself’? what about waiting to get married to have sexual realtionships? sadly the pill is the mother of abortion, you know, abortion, the killing of a new human being before she is born? and the damaging of her mother for the rest of her life. Sad indeed

  • Bearycat

    Just because a woman marries does not mean that she suddenly wants children. What about those married couples who do not want or cannot afford to have children? Should a woman forgo sexual relations with her own husband rather than take a pill which is now safer than pregnancy? 

  • Common Sense

    Why doesn’t your rant reflect any words about the male’s responsibility in creating human life? If males worn condoms, there would be 90% less abortions.

  • palindrome

    birth control is not abortion. it prevents the egg from being fertilized so that the women doesn’t get pregnant in the first place.

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  • Bikerchickrules

    Your education on the pill is pretty limited. I suggest you talk with your doctor instead of your clergy. If not fertilizing an egg every month is tantamount to abortion then every woman in the world who has her menstrual cycle each month is aborting a potential life according to your argument. The only thing sad thing here is that if one follows your logic, you end up looking misinformed and uneducated.

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  • Anonymous

    So women who wait to have sex until they are married don’t use birth control?

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  • Khaleeq

    Rock and Pincus conduct the first human trials in Puerto Rico not in Massachusetts as contraception was illegal in Massachusetts at that time.

  • ecleaner

    After doing my own research about the pill people I know who took the pill at a young age and now have children wished they did not take the pill. Their children have a form of autism. 1 in 10,000 children have autism. If you do not believe me conduct your own study and see for yourself. That is all I am asking.. and remember you are one of these people think to yourself, “When I pass who will look after my child?” Sad is itn’t.

  • Adrienne

    I don’t know if it is the pill. People who use it want to plan when to have their children. Many people don’t have the money at the age of 20(when women are most fertile) to have children. There is an increase risk of all kinds of birth defects and problems when people have children older. However, I don’t think people have the right to tell people when to have children. I have known people who have had children when poor and ended up on welfare. Many people would take the risks of possible birth defects to plan to have their children when they are financially and emotionally capable. If people want to do family planning, that is their business. I also have a very good friend whose brother is severely autistic. They love their member of the family. Yes that is an issue of who will take care of him later in life. But I don’t think they would not have wanted him. Again, that is their business. Make decisions for yourself and let others do the same.

  • Adrienne

    Women do take the birth control pill for other reasons also. Some have fibroid tumors or problems with their periods. Did you ever think that someone might be on the pill and not even sexually active?

  • Wolf Haley

    RIGHT. :D

  • Steve

    And thus started the skankification of American women

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  • sara

    Please be a little more informed before you write about women taking “poison”. Yes, there are chemicals in contraceptives. Chemicals such as the hormones that are naturally found in a woman’s body. Please understand the mechanism of action before you blurt out nonsense that makes the rest of us believers look like religious, misinformed, uneducated fanatics. Take the time to be a person of excellence as the Lord has called us, educate yourself in biology and chemistry, perhaps even in the bible, and understand these things so that you may receive revelation. Think before you freely use your keyboard to offend and judge so matter of factly what you know very, VERY little about. Be blessed :)

  • Cindy

    ….and thins the lining on her uterus so if (and it DOES happen) the egg get fertilized (creating a baby) the baby cannot adhere to the uterus and he or she dies. ABORTION.

  • Cindy

    NFP. Safe natural and unlike ALL the others it has a zero failure rate when used correctly. And don’t tell me about so-and-so who got pregnant while using it because I did too – I had sex with my husband when we knew I was fertile. We took a chance that I wouldn’t get pregnant and I did. Wouldn’t give my daughter back for anything though!

  • Cindy

    Not fertilizing an egg every month is not abortion and Catalinaarco did not say that it is, life begins at conception which takes both an egg and a sperm cell. Abortion is ending a pregnancy by killing the baby. Abortion is not passing an unfertilized egg in an all natural way created by God. Perhaps you need the education.

  • Cindy

    And if people took sex as seriously as they should there would be even less.

  • Miseri Cordia

    no one complains that birth control makes sluts out of men.

  • greenish village

    The pill doesn’t kill anything…. The sperm never even touches the egg, because the egg is never even released!

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  • Jecasogo

    If it has a zero failure rate, then please explain, how did you get pregnant? Cindy, do yourself a favor and go to sleep or something.

  • Elizabeth

    Even the Couple to Couple League will not tell you NFP is 100%. Its not. And not everyone can use NFP because their cycles don’t follow nice little patterns. Its wonderful for couples who only have to abstain for one week a month but awful if you have to abstain for all but 3-4 days in several months of PCOS induced anovulatory cycles. It’d only work 100% for me because I’d *never* have sex.

    I also do know people who have gotten pregnant using it. People who can show me their charts that prove spontaneous ovulation must exist because there should have been “no chance” of pregnancy with the way intercourse was timed during the cycle.

  • Anonymous

    You are absolutely correct, Cindy! The IUD and some birth control pills “work” by preventing the embryo that was conceived from implanting in the uterus. Makes the uterus hostile to the embryo, which then dies. Many women have “silent abortions” without knowing it.

  • Anonymous

    NFP is 99% effective–which, I believe, is the claimed effectiveness of the pill. NFP does require that the male cooperate in this. It’s no accident that the divorce rate among married couples who use NFP is extremely low compared to those who use contraception. We live in a culture where selfishness is pervasive. Men use women and women let themselves be used. NFP is a cooperative effort of a couple. I’m sure I’ll hear it from the boo birds, but truth is truth. Married couples who use NFP have mutual respect and happier marriages.

  • Anonymous

    Yup. 56% of women who have abortions do so because their contraception failes. (Statistic courtesy of Planned Parenthood’s Alan Guttmacher Institute!) Birth control increases a woman’s risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood clots, etc. Do you know why they never came up with a birth control pill for men? They tried and the men wouldn’t risk their health. Why should they when they can make it all the woman’s responsibility. If she gets pregnant, they hand her some money to “take care of it.” The woman has an abortion so she won’t lose her boyfriend, but the majority walk out on the woman anyway because she reminds them too much of their dead child.

  • machine1

    What about the guy who wants to be a father but the woman chooses to abort? where are his rights oh wait its her body so she is “god” at that point its her choice to protect life or end it the man has no choice. On the other hand if she wants to keep the baby but the man does not.. well, still he has no say in it but she can make him support her and the child through the court system even if he did not want to be a father.. The “Ball” is in the woman’s court she has full control its her body right? So she needs to protect herself. Since it is her body and her choice right.. Men protect yourself from these women. Today women are as bad as the men are. Guys there is a better plan out there its nothing new. God isn’t trying to ruin your fun he has shown you a better way that has less heartache. Probably to old fashion for most but there would be a lot less broken hearted children, angry single moms, and broke dads out there if humanity would just consider the common sense of waiting for the right mate. Any way how special is it when young people take on the challenge to wait. But sadly you have young people getting it on, living at home with mom and dad with no means of supporting a child, Having sex with another young person in the same situation. Then Whoomp! there it is.

  • machine1

    However I believe birth control is a responsible choice and I understand that it has other benefits for a woman other than preventing pregnancy.

  • Anonymous

    What “benefits” would those be, machine 1? Besides encouraging extramarital and premarital sex, poisoning the woman’s body, risking her health and an unwanted pregnancy, the pill is a bitter one indeed! Women invite themselves to be used as recreational sex increases and men lose respect for the woman. Its fruits: breakdown in the family, increased STDs, increased abortion, breakdown in morality and society. So sad!

  • Spike

    If it feels good-do it.- Spike.

  • Kit

    Some women have issues with their menstrual cycles. It runs in my family, and one of my relatives can have two or even three periods during a single month. This usually doesn’t happen, but even on months where she only has one, they are awful. The pill can regulate this, and ease the symptoms of being a female. This was actually what the FDA originally approved oral contraceptives for. I realize your question was not directed for me, but hopefully you don’t mind me answering. I do agree that there are some awful things that have been encouraged by it, but that’s it. Most of these people would do it anyway, birth control just makes it easier.

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  • Amazima

    I thought it might to helpful to include that birth control pills work in 2 ways. The first, and probably most widely known method, is that it inhibits the release of the egg. However, the second method is that it makes the lining of the uterus inhospitable for implantation, if the egg does in fact get fertilized. it is in the fine print on the fold-outs that are attached to the little box in which the pills are packaged. After hearing several women say, over the years, that they got pregnant while on the pill and ended up miscarrying, I did a little research online and found the info about the methods over and over again. My husband and I had just had our 3rd child and were contemplating what to do next. I am really glad I discovered that information. Spread the word, because it makes me so sad when I tell a new friend about what I learned, and they are so shocked. Wish the OB’s were up front about that.

  • collucas

    This is the lamest thing that I have ever red because it does not help me with my world studies project

  • Jess

    The divorce rate among couples who use NFP is low because they are religious …. that does NOT mean they are any happier than couples who don’t use NFP! They simply don’t get divorced because it is looked down upon in religion. It has NOTHING to do with NFP itself, its a third variable

  • Jess

    Zero percent failure rate …. the only zero percent failure rate is abstinence …

  • Jess

    Well they did say “the pill is the mother of abortion” … so that implies the pill is linked to abortions… so yes they did say that. Not sure why you are saying Bikerchickrules needs an education, when everything she said is completely true….

  • Jess

    Depends on what you consider abortion, its usually the deliberate termination of a pregnancy, and since this is not deliberate, I’m not sure its an abortion. Using your definition, a miscarriage would also be an abortion since the woman’s body is not fit (in whatever way) to carry the baby/they cannot adhere to the uterus and the baby dies, also unintentional

  • Jess

    But out of that 56% I wonder what percent are actually using the contraception properly? Probably very few

  • Jess

    Okay there are a lot of assumptions in there that are not even true. It doesn’t encourage pre-marital sex, but it does give the woman the choice to choose her own sexuality (SHE chooses her sex life, not the pill). As for risking her health, historically way more women died of child birth and labour complications, that was way more risky to a woman’s health than the modern pill! Used for recreational sex? Um.. I have been on the pill for years and have had one boyfriend the entire time… I use the pill so I can get my educate and have the means to provide for a child before I bring one into this world.. so don’t spew out that “oh women on the pill do it to have risky sex” bullshit. It will actually allow me to have a stronger family, one who is ready for a child when it comes and has the resources to raise them. “Breakdown in morality and society” … oh give me a break, typical religious argument to the pill based on fear and not fact

  • Jess

    Oh yes, God forbid women enjoy their sex lives and have sex for non-reproductive purposes! The horror!

  • Kay

    Lmao… this is beyond ridiculous. Your “family and friend trials” do not mean that the pill causes autism… just wow. There HAVE been (controversial) findings that autism is linked to hereditary and age … so that is probably what your actual finding was Einstein.
    If the pill causes autism why has autism been prominent LONG before the ill came into existence…

  • Anonymous

    Not so, Jess. The divorce rate among so-called religious couples is just as high as with non-religious couples, so your assumption based on religion alone is incorrect. When you break it down and compare only between NFP users and non-NFP users, the divorce rate varies greatly. Couples who use NFP rarely divorce (I believe the rate is only about 2 to 4%). Couples who switched from artificial birth control to NFP report that their relationships improved because their was mutual responsibility and less selfishness in the marriage. The men came to see their wives differently, not as objects to be used for their own sexual gratification. Respect for one’s partner is foundational to a good marriage.

  • Anonymous

    You make a bunch of assumptions yourself, Jess. Planned Parenthood’s claims that women die more often from childbirth is disputed by the government’s Center for Disease Control and statistics from the UN. (which by the way, classifies the birth control as a carcinogen). Obviously, no woman would go on the pill if she believed there were great risks to her health and fertilitiy, but beliefs are not always truths. As for “sleeping around,” it is common today because of the “sexual revolution,”.and all you need to do to see that is to compare polls and studies from before the pill with those after the pill. Women held out for marriage and did not risk pregnancy before the pill. You try to dismiss my point of view by suggesting it is based on “typical religious argument based on fear and not fact” but I never brought religion into this discussion to prove or disprove claims about the pill. Science without a political or financial agenda does a good enough job.with the facts.

  • Cindy

    As I said, we knew that I was fertile and took a chance. Being married we were not to worried about me getting pregnant. My point was that we KNEW that it was likely to happen because I KNEW that I was fertile. When a woman knows what to look for and charts her cycle she knows when she can plan or prevent a pregnancy. I would have responded sooner to clarify this for you but I just woke up from a very nice nap.

  • Cindy

    The pill works in 3 ways. #1. Prevent ovulation. #2. Thicken the mucus that the body secrets during ovulation (because #1 doesn’t always work) so that the sperm have a more difficult time reaching the egg. #3. Thin the lining of the uterus so that if an egg is fertilized (and yes it does happen) the baby will not be able to implant his or her self in the uterus, dies and is passed out of the mothers body (abortion). So yes the pill causes abortions.

  • C

    Miserable chauvinist.

  • southernbelle

    I personally am on who had to take birth control pills when I was a teen due to heavy menstrual cycles that would literally keep me in bed for seven days a week every month. Do you know how hard it is to try and keep up with school when you are missing that much? I also want you to know that I did not sleep around I was just happy to be able to graduate high school with my class. Have you ever thought of the pain that goes along with these cycles? By the time I had my hysterectomy I would bleed three weeks out of a month and utilize tampons and baby diapers just to be able to go to work and support my family. I do not believe in abortion and never will however; I do believe that the pill can cause serious side affects but I for one was willing to take a chance so I did not miss out on things and only had a period for seven days versus 21 days.

  • southernbelle

    I personally am on who had to take birth control pills when I was a teen due to heavy menstrual cycles that would literally keep me in bed for seven days a week every month. Do you know how hard it is to try and keep up with school when you are missing that much? I also want you to know that I did not sleep around I was just happy to be able to graduate high school with my class. Have you ever thought of the pain that goes along with these cycles? By the time I had my hysterectomy I would bleed three weeks out of a month and utilize tampons and baby diapers just to be able to go to work and support my family. I do not believe in abortion and never will however; I do believe that the pill can cause serious side affects but I for one was willing to take a chance so I did not miss out on things and only had a period for seven days versus 21 days.

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  • Ob-Gyn

    To the contributor who stated that birth control pills cause cancer:
    You are misinformed. Both uterine cancer (endometrial) and ovarian cancer are significantly reduced with long term birth control use.
    There is a statistical association (not cause and effect) with cervical cancer because women who have multiple sexual partners are likely to contract the HPV virus, some strains of which can cause cervical cancer.