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Aired February 24, 2003

The Pill

Film Description

In May 1960, the FDA approved the sale of a pill that arguably would have a greater impact on American culture than any other drug in the nation's history. For women across the country, the contraceptive pill was liberating: it allowed them to pursue careers, fueled the feminist and pro-choice movements and encouraged more open attitudes towards sex.

Among the key players in the development of the drug were two elderly female activists who demanded a contraceptive women could eat like aspirin and then paid for the scientific research; a devout Catholic gynecologist who believed a robust sex life made for a good marriage and argued tirelessly that the Pill was a natural form of birth control; and a brilliant biologist who bullied a pharmaceutical company into risking a possibly crippling boycott to develop this revolutionary contraceptive. In describing the obstacles they all hurdled, The Pill presents a compelling account of a society in transition.


Produced, Directed & Written by
Chana Gazit

Co-produced & Edited by
David Steward

Hilary Klotz

Music by
Tom Phillips

Narrated by
Blair Brown

Joel Shapiro
Stephen McCarthy

Associate Producer
Amy Brown

Production Coordinator/Researcher
Kristina Cafarella

Archival Research
Christine Shen
Joy Conley
Corrinne Collett

Sound Recordist
Judith Karp

Rachelle Fankhauser

Wally Argo

Assistant Camera
Janice Burgess

Assistant Editor
Joedan Okun

Re-recording Mixer
David Jaunai
Sync Sound

Scott Olive
Tape House

Frank Ferrigno
National Video Center

Graphic Design
Abbey Klotz
Moxi Design

Video Post-Production
Evan Anthony

Audio Post-Production
Tony Slocum 
Sync Sound

Archival Film
ABCNews VideoSource
American Archives of the Factual Film
Archive Films/Getty Images
CBC TV News Archives
CBS News Archive
David Steward Media
Fox Movietonews, Inc.
Grinberg Film Libraries, Inc.
Harry Ransom Humanities Center 
The ImageBank by Getty Images
MacDonald & Associates.
Joan McCracken
National Archives
NBC News Archives
The Pacific Basin Institute Archive
Streamline Films, Inc.
UCLA Film & Television Archive
Univ. of Pittsburgh/KDKA Collection
Mike Wallace
Worcester Foundation for Biomedical Research

Archival Photos
AP/Wide World Photos
Rachel Sherman Rock Achenbach
Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times
Laura Pincus Bernard
Boston Globe
Sylvia Clark
Sophie Dutton
Anita Fream
Dr. Celso-Ramón García
Henry Grossman/TimePix
The Lasker Foundation
Library of Congress
Joan McCracken
Howard University
The MIT Museum
The Museum of the City of New York
Adeline Pendleton-Satterthwaite
John Pincus
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Ramsey & Muspratt, Ltd.
Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Suzanne Szasz/ Photo Researchers, Inc.
Worcester Foundation for Biomedical Research

Special Thanks to
Michael Allen
Eye Candy by Ron Caldwell
Keith & Suzanne Harlow
Mary Ellen Johnson
Patrick Kerwin
Joseph McDonald
Diana Reinhard
Kathy Hammer & Arthur Seelbinder
Michelle Silberman 
Maya Steward
John Tosy
UMass Medical School
Worcester Foundation for Biomedical Research

Vintage Cars
Cloud Nine Limousine Service

Kelley A. Trotter

Andrea Tone
James Reed
Carole McCann

Creative Consultant
Paul Taylor

For American Experience

Steward/Gazit Productions, Inc. for American Experience


Sylvia Clark: I postponed sex actually till after I was married, but not through any lack of interest. The reason that I was successful was absolute fear of being pregnant before I was married.

Joan McCracken: One of my roommates said, "If the bomb is coming, what would you do?" And it was just like, "I'd like to sleep with somebody."

Sylvia Clark: It was this smoldering something that we were all supposed to know about but we had no way of getting the information. Men somehow expected, and, and I think believed, that something magic happened to release all of this wonderful whatever it was. And when it didn't happen, everybody was puzzled.

Joan McCracken: We were taught you should be so grateful that he has chosen you. You know, for a woman to ask a man to wear a condom, it was like, unheard of.

My first child was born nine months and five days after I was married. It was not even talked about, but people really used their fingers to count in those days. I think my mother really sweated it out. Not that she thought that I had gotten pregnant before I was married, but it was "What would the neighbors think?" After we starting seeing how easy it was to get pregnant, I mean, just any time I want I can get know, I know that I cannot do this the rest of my life. But what am I going to do? We were very desperate.

Narrator: The 1950s ushered in an age of technological wonders and miracle drugs. But when it came to developing new forms of birth control, the scientific community wanted no part of it.

Andrea Tone, Historian: The fear was the sheer availability of contraceptives would increase sexual encounters. That it would lead to promiscuity. Some people said that a pregnancy was the only brake on human lust.

Narrator: No one had fought harder to make contraception available to all women than the country's most outspoken birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger.

Alex Sanger, Grandson: My grandmother's childhood was poverty stricken and was painful. She grew out of a world where her mother was pregnant eighteen times, eleven children, seven miscarriages, and was dead at age forty-nine. This is not an uncommon story in 19th century America.

Narrator: Sanger had begun her battle by challenging the so-called Comstock Laws, statutes that criminalized the sale of contraceptive devices and the dissemination of birth control information. Half a century later, she still bristled.

Sanger, in video clip: I bumped up against this very, very arrogant, old fashioned, stupid law, which had to be changed, but it was going to take a long time to change it. And I decided the best way to change it was to break it.

Alex Sanger: For this she went to jail repeatedly, broke every law on the books, took on the government, took on the medical profession, took on the religious institutions of this country, took on most men, and those that were supporting her were the women who were desperate for this information.

Narrator: By the early 1950s, Sanger's campaign had met only limited success. Comstock laws were still on the books in thirty states across the country. And though she had managed to broaden access to diaphragms and condoms, women still did not have a foolproof method of birth control.

What Sanger dreamed of was a simple pill. Now seventy-one, she began searching for a scientist willing to defy both law and custom.

She found him at a laboratory in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. He was the colorful and brilliant reproductive physiologist, Gregory Pincus.

As a young scientist at Harvard, he had been a rising star. In 1934, Pincus reported that he had accomplished the first in-vitro fertilization of animals.

Andrea Tone: The press does not treat Pincus's remarkable breakthrough in a very flattering way. They're very concerned about the possibility of human engineering of the reproductive process. And one magazine in particular takes a photograph of Pincus with a cigarette dangling from his mouth in the most sinister light imaginable, saying "Scientist Engineers First Rabbit Embryo." And it conjured up images of the mad scientist at work, playing with human life in a test tube.

Narrator: Harvard denied him tenure. And Pincus set up his own small research laboratory. For the next decade, he would struggle to keep the lab solvent, even serving as his own janitor.

By 1951, Pincus was desperate. His research into hormones had been slow to produce results. His client, the pharmaceutical company, G.D. Searle, cut off his funding -- and declared Pincus "a lamentable failure."

That same year, he was introduced to Margaret Sanger.

Alex Sanger: The meeting with Gregory Pincus was a nirvana for my grandmother. It must have been absolutely stunning finally to find a man of science who understood the basic science of reproduction. Pincus told her that hormones held the key to a contraceptive pill. But the research would cost much more than the few thousand dollars Sanger had available. Without millions, he explained, the pill would remain only a dream.

Title Card: An Mrs. Degree...

Narrator: As the pill project stalled, the country was in the midst of the largest baby boom in its history. Most women were married by age 19, and more than half of them were pregnant within the first seven months.

Joan McCracken: Well, the 1950s was also a time when it was expected that when you did go to college, you would find a husband. And it was that old "What are you graduating with," and you hoped it was that "Mrs. degree." And most of us did find our husbands in college. And where I went to college -- I went to nursing school -- and there was 88 of us. And about 80 of us either married right before we graduated, right after we graduated, or within 6 months. And so you know, looking back, it wasn't because that was the "one and only," but it was the one that was there.

Narrator: Once married, women's roles were narrowly defined.

Title Card: Mrs. America Pageant

Pageant Announcer sync: Enchanting entries in the Mrs. American race not only look swell...they cook well, and they sew darnit, and they mop and peel potatoes, and tend to other chores.

Mrs. America Winner sync: When I was a Miss, there was nothing cooking. Now that I'm Mrs. America, I'm really cooking.

Sylvia Clark: In the 1950s, one was supposed to go from absolute celibacy... some necking and some carrying on, but not actual intercourse, to suddenly full-blown wonderful, blossoming sexuality with one's husband. This was supposed to have taken place overnight, magically.

Narrator: Without an effective female-controlled contraceptive, a young woman faced the prospect of three decades of child bearing.

Sylvia Clark: I could foresee, at the age of 23, having another baby, and another baby, and another baby. The idea of being able to have sex as expected, whether we were enjoying it or not wasn't the point, we were going to have sex as expected. And to be able to control fertility, not have that next pregnancy, was immensely important to us. But we weren't able to talk about it yet. We were on the cusp of that wonderful awakening of what we might be quote, "entitled" to, but we weren't quite there.

Narrator: For Catholic women, birth control created a crisis of faith. Starting in the 1930s, Protestant churches had begun to relax their stance on birth control, but not the Catholic Church.

Loretta McLaughlin, Journalist: During my college years there was a mission in the local big church in South Boston. And my mother didn't want to go alone, so she made me go to the married women's group. And I tell you I had never heard anything like it. And the women came and the priests said to them that if they were practicing birth control, that the faces of their unborn children would haunt them on their death beds. And you know, they would burn in hell fire for eternity. It sounds impossible that that sort of thing was literally being said, but it was. The effect of that sermon, that week-long sermon...We had five new babies in my building the next year.

Newsreel -- Large family.

Leslie Tentler, Historian:Frankly, I think one of the most effective enforcers of the teaching in the fifties, uh, is the mythical Mrs. Murphy, or Mrs. O'Shaunessy, or Mrs. Krupnik, whoever she in your parish, who shows up on Sunday morning with ten children, (you know) stepping stones. The oldest one is, you know, is 12 and the youngest one is a babe in arms. And they're beautifully dressed and beautifully behaved. And they sit in the front pew at mass, and they seem to follow the service much more attentively and reverently than your children do. And she looks great. She's slender and serene. And her husband seems to be the picture of satisfied paternity. And if she can do it, why can't you?


Husband:Honey, uh, now that we have this baseball team....uh, what do you say about a football team?

Wife:[Wife laughs]

Husband:No? [Husband laughs]

Leslie Tentler: Uh, and it is in many ways an attractive picture of life. But I think in reality for a fair number of couples, it was pretty overwhelming.

Narrator: In Massachusetts and Connecticut, both states with large Catholic populations, the use of birth control was a crime subject to fines and imprisonment.

Dr. Richard Hauskenecht, Physcian:What was allowed in Connecticut in terms of contraception? The answer is zero, zip. This may shock you a little bit, but we did hysterectomies instead. We did them early after delivery, uh, six weeks, seven weeks postpartum. And doing a, a vaginal hysterectomy on somebody who's had three or four kids, six weeks postpartum, you got two choices, you either got to be faster than hell, or you'd better get the blood bank cranked up because the blood loss will be astonishing.

It was prehistoric, absolutely prehistoric. From a training point of view we were delighted by this cause we got a chance to operate. But our poor patients suffered enormously. I mean the risks of what we were doing were simply not rational and unacceptable.

Narrator: On a bright New England morning in 1953, Margaret Sanger set out for a meeting with Gregory Pincus at his lab. Accompanying her was her new patron. Katharine Dexter McCormick was seventy-eight years old, committed to birth control, and very rich. Interested in science since childhood, she became one of the first women to graduate from MIT.

Andrea Tone: McCormick gets a degree in biology, which was such a rarity for women in this time period. And I think her background in science kindled in her an interest in looking at the possibility of a scientific answer to women's suffering.

Narrator: When she was 29, Katharine married Stanley McCormick, heir to the vast fortune of the International Harvester Company.

Andrea Tone: And shortly after their marriage Stanley is diagnosed with schizophrenia. And this devastates Katharine and also forges in her mind a resolve to stay childless. And I think it probably made her an early convert to the larger issues involved with the birth control movement.

Narrator: After her husband's death, McCormick contacted Margaret Sanger, her old friend from the suffragette days.

Andrea Tone: Sanger and McCormick subscribed to a feminism which held that birth control was a precondition of the liberation of women. They felt that it was extremely important that birth control technologies be technologies that women could control.

Narrator: When Sanger and McCormick arrived at Pincus' lab, the science of hormones was still in its infancy. But the elderly heiress wanted a pill right away.

She got straight to the point.

Alex Sanger: She kept on asking him the tough questions. How much new equipment do you need? Are there going to be institutional pressures against you? Who is going to be fighting this? Are you determined? Are you with us? And he had to take a few long breaths, long pauses and figure out do I really want to get in bed with these two women for the next decade? And he thought about it and he said, " Yes." He said, "I can do this."

Narrator: Katharine McCormick took out her checkbook and wrote Pincus a check for $40,000 with a promise of more to come.

Later, when he told his wife, she protested that non-conformists like Sanger and McCormick were living in a fantasy world. Pincus would hear nothing of it. "Everything," he replied, "Is possible in science."

Title Card: A Cage of Ovulating Females...

Narrator: With McCormick's backing, Pincus set up a lab to put his hormone theory to the test. He injected lab animals with repeated doses of the hormone, progesterone, hoping it would stop ovulation. Within months, Pincus' hunch proved correct.

But for women, daily injections of progesterone would be painful and costly.

To Pincus's surprise, the G. D. Searle Company had already developed progesterone in pill form, but was doing little with it. Pincus persuaded his former client to give him samples.

But he still had one final hurdle.

Margaret Marsh, Historian: Gregory Pincus wasn't a physician, he was a scientist. And so he could give the pill to as many rabbits as he wanted to. Rabbits everywhere could take this pill. But he couldn't give the pill to women. He wasn't a doctor. He couldn't run a clinical trial on human beings.

Narrator: Pincus turned to an unlikely source for help. Sixty-four-year-old John Rock was a renowned infertility specialist. A Harvard obstetrician and gynecologist. And a Catholic.

Loretta McLaughlin: John Rock was virtually a daily communicant. He had patients over in the old Boston City Hospital as well. And he would go to Mass every morning in the Immaculate Conception church across the street, which was a Jesuit center. He believed in the goodness of people. He believed in the goodness of mankind. He was a deep and profound Catholic.

Narrator: Not only was Rock constrained by his faith, under Massachusetts' harsh Comstock laws -- any involvement with birth control could destroy his career.

Margaret Marsh: He was the most important reproductive medicine specialist in the country. He didn't need to do this. But... he was not only insatiably, intellectually curious -- he always wanted to know things that other people didn't know. He also was in favor of birth control. And as a Catholic, this made him very unique.

Narrator: After years of delivering unwanted babies, Rock had come to view the church-sanctioned rhythm method as unworkable. Periodic sexual abstinence, he believed, was both unrealistic and damaging to a marriage.

The prospect, however, of having a Catholic involved in the pill project horrified Margaret Sanger -- herself, a lapsed Catholic.

Mike Wallace interview with Margaret Sanger:

Mike Wallace: You say that originally the opposition was in all law, and you have to fight against that. Today your opposition stems mainly from where, from what source?

Margaret Sanger: Well, I think that the opposition, uh, is mainly from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

Mike Wallace: Of the church. And you certainly can take no issue with the natural law as the hierarchy of the, uh, Catholic Church, regards it?

Margaret Sanger: Well, I certainly do take issue with it, and I think it's untrue and I think it's unnatural...

Mike Wallace: Well, let me ask you...

Margaret Sanger: Nothing bears it out, and it's an unnatural attitude to take. And how do they know? I mean, after all, they're celibates, they don't know love, they don't know marriage, they know nothing about bringing up children... or any of the marriage problems of life. And yet they speak to people as if they were God.

Leslie Tentler: Margaret Sanger did have a kind of fanatic anti-Catholicism which was clearly something that went very deep, ah, in her. It was intensely emotional. Ah, but she also had an extraordinary kind of political intuition.

Margaret Marsh: It dawned on her that if you have a Catholic promoting the development of an oral contraceptive and a very prominent Catholic at that, you've got a lot more shot at public acceptance among Catholics than you do if you've got someone who's been a known birth control advocate.

Narrator: Sanger put aside her fears about Rock. "Being a good Roman Catholic and as handsome as a god," she conceded, "He can just get away with anything."

In the winter of 1954, under the guise of a fertility study, Rock agreed to test Searle's pill on a group of fifty women.

Loretta McLaughlin: And to have this going on in a state where to even talk about birth control publicly was a know, it's such marvelous irony.

Narrator: Katharine McCormick moved east from Santa Barbara to keep close tabs on the trials. As months of careful monitoring dragged on, she complained to Sanger that she was "freezing in Boston for the Pill."

Andrea Tone: She's very impatient for this pill which she calls in one of her letters to Gregory Pincus, "a miraculous implement." She's impatient for this pill to be developed.

Narrator: Finally the data came in. Not one of the fifty women ovulated while on the Pill.

The success of the covert experiment, however, was only a first step. Getting the pill to market would require approval from the Food & Drug Administration, and that would entail a large-scale human trial. In exasperation, Katharine McCormick, asked, "Where can we find a cage of ovulating females?"

Puerto Rico had a network of birth control clinics and no Comstock laws. Pincus called it "the perfect laboratory."

Andrea Tone: In the mid-1950s Puerto Rico was one of the most densely populated countries in the world and it was important for researchers who wanted to promote the pill to be able to say, look, it worked in Puerto Rico with a population that was undereducated and poor. Therefore if it worked there, it can work anywhere.

Narrator: G. D. Searle was willing to provide the pills and birth control officials in Puerto Rico were delighted to be part of a scientific experiment.

Annette Ramirez, Public Health Scholar: By the early 50s, Puerto Rico saw anything experimental as something pioneering and innovative and wonderful. Plus the island was in the midst of industrialization and there were a lot of jobs for women so all of a sudden there are all these factories and women all of a sudden had this opportunity to work outside the home and then children became something that they had to contend with.

Narrator: The first large-scale trial of the contraceptive Pill was launched in April 1956 at Rio Piédras, a brand-new housing project. Though Puerto Rico was overwhelmingly Catholic, many women were eager to participate.

Annette Ramirez: Dogma was one thing, behavior was something else. For most of the women who were concerned with their health and with bringing up the families and with struggling day to day, the fact that this was not in line with church dogma was...was pretty much irrelevant.

Narrator: The women would take a pill with 10 milligrams of progesterone, to stop ovulation, and a smaller amount of estrogen to ease discomfort. Doctors knew little about the consequences of hormones. The volunteers knew even less.

Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, Historian: Informed consent, the way we understand it today, did not exist in the 1950s. Trials were much less closely regulated than they are today. Uh, a...a useful example to look at would be the polio pill vaccine. And think about the fact that two million school children were signed up to test this largely unknown vaccine to see if it worked against polio or not. People were much more receptive to medical science and to its products and were much more willing to participate in programs to, to see whether they would work or not.

Narrator: As the trials progressed, some women began to complain of nausea, dizziness, headaches, stomach pain, and vomiting.

After nine months of testing, the medical director in Puerto Rico told Pincus that the Pill was 100% effective when taken properly. Nevertheless, she argued, the drug caused "too many side reactions to be generally acceptable."

Both Rock and Pincus disagreed. The adverse side effects, they believed, were insignificant.

Alex Sanger: They probably dismissed it in their mind, "Well there's something wrong with the patient," and there was nothing wrong with the pill. They didn't want to hear about what might be wrong because they...they were so, they just felt so strongly that this pill was necessary for women's well-being.

Narrator: Pincus had such confidence in the new drug -- he gave it out to members of his own family. All that remained was to persuade G. D. Searle to become the first pharmaceutical company to market the pill.

Title Card: The Cat's Out of the Bag...

Narrator: For Searle, a small and growing pharmaceutical company, the prospect of a birth control pill was tempting -- and terrifying.

Elizabeth Siegel Watkins: By the 1950s, Roman Catholics made up twenty-five percent of the American population. And the drug companies were very scared that if they produced and marketed a birth control pill, not only would Catholics not buy the pill, but they would boycott all the other products made by that company.

Narrator: In 1957, Searle took a tentative step -- releasing the Pill under the name Enovid, as a treatment for menstrual disorders. Within two years, 500,000 women were getting prescriptions for the new drug.

Loretta McLaughlin: I mean the cat's out of the bag. More women overnight developed menstrual disorders than you could possibly believe. I mean this pill was being prescribed everywhere because everyone knew that the real effect of the pill was to suppress ovulation.

Narrator: Suddenly, Searle saw the pill, not as a public relations problem, but as a potential money maker.

Loretta McLaughlin: Can you imagine having a pill that had nothing to do with illness, nothing to do with treatment, not that you would take once or twice, but that you might take for the next twenty years. Think of the market.

Narrator: A Searle executive wrote Pincus, "The powers that be are breathing down our neck in the hopes of speeding up our application to the Food and Drug Administration."

On May 11,1960, seven years after Gregory Pincus had received his first check from Katharine McCormick, the FDA finally gave its approval to the birth control pill.

Loretta McLaughlin: For the very, very, very first time, women would be set free to enjoy sex, without the fear of pregnancy hanging over their head. They did not have to get up in the dark of night as one woman said and walk across the ice cold linoleum in her bare foot to go into the bathroom and get the diaphragm. Women for the very, very first time were going to be sexually as free as men.

Alex Sanger: It was stunning when the pill was first approved. Um, the manufacturers almost couldn't make enough.

Linda Gordon, Historian: It was amazing, it was amazing. I think there were a million users in a year and that's just a phenomenal, uh, rate of uptake, especially because you don't have this kind of direct advertising and because it's not an over-the-counter drug.

Dr. Philip Ball, Physcian: It was the fashionable thing to be on the pill. And so rapidly uh, women picked this up all over the country and uh, within a few years half the...half the women that were in the childbearing age were on the pill, so it seemed.

Narrator: As the Pill's popularity grew, so did concern over the social impact of an oral contraceptive.

Elizabeth Siegel Watkins: U.S. News & World Report warned about sexual anarchy. What's so interesting about this coverage is that while, you know, some saw the pill as the decline of western civilization and others saw it just merely shoring up American civilization, there...they shared the idea that...that sex outside of marriage was a bad thing. And whether they thought the pill would contribute to it or not contribute to it, both sides, both conservatives and liberals tended to agree that um, women should not be promiscuous.

Andrea Tone: It was the ultimate double standard, because in the late 1950s condoms were freely available and you didn't see social commentators up in arms about how condoms in the 1950s would increase male promiscuity. So female virtue is held up to a much higher standard.

Narrator: John Rock was also concerned about morality, but he fervently believed the Pill did not conflict with the tenets of his church.

Margaret Marsh: He said, look, he said, this doesn't put a barrier between sperm and egg. All it does is artificially create a safe period. And the Catholic church says it's okay to have intercourse during your safe period. Well, if you take a pill that guarantees you a safe period, what's the difference? And he thought it was a pretty good argument.

Narrator: Rock saw himself as the man capable of changing the Vatican's stance on the Pill. Putting his reputation on the line, in 1963, he published a book called The Time Has Come .

John Rock sync: The...the clerical response to my book has been most gratifying and largely along what...what somebody else called "the Party line," as expressed by Cardinal Cushing.

Margaret Marsh: John Rock became the Pill's chief promoter and chief publicist. He became in the sixties the face of the Pill. I mean you can't open a Good Housekeeping magazine in the 1960s without seeing his face. So John Rock as a Catholic did an enormous amount to encourage women to take the Pill.

Narrator: Catholic women began to pressure the hierarchy to loosen their position on birth control. When the Vatican established a papal commission to study the Pill in 1964, many believed the Church was about to reverse the doctrine it had held for centuries.

Leslie Tentler: The church could change its discipline, for example, on eating meat on Friday. And you know, you might, if you were a Midwesterner and you couldn't get fresh fish in the 50s, you might be annoyed at all the tuna fish casserole you'd had to consume, but it hadn't fundamentally changed your life. But if you had struggled with the teaching on contraception, then to have the church change its position is something with many more potential consequences.

Narrator: By 1965, more than six million women were taking the Pill. American society was beginning to change.

Anita Fream: It changed from nice girls don't do it to...well, you know what, nice girls are questioning a lot of things about what nice girls do and don't do. And that was a huge awakening. I really felt as though I could have it all. You know, I could be a sexual being, I could be a nice girl. I could be a girl with a future.

Linda Gordon: You began to expect something that would be one hundred percent reliable. And what that meant was really a change toward what people in the business call a contraceptive mentality. A mentality that it is absolutely to be expected that people plan their reproductive lives.

Loretta McLaughlin: Women became lawyers because law firms no longer had to worry that the woman was going to get pregnant in the middle of a big case. Women became doctors because they could space their children so that they had time to do the internships and the residencies. Women went to work.

Joan McCracken: When women started doing this, it was just like: "Wow." It was truly a wow. How do they have enough courage? And they don't seem to be concerned whether they have a guy or not. They don't seem to be concerned whether they have an MRS degree or not. And it was revolutionary to me. Me with the five children.

Narrator: But for all the enthusiasm sweeping the country, one group viewed the Pill with great suspicion.

Dorothy Roberts, Legal Scholar: At that time there were concerns in the black community that family planning, especially family planning clinics dominated by whites, were a form of racial genocide. In fact sterilization abuse was so rampant in the South that blacks called it a "Mississippi appendectomy." And so it was commonly known that black women were being pressured into sterilization or even sterilized without their knowledge. And when the Pill came out this history meant that black people had to see it as a possible means of control.

Narrator: One African American newspaper asked, "Why couldn't blacks get basic health care like a free aspirin, but can get a truck load of birth control pills for free?"

Militant Black Power groups declared birth control the equivalent of "Black Genocide" and implored black women to throw away their pills.

Dorothy Roberts: Black women did respond by saying that they understood the reasons for their concerns, but that black women had to make these decisions for themselves. And in the end, black women decided to use the pill in equal numbers as whites.

Title Card: Of Human Life...

Narrator: In the autumn of 1966, Margaret Sanger died at the age of 87. She had lived long enough to see her dream fulfilled, and her despised Comstock laws overturned. Her scientist, Gregory Pincus, died a year later from over-exposure to toxic chemicals in the lab. Her angel, Katharine McCormick, would die next at 92. Only her Catholic doctor, John Rock, would live to see the Pill's full impact on American society.

Trailer of Prudence & the Pill:


"Mother! Really!"

Film Narrator: For a modern look at sex, take... [Cut to Title Card for film: Prudence & the Pill]

NarratorOnly a generation earlier, birth control had been unmentionable in public. In 1968, the Pill was the star of a Hollywood film.


Film Narrator: Of all the mean, vile, deceitful, treacherous, sneaky tricks...someone switched the pills with the aspirins.

Maid: Aahhh!

Narrator: Social commentators called it a "sexual revolution."

Dr. Richard Hauskenecht: Here was a tool that permitted sexual expression that simply hadn't occurred ever before, except in very small communities of "bohemians.""

Leslie Tentler: Of course, this was the golden age, when venereal disease was assumed to be, to be conquered ... and no one had ever heard of AIDS. Ah, but I think some of that bravado -- maybe much of that bravado -- was linked to the Pill and this confidence that nothing could go wrong.

Narrator: On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical called Humane Vitae -- Of Human Life -- the church's final pronouncement on the Pill.

Loretta McLaughlin: The answer from Paul VI is no. Not only no, but absolutely no. Reaffirming the absolute prohibition against any, quote, "artificial," unquote, form of contraception.

Leslie Tentler: Humanae Vitae actually speaks of marriage in lyrical terms.

It's a view of sex that respects the human person, that sees the context in which sex occurs as crucial, which regards love as an absolute essential part of sexual expression. But of course it confines sex to marriage, and it does continue this absolutely essential link to procreation.

Narrator: Rock could barely contain his disappointment with the Vatican's decision. "The hierarchy has made a terrible mistake," was all he could say.

Loretta McLaughlin: John Rock is devastated. John Rock finds it hard, really, very hard to believe that his church could act what he saw as so unwisely. John is now moving into his eighties. He really knows that there's not going to be another battle.

Narrator: John Rock would grow distant from his Church. He died in 1984, at the age of 94. In the wake if the encyclical, millions of Catholic women would defy Church teaching on contraception, using the pill in equal numbers as non-Catholics.

By the late 1960s, thousands of women were complaining to their physicians about side effects -- the same problems discounted by Pincus and Rock in Puerto Rico.

Anita Fream: I began to have cluster migraines, really, really evil headaches. And I asked my physician on a couple of occasions to take me off the Pill and to start, you know, help me get some other type of birth control going. And I allowed him to talk me out of it on both occasions...

Barbara Seaman, Journalist: The motto was, "Don't worry your pretty little head about it," to the female patient. "Let doctor do the worrying for you."

Dr. Richard Hauskenecht : That was at a time when...when a male gynecologist dominated women patients without question. We were father figures. We were taught to be father figures. We were taught never to be questioned. Our judgment about all matters reproductive were never to be questioned.

Narrator: Doctors were relying on the drug companies and the FDA for information, and both had given assurances that the Pill was safe.

Philip Ball, Journalist: The doctor was blind, the patient was blind and the doctor was deaf and dumb too. You had fifteen million women that weren't ill to start with, and you gave them a pill and now they were ill. Not all of them, but some of them. And that was a new ball game.

Narrator: Earlier, during the Puerto Rico study three women had died while participating in the trial. They were never autopsied, and the cause of death remained unknown. Now grim news began to filter through the medical community -- the Pill could kill.

Anita Fream: I got up one morning to go to work and I was having one of these headaches. Except this time I had kind of a strange black film over my vision in my right eye and just was terribly ill. I can't even...I cannot describe the feeling, it was like a wave of fear, I guess, that kind of washed up over me.

The nurses took my blood pressure at which point everyone's attitude changed. And you know when you see medical people react like that to you, they go from casual to get the doctor now and everybody's running around looking kind of freaked out, um, it makes an impression. Uh, the upshot was they were guessing that I was having a stroke. That was in fact the diagnosis.

Joan McCracken: I remember reading about that some woman died. They had a stroke. But I wanted to believe so much that it wasn't the birth control pill, that it was like, they probably did something else. You know, it couldn't have just been the birth control pill. Because I still believed they would not give you something that harmed you.

Narrator: In 1969, a hard-hitting expose would shake the medical community out of its complacency.

Barbara Seaman: We, we were snookered. We were told that we were given this wonderful gift by modern science, that would make our lives so much better. But there was a very dark side. And the dark side was concealed and denied. It was denied. And a lot of healthy young women died or were left crippled. We can't ignore that.

Narrator: Seaman's book caught the attention of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, who moved rapidly to set up hearings.

In January 1970, experts were summoned to Washington -- only men were invited to testify.

Philip Ball Here was I, old Phil Ball, just a plain old doctor from Muncie, Indiana and we go to the nation's capital...and there we go to the hearings, find our way to this Senate room and it was an enormous room full of people. And I simply told them that I was in practice and that I was suddenly afflicted with all these young women taking the pill that had all these problems.

Senate Hearings:

Philip Ball sync: Even though I have not prescribed the medication in some years, a procession of symptomatically unhappy women taking birth control pills continues to flow into my office.

Philip Ball: Mind you this, the dose of the pill in those days was ten times what it is now. It was a huge blockbuster pill. They used a sledgehammer to, to drive a small nail you know. It was, it was an unnecessary dose.

Narrator: Sitting in the Senate chamber that day was a group of young feminists who themselves had taken the Pill.

Alice Wolfson: We began to hear researcher after researcher -- male after male -- start saying things about the pill. And then one doctor, I believe, said, "Fertilizer is to wheat what estrogen is to cancer." And I think at that point we practically dropped dead, we were so shocked.

Pill Hearings:

Alice Wolfson sync: Why had you assured the drug companies that they could testify? Why have you told them that they could get top priority? They're not taking the pills, we are!

Alice Wolfson sync: Who is going to pay the medical bills when a woman develops cancer of the breast and cancer of the uterus?

Alice Wolfson: And -- and it just -- just all seemed so outrageous to us that we were not given any information when we were given the Pill. It was literally handed out like candy.

Alice Wolfson sync: We are not just going to sit quietly any longer. You are murdering us for your profit and convenience!

Senator Nelson sync: We are not going to permit the, uh, proceedings to be interrupted in this way... If you ladies would, ah...sit down...

Feminist protestor sync: Our lives have been disrupted by taking this Pill.

Senator Nelson sync: We're conducting...

Alice Wolfson sync: I don't think the hearings are any more important than our lives.

Feminist protestor sync: Senator Nelson, can we have some solid answers for our questions, or not? Why did you do this? This is a really unfair trick. Why did you do this? Why didn't you answer our questions?

Alice Wolfson: Well, first they ignored us. But then all the television cameras turned to us. And once we saw the television cameras, we asked more questions. And they adjourned the hearings.

Senator Nelson sync: Ah, will everybody please leave the room? Press and everyone else.

Narrator: The young women had captured the national spotlight.

Alice Wolfson sync: It must be admitted that women make superb guinea pigs. They don't cost anything, they feed themselves, they clean their own cages, pay for their own pills, and remunerate the clinical observer. We will no longer tolerate intimidation by white-coated gods antiseptically directing our lives.

Barbara Seaman: They came back day after day, and that became the story: the, the disruptions at the hearing. It was -- It was the Boston Tea Party of the women's health movement. What came out of the hearings was for women to have much more control over our own bodies.

Narrator: As a result of the protests, hormone levels in the Pill were slashed, greatly diminishing the occurrence of side effects. Manufacturers were required to include information in every package listing potential risks. And women demanded a new kind of relationship with their doctors.

Dr. Richard Hauskenecht The bad patient, she'd walk in pregnant with the husband and here are my demands. That was a phenomenon of the seventies. "I won't have this, I will have that, I won't have this." And they got this from the same medical-political activists that I was. And it was terrifying to me to hear myself give a lecture to a lay group about why they shouldn't let doctors do all of these things to them and know those same damn patients came back to my office and made those demands of me and it used to upset the hell out of me.

Narrator: The Pill would help launch a generation of activists, not only in the doctor's office, but in the streets, in the bedroom, in society.

Loretta McLaughlin: The Pill did more for the equality of women than any other single factor, certainly, in the twentieth century.

Sylvia Clark: Women began to see themselves for the first time in all of history as economically self-sustainable units. And that I think was one of the most profound changes.

Andrea Tone: It's an estimated eighty percent of all American women born since 1945 have taken the Pill. You cannot understand modern women's history without thinking about the what the Pill did for women and also what the Pill did to women.