The Pill Turns 50

It's been 50 years since the Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill for sale in the United States. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Time magazine's Nancy Gibbs about her article "The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox."

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Fifty years ago today, the Food and Drug Administration approved a medicine for sale that was meant to be taken by people who are not sick, and it has been called the most important scientific advance of the 20th century. The birth control pill, known today as the pill, changed social behavior, transformed the lives of women, and revolutionized family planning.

Nancy Gibbs is the executive editor at Time magazine. Her article, titled "The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox," appears in this past week's issue. She joins us from Time magazines studio in New York City. Welcome to the program.

Ms. NANCY GIBBS (Executive Editor, Time Magazine): Nice to be here.

HANSEN: Before we talk about the pill, tell us a little bit about Margaret Sanger, who at the beginning of the 20th century, ended up becoming the driving force behind the birth control movement.

Ms. GIBBS: She is a fascinating character. She was the daughter of Catholic parents, and she thought that the fact that her mother had 18 pregnancies during her lifetime - 11 children - contributed to her death at the age of 50. And she really made it her mission in life to find a way to give women more control over their fertility. As early as 1912, she was talking about the need for some magic pill that would improve contraception, make it more reliable and available.

And remember, this is at a time when it was illegal to even distribute information about birth control. She was, you know, arrested when she would try to open the first birth control clinics in this country. So, she was a crusader throughout the 20th century, and it was really her work as much as anything that drove the development of the pill.

HANSEN: How popular was it when it was introduced in 1960?

Ms. GIBBS: On the one hand, it was very rapidly adopted by women. There really was an enormous demand for a form of contraception that was so much more convenient, more reliable, less intrusive. And yet at the same time, in those early years, contraception was still illegal in many states.

And one of the great, I think, and most interesting myths that has surrounded the birth control pill is that somehow it's approved in 1960 and the next thing you know, the sexual revolution is upon us. You have sex and the single girl, you have the Summer of Love, you have these enormous changes in sexual behavior in the 1960s. And what that sort of ignores is that throughout that decade, you pretty much had to be married to get a prescription for the birth control pill. Even Planned Parenthood clinics would not prescribe it to single women.

HANSEN: So, how did the pill change the lives of women?

Ms. GIBBS: Well, this is where it gets very interesting. Women were much more likely to sort of invest in themselves - to invest in their education, to invest in college or in graduate school - if they did not have to worry that an unintended pregnancy might derail all of these plans. It became much harder for employers to discriminate against women on the grounds that, well, she might just get pregnant and drop out of the workforce, so why should we invest in training her?

The availability of a much more reliable and effective and convenient form of contraception did create very dramatic social changes. When the pill was introduced, the average American woman had 3.6 children in 1960. By 1980, that had fallen below two.

HANSEN: What about the health concerns, though, because there still seem to be some, even thought the pill that is around today is a lower dose than it was when it was first introduced?

Ms. GIBBS: You know, I don't think there is any other medicine that has been the subject of as many lawsuits, and the subject of as much clinical testing, as the birth control pill. An enormous study of the pill - 46,000 women over 40 years - was released showing, again, that it was not implicated in causing premature deaths from cancer or heart disease. But there is still real question in women's minds - and every survey reveals this - about its safety for long-term use. And it's almost as though no amount of research is going to allay those concerns.

HANSEN: There was a study done, actually, by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and 63 percent of the young women were saying they knew little or nothing about birth control pills. And there was also a perception that minorities thought that the pill was a way to control the population of African-Americans and Hispanics.

Ms. GIBBS: That was true at the time of its introduction, and it remains true in interesting and significant numbers today, a concern that there's a genocidal agenda behind the promotion of the birth control pill in minority communities, and that this was somehow designed to prevent reproduction among minorities. And this is something that - pollsters find - continues to be a perception and a concern among African-Americans, among Hispanics.

HANSEN: Do you think the pill will still be around in 50 years?

Ms. GIBBS: It would be nice to think that progress and science and research continues to find, you know, an even safer, even more reliable, even more convenient, even less expensive form of contraception. There has, you know, always been rumors of the arrival one day of a male birth control pill or a shot. But I suspect that this is one, because of the cost of the research and the number of human clinical trials that are required to approve a new form of contraception, that it is going to be a long time coming.

HANSEN: Nancy Gibbs is executive editor at Time magazine. And her article, The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox, appears in this past week's issue of Time magazine. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. GIBBS: Thank you, Liane.

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