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 Post subject: the BC pill turns 50!
PostPosted: Mon May 10, 2010 1:24 pm 

Joined: Mon Feb 05, 2007 11:47 am
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It was the idea of a conservative Catholic who hoped that it would strengthen marriage, combat poverty, generate happiness, eliminate unwanted pregnancy and even deliver world peace.

In the end it achieved none of this. Yet, as the world marked the 50th anniversary of the contraceptive Pill yesterday, there was no doubt that it had changed society, giving women the opportunity for economic independence and opening up careers that their mothers could not have dreamt of.

Since the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the prescription drug Enovid for contraceptive use in 1960 the Pill has been the leading method of birth control, used by more than 100 million women around the world.

“In the late 1960s the median age of marriage was 23. In the next seven years it went up to almost 26. That’s enough time to enable a woman to get that law degree or MBA or complete her medical training, safe in the knowledge that pregnancy is not going to derail her career,” Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University, said. “Employers and college admissions officers changed their views of what women were capable of.”

After the Pill’s introduction the educational attainment of women in the workforce rose substantially. In 2008 36 per cent of working women in the US held degrees, compared with 11 per cent in 1970. Only 7 per cent of women were high school dropouts in 2008, down from 34 per cent in 1970.

More than half of college graduates (57 per cent) in the US are now women and the proportion of wives earning more than their husbands now stands at 26 per cent.

The immediate success of the Pill surprised almost everybody involved in its creation. “The Pill was approved in the mid-1950s for treatment of infertility and menstrual problems but doctors and women both understood that it stopped ovulation,” said Elaine Tyler May, a historian at the University of Minnesota. “The instant it became available half a million women rushed to their doctors claiming they had menstrual irregularity.”

By 1964 6.5 million American women were taking the Pill, but it was another decade before birth control campaigners managed to overturn laws in many states banning the distribution of contraceptives to women.

The Pill was the idea of Margaret Sanger, a Catholic nurse who opened America’s first birth control clinic in 1916. In 1950, with funding from the philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick, Ms Sanger began backing research for an oral contraceptive made from progesterone and oestrogen. Initial clinical trials were conducted by a Catholic gynaecologist, John Rock, who later argued — unsuccessfully — that the Catholic Church should accept the Pill as a natural extension of the rhythm method.

Today the clinical trials would not be considered acceptable. Before the FDA approved the Pill 221 women in Puerto Rico had taken it in two clinical trials. In Britain the Pill was approved in 1961 after the British Family Planning Association conducted its own trials.

Enovid was an imperfect drug and, within a year, there was the first published case of a pulmonary embolism — a blood clot in the lung — in a woman using it. It took almost a decade of research to establish conclusively the risks of clots and strokes among users. Today’s Pill, using much lower doses of hormones, is considered much safer, although it is not entirely risk-free.

Despite its achievements the Pill has not saved marriage and reduced divorce by preventing unwanted pregnancies, as pioneers such as Dr Rock envisaged. Nor has it reduced poverty.

Professor May said: “Pretty much everything that people thought would happen didn’t happen and most of the things that did happen were not what people expected.”

For Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the battles unleashed by the Pill’s arrival are not yet over. The challenge is to improve access to and affordability of the Pill.

“It has only been in the last ten years in the US that insurance companies have covered birth control,” she said. In the past five years Planned Parenthood has campaigned against pharmacists who have refused to fulfil Pill prescriptions on moral or religious grounds. “There are still people in this country who think that women should not have sex for anything other than procreation,” she said

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