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Four Decades of the Birth Control Pill

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WebMD Health News

May 8, 2000 -- It was in 1960, the cusp of the women's movement and the sexual revolution, when "the pill" was given formal blessing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. On May 9, the birth control pill celebrates its 40th birthday. During those four decades, experts say, the pill has been a revolutionary force in the lives of many baby boomer women -- and now, their daughters. And its best years may still be ahead.

In 1962, Gloria Feldt was one of the first to try oral contraceptives; today, she is president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"I'd had three children in a four-year period. I was 20 years old. The pill saved my life ... and my sanity," she says, laughing. "I took those pills instantly with very little question of their safety.

"The pill was the most socially significant medical advance of the century for women," Feldt tells WebMD. "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that women's reproductive history has changed more since the advent of the pill than in all of previous history. ... When a woman cannot control her fertility, she has very little control over anything else in her life. .... At last, it was possible for women to control childbearing by taking a pill, safely and very effectively. "

Women were also maturing earlier than ever before, says Feldt. "Biologically, we are different than we were a century ago. The pill came along at exactly the right time. Because of the pill's effectiveness, it allowed women to have many choices in life." And many women accepted it immediately, she remembers. "By the time it had been on the market 10 years, there were already 10 million women taking it. It's continued at about that level ever since."

Still, women have not always completely trusted the pill. In the 1970s, as women began wondering about its long-term effects, many turned to intrauterine devices (IUDs). When problems developed with those, many returned to the easy-to-take, once-a-day contraceptive pill, despite their worries.

This all happened against a backdrop of profound social change. But did the birth-control pill bring about the sexual revolution? No, Feldt says. "To imply that the pill caused the revolution has the emphasis on the wrong syllable," she says. "Most human beings have sexual relationships, and most of the time they don't want to risk pregnancy every time they have sex."

"It certainly gave women more freedom, and that is an advance in social justice that is in keeping with democratic values," Feldt tells WebMD. "Can a woman now feel sufficient power over her reproductive capacity that she can make other life choices for herself, like whether she will or will not stay in a bad relationship? Yes."

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