Oral contraceptives, or birth control pills, changed the world we live in, freeing women to make their own sexual choices. Earlier barrier methods were often ineffective and cumbersome. While the modern pill is somewhat different than its earliest incarnation, it remains one of the most effective and popular methods of contraception on the market.
While active scientific work on birth control options and contraceptives began in the middle of the 19th century with a growing understanding of hormones and ovulation, it took more than a hundred years for the development of the birth control pill. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, first envisioned a magic pill in the teens, but it was only in the early 1950s that she diligently began to fund and support research into a birth control pill.
Between 1951 and 1953, scientists discovered that synthetic progesterone inhibited ovulation in lab animals. While major pharmaceutical companies had no interest in researching contraception, scientist Gregory Pincus, working with the support of Sanger and birth control supporter Katherine McCormick, saw the potential. By 1954, Pincus and Massachusetts physician Dr. John Rock were testing oral contraceptives on a small number of women.
The earliest birth control pills were a 10 mg dose of synthetic, orally available progesterone. These pills were taken for 21 days, then 7 days of filler pills were taken before a new pack began. The 7 days off preserved a natural menstrual cycle, less for medical necessity and more to make this new option seem natural and healthy. Early birth control pills came with substantial side effects, including blurred vision, nausea, bloating, weight gain and even blood clots and strokes.
While the earliest attempts at birth control pills relied only on progesterone, accidental contamination of a batch of pills with synthetic estrogen produced fewer side effects. Today, combination birth control pills using both estrogen and progesterone remain the most common choice. A very high dose of hormones was chosen for the first contraceptive pill, Enovid, to create the lowest possible failure rate. Initially, the pill was FDA approved for menstrual difficulties. Lower doses entered the market in the mid-1960s, reducing some of the risks of dangerous side effects.
The birth control pill offered women a new control over their own fertility. Effective contraception enabled women to avoid pregnancy, space children more appropriately and engage in sexual activity with a much lower risk of consequences. Birth control pills also allowed for spontaneous sexual activity without the inconvenience of a diaphragm.