Katharine McCormick, a philanthropist with a science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bankrolled the work of Gregory Pincus, the man Sanger convinced to develop the pill. "It was my grandmother's idea and Katharine McCormick's money," Alex Sanger said.
Ironically, when health hazards of the early pill arose - high
levels of hormones caused blood clots in some women - young
feminists protested that men had invented it and turned women into
unwitting guinea pigs.
The FDA's response to the hazards of the pill led to greater
access to safety information for patients, another less-appreciated
part of the pill's legacy.
Today's pill, with much lower doses of hormones, is much safer
than the pill of 50 years ago. And it may even be good for you.
"The health benefits are tremendous," said Dr. Melissa
Gilliam, chief of family planning contraceptive research at the
University of Chicago Medical Center. "It decreases the risk of
ovarian cancer and uterine cancer. If we called it 'the
cancer-preventing pill,' it would have far better traction. It's a
real success story."
The pill divided mothers and daughters in its early days.
Married women had clamored for it as soon as it went on the market
- within two years of its approval, more than a million women were
taking it. But that didn't mean they wanted their unmarried
daughters to have it.
"I talk to my daughter about the pill a lot more than I talked
to my mother about the pill," said Jean Elson, 61, a sociologist
and expert on women's health at the University of New Hampshire.
Elson secretly started taking the pill in college in the late 1960s
before she was married. Her mother wouldn't have approved.
"The only conversations about sex I remember with my mother
were 'not to.' I remember warnings about tongue kissing. She didn't
do that until she was engaged," Elson said.
Many parents now discuss birth control with their unmarried
daughters and sons. They also may discuss condoms to prevent
disease, including AIDS. The greatest fear associated with
unprotected sex for young people is no longer pregnancy, it's
serious sexually transmitted disease.
Another change is advertising. Women now in their 20s have seen
ads for the pill nearly their entire lives. The first magazine ads
for the pill ran in 1992. Now TV ads show smiling women liberated
by the ability to limit or even eliminate their menstrual periods.
"The message is your period shouldn't get in the way. It's an
appealing message," said Sarah Forbes, 28, curator of the Museum
of Sex in New York. Her generation takes the pill for many reasons
and they take it for granted.
"We're so used to it being so freely available," Forbes said.
"It's almost impossible to think of a world where we didn't have
access to it."
The pill is so ubiquitous that young women may have trouble
learning about other options. Tone said one doctor said he didn't
remember how to fit a diaphragm, a flexible shield that covers the
cervix. The pill is so highly marketed that other methods, like
implants and IUDs, aren't clearly understood by young women.
"We've got choices, but the information about them isn't always
well balanced," said Judy Norsigian, 62, executive director of Our
Bodies Ourselves, the nonprofit organization that publishes the
long-standing women's health guide of the same name.
Female doctors use IUDs twice as frequently as the general
population of women and many recommend it to their patients.
"The future of birth control is not pills at all," said Dr.
Lisa Perriera, 34, of Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in
"The best birth control is easy to use, highly effective at
preventing pregnancy and has few side effects," Perriera said.
"The methods that fit those criteria best are IUDs and implants. I
think that's where birth control is going."
Others hold out hope for a breakthrough in male-centered birth
control. An oral drug called miglustat worked in mice, but not in
men. Researchers are recruiting men for studies of a hormonal gel
to suppress sperm production.
"The question is will a single company decide to take this to
market, to get FDA clearance, a very expensive undertaking, when
it's hard to predict how commercially viable a male pill would
be," Tone said. As much as women would like men to be equal
partners in preventing pregnancy, "women at the same time feel a
little bit nervous entrusting men to take a pill or be on a
After all these years, a male equivalent to the birth control
pill is still five to seven years away.