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The oral contraceptive pill

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The oral contraceptive pill, better known as ‘the pill’, has been described as one of the most significant medical advances of the 20th century. It is one of the most popular forms of contraception and is also said to have had the greatest social impact. It is seen as having played a leading role in the emergence of the women’s liberation movement as well as enabling greater sexual freedom in society. However, it has prompted health scares and moral debate.

The practical origins of the pill lie in the 1930s. Scientists observed that certain naturally produced steroid hormones such as oestrogens and progesterone inhibit ovulation. A hormone-based contraceptive was possible if such compounds could be produced artificially. Leading birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger was the impetus for this research. From 1951 she helped the progressive funding of an ultimately successful project headed by physiologist Gregory Pincus.

Enovid, the first contraceptive pill, was approved for release in 1960. It was already available for other disorders, but was now marketed for contraceptive use. It was the first of many. Enovid was instantly popular, and within two years was being used by over 1 million women in America alone. The pill has since been dogged by health scares, including increased rates of heart disease associated with high doses of hormones. Such scares prompted changes in the combinations and dosages of the synthetic hormones involved. The pill now exists in over 30 different forms and is taken by over 100 million women worldwide.

Bibliography

L Marks, Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2001)

B Asbell, The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World (New York: Random House, 1995)

Glossary:

Hormone

A substance produced in one part of the body which passes into the bloodstream and is then carried to other (distant) organs or tissues, where it acts to modify their structure or function

Oestrogen

A female hormone. Oestrogen is first produced by a girl at puberty. It regulates the menstrual cycle and prepares the uterus for pregnancy. Oestrogen is present in males, but in very low levels.

Physiology

The science of the functioning of living organisms and their component parts.