The Pill: 50 Years Later

This mother’s day, the pill that promised worry-free sex and total sexual control for women celebrates its 50th birthday.

A world without "the pill" is unimaginable to many young women, and they might be surprised to learn that U.S. officials announcing approval of the world's first oral contraceptive were uncomfortable at the time.

Before the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive on May 9, 1960, the only other birth control options were the diaphragm, condoms, the rhythm method, and in extreme cases, sterilization. Those were the more commonly used methods. More unorthodox solutions included vinegar sponges, olive oil, and even bleach.

Slideshow: The History of Menstruation

The first form of the birth control pill, Enovid, revolutionized contraception and most argue it jump-started the sexual revolution.

Elissa Stein, co-author of “Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation,” told that the pill started the beginning of a long-term cultural experiment.

“Birth control pills gave women control over their bodies in a way that was unimaginable before. Sexual freedom exploded as the fear of pregnancy was wiped away,” she said.

But it had very dangerous side effects, like life-threatening blood clots and heart attacks. When it was first released, the dosage of the pill was unknowingly 10 times higher than it needed to be, and as a result, 11 women died and 100 more suffered from blood clots.

Today, the pill is the most popular form of contraception, with approximately 12 million American women taking it. Eighty percent of women will use the pill at some point during their reproductive years.

In 2008, American women spent over $3.5 billion on birth control pills. The market for the pill is ever thriving — exploding from one pill brand to more than 40 different brands.

Today, we have Yaz, Yasmin, Seasonale, Seasonique and Lybrel — all with slightly different packaging, formulations and selling points. Lybrel is the first pill designed to eliminate menstrual periods entirely, although gynecologists say any generic brand can do the same thing if you skip the placebo and take the active pill every day.

Originally, the pill was intended only for contraception, but has since been proven to cut the risk of uterine and ovarian cancer, make periods lighter, and clear up acne.

“Manageable menstruation and more moderate cycles were added bonuses to millions who chose the chemical path,” Stein said. “It gives women the ability to exert control over her own body, to make the decision whether or not she wants to be pregnant, to regulate her cycles and symptoms.”

The hope in 1960 when the pill was released was that it would allow all pregnancies to be planned. Fifty years later, almost half of all U.S. pregnancies are unintended, and nearly half of those end in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which compiles data on abortions.As soon as the pill went on the market in 1960, married women were clamoring for it. And within two years of its approval, more than a million women were taking it.

Stein said that even though many women had started using oral contraception, that didn’t mean it was socially acceptable yet.

“When the pill first went on sale, it was illegal to practice birth control in some parts of the country. It took a Supreme Court decision in 1965 to strike that down. The court had to take a stand again in 1972, when they declared unmarried woman were entitled to purchase contraceptives,” Stein said.

Another change over the past 50 years is advertising. Women now in their 20s have been exposed to ads for the pill for most of their 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 future of birth control is not pills at all," said Dr. Lisa Perriera, 34, of Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland.

Female doctors use intrauterine devices (IUDs) twice as frequently as the general population of women, and many recommend it to their patients.

"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."

“Fifty years later, the pill has made birth control a significant part of our culture and a far easier conversation to have than it ever had been,” Stein said.

The next step that some are hoping for a breakthrough in: Male 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.

Andrea Tone, a history professor at Montreal's McGill University and author of "Devices and Desires: A History of Contraception in America," said she thinks there is still some social doubt about a male birth control pill.

"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.

After all these years, a male equivalent to the birth control pill is still five to seven years away. Even then, the likelihood is that women will still prefer their forms of contraception.

“Women at the same time feel a little bit nervous entrusting men to take a pill or be on a patch," Tone said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.