Wednesday, October 12, 2016
October 12, 2016: Birth Control in America: The Pill
[On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in New York City. So this week, on the 100th anniversary of that moment, I’ll AmericanStudy Sanger and other histories and images connected to this still-controversial subject, leading up a special weekend post highlighting a great scholarly book on the topic!]
How the history of the combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP) echoes my first two posts in this series, and one way it differs.
1) Sanger’s role: Margaret Sanger, subject of Monday’s post and the inspiration for this series, remained active and prominent in the birth control movement right up until her death in 1966. At a 1951 Manhattan dinner hosted by Planned Parenthood Vice President Abraham Stone, Sanger met Gregory Pincus, a reproductive physiologist at Harvard University and the co-founder of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology (WFEB). Pincus and his fellow researchers had met with numerous roadblocks in their efforts to research hormonal contraceptives, but with the support of Sanger and especially her friend Katharine Dexter McCormick, a longtime feminist activist and philanthropist, the work finally began to move forward. McCormick helped bring another Harvard researcher, Professor of Gynecology John Rock, into that work as well, and over the next few years Pincus and Rock (and many other collaborating researchers) developed the prototypes for COCP.
2) The Pill and Women’s Choices: It’s not the slightest bit of an overstatement to say that when the pill finally arrived in America in the early 1960s (delayed by both scientific and political issues) it completely and permanently changed the issues of sexuality, reproduction, and control about which I wrote in Tuesday’s post. It didn’t do so without a number of further controversies and battles, however, from medical debates over the pill’s potential side effects to religious and political efforts to limit the pill’s availability. Indeed, it was not until the Supreme Court’s decision in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) that married woman in all fifty states had access to prescriptions for the pill and other such contraceptives; and not until 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird that unmarried women in all states did. The following year’s decision in Roe v. Wade is, as I wrote on Tuesday, generally the focus of debates over women’s bodies and the law—but to my mind it’s the multi-decade history of the pill that truly reflects the contentious and vital evolution of those issues throughout the 20th century.
3) Cultural Prominence: While birth control had thus certainly played a role in American culture and society since at least Sanger’s first clinic, I would argue that the pill came to occupy a far more prominent and widespread place than had any prior item or issue in that longstanding history. The Senate held hearings on the pill in 1970, which culminated (among other results) in Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Robert Finch adding a warning statement to all subsequent sales. Even more tellingly, country music superstar Loretta Lynn released a controversial song titled “The Pill” on her 1975 album Back to the Country, a text about the pill’s effects on women, marriage, and society that truly indicates how broadly and deeply the pill had permeated American culture. While of course Roe v. Wade would help catapult abortion into an even more prominent place in these evolving conversations and debates, it seems to me that it was the pill which set the stage for the abortion debate—and revising our narratives accordingly would also change our contemporary conversations about these issues.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or images you’d highlight?