CHICAGO – A world without “the pill” is unimaginable to many young women who now use it to treat acne, skip periods, improve mood and, of course, prevent pregnancy. They might be surprised to learn that U.S. officials announcing approval of the world’s first oral contraceptive were uncomfortable.

“Our own ideas of morality had nothing to do with the case,” said the Food and Drug Administration’s John Harvey in 1960.

The pill was safe, in other words. Don’t blame us if you think it’s wicked.

Sunday, Mother’s Day, is the 50th anniversary of that provocative announcement, which introduced to the world what is now widely acknowledged as one of the most important inventions of the last century.

The pill gave women more control over their fertility than they’d ever had before, and it put doctors — who hadn’t seen contraceptives as part of their job — in the birth control picture.

But some things haven’t changed. Now as then, a male birth control pill is still on the drawing board.

“There’s a joke in this field that a male pill is always five to seven years away from the market,” said Andrea Tone, a history professor at Montreal’s McGill University and author of “Devices and Desires: A History of Contraception in America.”

The pill is America’s favorite form of reversible birth control. (Sterilization leads overall.) Nearly a third of women who want to prevent unwanted pregnancies use it. “In 2008, Americans spent more than $3.5 billion on birth control pills,” Tone said.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Ashley Montagu thought the pill was as important as the discovery of fire. Turns out it wasn’t the answer to overpopulation, war and poverty, as some of its early advocates had hoped. Nor did it universally save marriages.

“Married couples could have happier sex with more freedom and less fear. The divorce rate might go down, and there would be no more unwanted pregnancies,” said Elaine Tyler May, 62, a University of Minnesota history professor and author of “America and the Pill.”

“None of those things happened, not the optimistic hopes or the pessimistic fears of sexual anarchy,” she said.

And it didn’t eliminate all unwanted pregnancies, either. Nearly half of all pregnancies to U.S. women are unintended, and nearly half of those end in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which has gathered data on abortions for years.

The pill is often associated with the women’s movement of the 1970s. But the two feminists behind the pill, the ones who provided the intellectual spark and the financial backing, were born a century earlier.

As suffragists worked for the vote, renowned birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger distributed pamphlets with contraceptive advice and dreamed of a magic pill to prevent pregnancy.

Alex Sanger, 62, now chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, remembers playing catch as a boy with his famous grandmother.

“My grandmother had the idea for the pill back in 1912 when she was working on the Lower East Side of New York,” he said. “She saw women resorting to back-alley, illegal abortions. One too many of these women died in her arms, and she said, ‘Enough.’“

Katharine McCormick, a philanthropist with a biology 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 the health hazards of the early pill became known — 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 pill’s hazards led to greater access to safety information for patients.

Today’s pill, with much lower doses of hormones, is much safer than the pill of 1960. And it may even be good for you.

“It decreases the risk of ovarian cancer and uterine cancer,” said Dr. Melissa Gilliam, 44, chief of family planning contraceptive research at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “If we called it ‘the cancer-preventing pill,’ it would have far better traction.”

Married women clamored for the pill as soon as it went on the market — within two years of its approval, more than 1 million women were taking it. But that didn’t mean they wanted their unmarried daughters to have it.

Jean Elson, 61, a sociologist and expert on women’s health at the University of New Hampshire, secretly started taking the pill in college in the late 1960s before she was married. Her mother wouldn’t have approved.

“I remember warnings about tongue kissing. She didn’t do that until she was engaged,” Elson said.

The greatest fear associated with unprotected sex for young people is no longer pregnancy — it’s serious sexually transmitted disease, such as AIDS.

And 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,’” 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. In fact, the pill is so ubiquitous that young women may have trouble learning about other options.

Female doctors use the IUD twice as frequently as the general population of women. Many recommend it to their patients.

“The future of birth control is not pills at all,” said Dr. Lisa Perriera of Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.

“The best birth control is easy to use, highly effective at preventing pregnancy and has few side effects,” said Perriera, 34. “The methods that fit those criteria best are IUDs and implants. I think that’s where birth control is going.”


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