new on television: a look at the pill that changed the world

It’s hard to imagine a time when American women didn’t have the option to plan their reproductive lives. Just 50 years ago, however, contraceptive devices were illegal in many states, and a revolution was brewing: A pill was being developed that would change women’s lives forever.

“The Pill,” a new documentary in PBS’s American Experience series, recounts the fascinating history of the birth-control drug and its wide-ranging effects on American society. Not only do you get the history of its clinical development, but the film also examines the issue of birth control in terms of religion (especially within the Catholic church), race (some African-Americans believed it was part of a plan to commit racial genocide), feminism (journalist Loretta McLaughlin says the Pill did more for the equality of women than any other single factor in the 20th century), and finally, in terms of women’s health. For a program that’s only an hour long, it’s amazing how much background and information is crammed in, while still being clear and understandable.

The program features interviews with historians, public health officials, journalists, and political activists, as well as women who came of age in the 1950s. At that time, most women were married by age 19, and more than half were pregnant within the first seven months of marriage. Women attended college to earn their MRS degree, and their roles were rigidly defined: Archival footage of a Mrs. America contest shows women competing in mopping, potato-peeling, and diaper-changing.

Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger was the prime mover behind the development of the Pill. She believed that women needed to be able to control their own reproduction before they could be truly liberated. Sanger’s grandson relates how Margaret Sanger’s own mother was pregnant 18 times, had 11 children and seven miscarriages, and was dead at 49 – not an uncommon fate for an American woman 100 years ago.

At age 71, Sanger finally found a scientist who was willing to help her realize her dream of a contraceptive pill: Gregory Pincus, a Harvard-trained reproductive physiologist. And with the financial support of 78-year-old heiress Katharine McCormick, a friend from Sanger’s suffragette days, her dream started to become a reality.

Pincus found that he could stop ovulation with doses of the hormone progesterone. He enlisted John Rock, a renowned gynecologist and a devout Catholic, to help with the human trials, and with the backing of pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle, the first contraceptive pill was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1960.

The drug was an instant hit. By 1965, more than 6 million women were on the Pill. It was the first time in history that a drug that had nothing to do with fighting illness was being taken by healthy people, and often for years at a time. The documentary also chronicles the dangerous and sometimes deadly side effects of the first high-dosage pills, which led to televised hearings on Capitol Hill. The hearings, where only men were asked to testify, were disrupted by women activists, who demanded to know why women weren’t being told of the risks involved. The resulting publicity helped fuel the women’s health movement, as women took control of their own bodies and started asking hard questions of their “all-knowing” male doctors.

The Pill allowed women to be as sexually free as men, but more importantly, it allowed them to plan their own reproductive lives. Women could now make long-term plans for school and for work, they could become lawyers, doctors, or just about anything they wanted. As Sylvia Clark, one of the women interviewed for the program, says, women began to see themselves as “economically self-sustainable units.” It was a profound change for America.

“We cannot understand modern women’s history,” says historian Andrea Tone, “without thinking about what the Pill did for women and also what the Pill did to women.” This program helps us think about both, and shows us how a tiny pill caused a social revolution.

This review appeared in the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 2/18/2003.
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