A Brief History Of “The Pill”

Few things are as amazing as the miracle of life, but not every woman wants to or is ready to bear a child. Throughout history, men and women have used a variety of methods to avoid pregnancy but the development of contraceptives commonly known as “the pill” didn’t start until the mid-1900s. Modern women have access to safer, more reliable birth control methods than ever before.

When it comes to practicing safe sex and avoiding unwanted pregnancy, it’s important to know your options. Read on to learn the history of modern birth control methods and talk to your doctor about choosing the option that’s right for you.

Why is Access to Birth Control Important?

Throughout history, women have struggled to gain equal rights in society and in the workplace. Many cultures continue to perceive the home as a woman’s proper place, but modern women are taking hold of the power to decide for themselves when it comes to starting a family.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. names family planning, including access to modern contraception, one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

It is estimated that for every $1 invested in family planning programs, state and federal governments save over $7, partially by reducing unplanned pregnancies through publicly supported contraception. Birth control has become a key driver in women’s economic advancement and has played a role in narrowing the wage gap between men and women.

Access to birth control is also an influential factor in enabling women to enroll in and stay in college – it has also led to more college-educated women pursuing advanced professional degrees.1

Not only can access to birth control improve a woman’s ability to choose her own future, but it benefits children as well.

Federally funded family planning programs have been associated with significant reductions in both child poverty rates and poverty in adulthood.2 Family planning can reduce unwanted and teen pregnancies, can save women and families money, and can improve the chances of children brought intentionally into the world experiencing a better life.3

Exploring the History of “The Pill”

Prior to the development of modern birth control methods, men and women relied on abstinence or withdrawal to prevent pregnancy. Condoms made from materials like fish bladders and animal intestines were developed around 3000 BC and the first spermicides were introduced around 1500 BC. Rubber condoms weren’t developed until 1838.

In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, after which she was jailed for 30 days under a sentence of “maintaining a public nuisance.” Over twenty years later in 1938, a judge heard a case involving Margaret Sanger and lifted the federal ban on birth control.

Diaphragms became a popular method of birth control in the late 1930s and, around that time, the effects of progesterone on ovulation were discovered. Russel Marker is credited with creating synthetic progesterone in 1940 and Luis Miramontes was the first to synthesize progestin, a form of progesterone. Enovid, the first oral contraceptive, was released in 1957 for off-label use but wasn’t approved by the FDA until 1960. Shortly after, it came to be known as “the pill.”

In 1965, the Supreme Court granted married couples the right to use birth control, though unmarried women in many states were still denied until a later ruling in 1972. Low-dose hormone oral contraceptives were introduced in the 1980s along with ParaGard, the copper IUD.

Norplant became the first contraceptive implant in the 1990s and, during the same period, injectable DepoProvera and the emergency contraceptive Plan B were released. New IUDs along with Ortho Evra, a hormonal patch, and Nuvaring, a vaginal ring, weren’t released until the 2000s.

Even as new options for birth control became available, many were removed from the market due to side effects. Sale of the Dalkon Shield IUD, for example, was suspended by the FDA in 1974 due to infection and seven documented deaths. Though other IUDs weren’t implicated, many were removed from the market due to escalating costs of associated lawsuits.

Though birth control options expanded greatly during the 1980s and 90s, access to these products was inconsistent until 1998 when a contraceptive coverage requirement was added to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan. Twenty-eight states adopted similar contraceptive equity laws which required health plans to provide coverage for contraceptives.

In 2015, the Affordable Care Act mandated that health plans must provide at least one option from each of the 18 FDA-approved birth control categories at no out-of-pocket cost to plan beneficiaries.

In 2017, the Trump administration issued a ruling allowing insurers and employers to exercise their religious freedom by denying birth control coverage. On May 6th, 2020, oral arguments were made before the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge this mandate, but so far, no official ruling has been issued.

Modern Birth Control Options

Today, options for birth control are more diverse than ever. In addition to short-acting hormone methods like the pill, women can choose from long-term methods such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and contraceptive implants.

Tubal ligation as a method of permanent sterilization is becoming more accessible to women who want it and improved fertility awareness methods make it easier for women who choose not to use birth control or who prefer barrier methods like condoms to avoid pregnancy.

Not only do modern women have more birth control options to choose from than ever before, but they are becoming increasingly more accessible. Birth control pills still require a prescription, but many wellness companies have started to offer online prescriptions with affordable prices for people who don’t have insurance. Free and low-cost birth control is also available through many local health clinics and Planned Parenthood health centers.

A woman has the right to choose what happens to her body, especially when it comes to carrying a child. If you’re not ready to have a child or have chosen not to, talk to your doctor about contraceptives to determine which option is right for you.


1. https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/fight-for-birth-control/facts/4-reasons-why-birth-control-badass

2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4206087/

3. https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/family-planning