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Happy Mother’s Day/Pill’s 50th Anniversary

May 9, 2010

Today is an important day of remembrance for women worldwide. On the second Sunday of May, we in the United States as well as those in approximately ninety other countries, including Italy, Ethiopia, Brazil, Australia, Singapore and Venezuela, celebrate our mothers and the gift of motherhood. If we are lucky enough to be in the same city as our mothers, we may take them out to brunch or cook them a nice dinner, go to a movie with them or for a hike. Those of us less fortunate have to settle for sending a gift, a card or making a phone call. And for those of us whose mother has passed, we might spend the day reminiscing, either alone or with family and friends, whichever way feels right. Today is also important for a tangential but related reason. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the pill. On May 9th, 1960, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the first birth control pill for the market. Since then, management of one’s own fertility and reproduction has been much easier, safer and carefree.

The pill has allowed women to not only decide if they want to have children but also when they do. This opportunity, in conjunction with Title IX, lead a steady rise of women in the United States attending graduate school and pursuing careers outside of the home. While many women would go on to have children, they could wait until after graduating from graduate school or securing a long-term position to get pregnant, and thus have the means and resources to both raise children and have a career, should they so desire. According to Nancy Gibb’s extensive study on the subject in TIME, “By the 1970s the true impact of the Pill could begin to be measured, and it was not on the sexual behavior of American women; it was on how they envisioned their lives, their choices and their obligations.” As she quotes Terry O’Neill, the President of the National Organization for Women, “In 1970, 70% of women with children under 6 were at home; 30% worked. Now that’s roughly reversed.” And according to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, cited in the same article, from 1970 to 1980 the number of women comprising first year law school classes jumped from 10% to 36% and business school classes from 4% to 28%. As Erin Kotecki Vest, the Political Director of BlogHer, Inc. and author of the Queen of Spain blog, recently stated for a CNN survey on the subject:

“You see, like many women, I timed both of my pregnancies. I had control over the reproduction part of sex during my now 10-year marriage. I could decide at what point during my journalism career I was ready for children, and we could plan parenthood right along with my climb up the ladder.

Giving women control over reproduction means giving them control over their own fate. I am a wife, a blogger, a mother — when I want, how I want, and with the freedom to remain sexual. The pill means I can have it all, and sacrifice nothing. It has taken the dream of my Mother’s generation — that of “Superwoman” — and turned it into my reality.”

While the pill has at times received a bad rap from both religious sectors and members of the medical community due to its hormonal alteration of women’s natural cycles, it has advanced extensively since its inception. Today, there are about forty different types of oral contraceptives as well as the NuvaRing and Ortho-Evra patch, both of which work similarly to the pill. Furthermore, the dosages of hormones within these contraceptives have dropped to approximately 10% of that of their original levels, decreasing the likelihood of side effects such as blood clots and weight gain. The pill also sparked a reformation in the FDA itself, initiating extensive trials now common in American medicine and allowing the FDA to communicate directly to the patient about risks, a process that circumvented the complications that arose when doctors had sole control over what their patients knew about what they were being prescribed.

Approximately 31% of American women these days use some form of oral contraceptive, which—compared to the 18% using male condoms, 5% Depo-Provera injections, and less than 1% diaphrams (see chart)—demonstrates the loyalty it has garnered.

Women in the United States have benefited greatly from these developments over the last fifty years, but women’s health worldwide is still a very desiring field. As Sarah Boseley wrote in her Guardian global health blog the other day, “The revolution [the pill] is credited with launching in affluent countries now needs to move to the developing world, where 200 million women need or want contraception.” While the healthcare system in the United States is far from idyllic, our access to birth control is substantially better than in many other places. Providing more extensive access to contraceptives is a critical step to reducing unintended pregnancies and maternal death worldwide. So on this Mother’s Day, in addition to thanking your mother for all she has done, I am asking you to take a moment to recognize the many choices most of us have and reflect on how similar options could become available to others around the world.

This post is part of a series leading up to the Women Deliver conference (www.womendeliver.org), a global meeting on maternal and reproductive health and the advancement of women and girls.

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