The practice of controlling birth has been around for centuries, largely in the form of abstinence or barrier methods (primitive condoms created out of animal intestines, for example). But the use of female contraceptives, namely the “pill”, is a relatively new phenomenon. Though scientists dreamed of a “miracle pill” more than a century ago, the development and sell of this hormone-based pill only hit the main stream just 50 years ago and was marketed solely to married women. Unmarried women weren’t allowed to attain this drug until 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no state could withhold contraception to a single (unwed) person. This essay will look at the development of female contraception, marketing schemes for public distribution, and perceived implications of its use beyond the temporary prevention of unwanted pregnancy.
When we look at the history of contraceptives, we find that both women and men have been using some form of birth control for hundreds of years. Herbal remedies inserted in the vagina are some of the oldest forms of known contraception and, though not necessarily effective, serve as proof that women have sought to control their own fertility since the beginning of written history. But it wasn’t until the invention of condoms that birth control really took hold of societies worldwide.
Though condoms were significantly effective, however, they still put the brunt of contraception on the men. Women, seeking to gain control of their own reproduction, began imagining a “magical pill” that would protect them against unwanted pregnancy. In 1912, Margaret Sanger first envisioned a “birth control” pill, which would be as easy to take as aspirin, but it wasn’t until 1951 when she teamed up with Gregory Picus that her dream first began to unfold, thanks to the discovery of hormones. In 1960, the birth control pill was officially approved for public use though it was only available for married women. Eleven years later, the pill was officially made available for all women, no matter what their relationship status.
Despite the draw towards reproductive control, contraceptives in all forms have met with great hostility, especially from the Catholic Church who viewed contraception as going against God’s will. This did not stop the public from seeking out birth control, though, nor did it discourage their producers from marketing it. For this reason, it was not uncommon to see birth control sold under a different guise. For example, between the years of 1930 to 1960, the most popular form of birth control was Lysol disinfectant, which was cleverly sold as a feminine hygiene product. Even today, birth control is sold as a “lifestyle drug” and touts its effectiveness at reducing acne and making a women’s menstrual cycle less frequent and more predictable. By selling the product based on these aspects, distributors can target a different demographic (in this case teens) and thus reach a larger audience.
If reproductive health alone is enough to sell contraceptive products, what is the purpose for so many alternative claims about a product’s use? The answer to this question could rest on the influence of religious organizations, namely Catholicism. As is evident in the availability of contraception to married women prior to singles, there seems to be a fear about what marketing contraception to the public will teach our youth about sexual activity in general. By selling the birth control pill to married women only at first, the notion that sexual activity was strictly for married couples was enforced. As sexual liberation unfolded, however, the need for reliable contraception was evident. The demand outweighed the moral issue and, after eleven years, single women finally gained the right to control their own reproductive health. Even today, however, as many as 50% of women report not receiving contraceptive counseling at their annual pap smears, which could indicate a reluctance to promote sex in general. In fact, I’ve personally been denied sterilization because the hospital in which my gynecologist works is funded largely by the Catholic Church who decided it is unacceptable. This proves that religious influence still exists and may contribute to the low numbers of women who receive reproductive counseling.
Birth control has been a highly sought after product for centuries. But, because birth control is directly related to sexual interactions, there is stigma associated with it as well. Catholicism has fought the use of contraceptives all along the way and thus has created a very challenging market through which to distribute these products. Despite resistance, however, the people wanted it, so marketing schemes have found loop-holes around contraceptive distribution by labeling it as something completely different, and in doing so have been able to provide the people what they want albeit the chances of the products being ultimately unsafe for use. But, as long as people continue to have sex the need for birth control will continue. It is my hope that further research will continue so that people worldwide will be able to gain control of their reproductive capacity, and have children on their own terms without fear of causing personal harm.