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April 23rd, 2010
08:30 AM ET

Love, Sex, Freedom and the Paradox of the Pill

A woman holds prescription contraceptives June 13, 2001 in Seattle, Washington in this FILE photo.

A woman holds prescription contraceptives June 13, 2001 in Seattle, Washington in this FILE photo.

By Nancy Gibbs, Time.com

There's no such thing as the Car or the Shoe or the Laundry Soap. But everyone knows the Pill, whose FDA approval 50 years ago rearranged the furniture of human relations in ways that we've argued about ever since.

Consider the contradictions: It was the first medicine ever designed to be taken regularly by people who were not sick. Its main inventor was a conservative Catholic who was looking for a treatment for infertility and instead found a guarantee of it. It was blamed for unleashing the sexual revolution among suddenly swinging singles, despite the fact that throughout the 1960s, women usually had to be married to get it.

Its supporters hoped it would strengthen marriage by easing the strain of unwanted children; its critics still charge that the Pill gave rise to promiscuity, adultery and the breakdown of the family. In 1999 the Economist named it the most important scientific advance of the 20th century, but Gloria Steinem, one of the era's most influential feminists, calls its impact "overrated."

One of the world's largest studies of the Pill — 46,000 women followed for nearly 40 years — was released this March. It found that women who take the Pill are less likely to die prematurely from any cause, including cancer and heart disease, yet many women still question whether the health risks outweigh the benefits.

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Filed under: TIME
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. ajm

    Only very indirectly because the pill put off the first child by many years for a lot of women. I think that older mothers & fathers are more likely to have autistic kids. Of course autism is now being diagnosed (labeled?) a lot more so the incidence itself may not really be increasing.

    April 25, 2010 at 7:14 am |
  2. Paul Constantine

    Your reporters discussing the effects of the birth control pill are too young to remember or understand the changes/improvements that the pill allowed.
    We knew that the incidence of birth defects increase with the age of the mother and that parents did not wish to be raising children in their later years, but that was not avoidable. A missed period was feared and menopause was a blessing.
    The choice to have children was great; the choice of how many was even greater.
    Because we could have the number of children we wanted when we wanted, we cherished each child freely, not as an obligation.

    April 23, 2010 at 9:08 am |
  3. Sharifa

    Based on Dr. Guptay's remarks regarding higher levels of hormones in early birth control pills, I was wondering if any studies and/or followups have been done on women who took those pills during the '60s and '70s.

    April 23, 2010 at 9:02 am |
  4. Gustroh

    Do you think there's any link between the pill and the increase of autism over the years?

    April 23, 2010 at 8:44 am |