Let’s look at how far women’s reproductive health options have come in the last 100 years. In an era when people have a number of effective, available options to prevent unwanted pregnancy, it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case. In fact, before the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960, sexually active people accepted the reality that intercourse could — and did! — regularly lead to parenthood.
RELATED: Birth Control and Contraception Options: An A-to-Z Guide
Sex and Pregnancy Before the Birth Control Pill
Prior to the pill’s approval, “American women were extremely constrained in their ability to delay, space, or prevent pregnancies,” says Megan L. Kavanaugh, a principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization in New York.
And as you’ll see below, men didn’t have it so great either.
RELATED: Healthy Sex: The Ultimate Guide
Withdrawal and Abstinence Were the Primary Birth Control Methods
After all, this is the only method guaranteed to prevent pregnancy.
The Billings Method is sometimes combined with other natural family planning methods, such as tracking your resting body temperature (which rises a small amount during ovulation).
with widespread implementation in the 1980s and beyond, according to a 2016 article published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
RELATED: The Best and Worst Birth Control Options for Women
Early Versions of Condoms and Spermicide to Help Prevent Pregnancy
Vulcanized Rubber Revolutionized Condoms
RELATED: The Health and Wellness Benefits of Having Sex
The Comstock Act of 1873 Made Birth Control Illegal
RELATED: What Is an Abortion?
Women Used Homemade Douches to Help Prevent Pregnancy
With women bearing the brunt of an unwanted pregnancy, and condoms dependent on the cooperation of the man, it’s not surprising that women long tried to concoct their own chemical brews to prevent pregnancy. Unfortunately, for the most part, these were not very effective.
In the early 20th century, products that could be purchased without a prescription in the drugstore were popular. To stay within the law, they were sold as feminine hygiene rather than contraception. These items, mostly ineffective as birth control, included suppository pills, vaginal jellies, and cleansing douches.
The Quest for a Pill to Prevent Pregnancy
With medicines for many conditions becoming available in the 20th century, people began to yearn for a pill that would effectively prevent unplanned pregnancies.
The People Behind the Development of the Birth Control Pill
She also raised money for research and supported John Rock, MD, a devout Catholic who conducted an early trial of the pill under the ruse that it was a fertility study, notes the article in Canadian Family Physician.
Early Clinical Research on the Birth Control Pill
Effectiveness and Side Effects of the Birth Control Pill
Finally, in 1960, the first hormonal birth control pill was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ushering in a new era of reliable contraception.
Continued improvements in the pill, as well as the other hormonal methods that followed, have had a major impact, not only on childbearing but on society and on women’s lives.
The Birth Control Pill Changed Everything
The impact of hormonal birth control on women’s (and men’s) lives cannot be overstated, says Kavanaugh.
The ability to delay and space childbearing is not only crucial to a woman’s health, it directly affects her social and economic advancement, Kavanaugh says. “Women’s ability to obtain and effectively use contraceptives has a positive impact on their education and workforce participation, as well as on subsequent outcomes related to income, family stability, mental health, and children’s well-being,” she explains.
The Pill Has Greatly Shaped American Women’s Lives
RELATED: 9 Natural Ways to Boost Your Sex Life
Early Oral Contraception Side Effect Risks Were Significant
It took more than a decade — and a lot of public prodding from women — for scientists to become concerned enough about these problems to study lower doses of hormones, which proved to be just as effective and had a much lower risk of side effects. These lower doses are what are used in birth control pills today.
Finally, All Women Could Get the Birth Control Pill
It wasn’t until 1965 that the law banning birth control was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The First Intrauterine Birth Control Devices Faced a Rocky Road
These early devices did not use hormones, primarily serving to prevent fertilization.
In 1974, however, sales of one of these IUDs, the Dalkon Shield, were suspended after it was linked to numerous infections and seven deaths. Although only that one brand was implicated, other manufacturers feared expensive lawsuits and also pulled their IUDs from the market.
In the 1980s, a new copper IUD called Paragard was approved. The Paragard nonhormonal IUD (also called the copper IUD) is a small piece of flexible plastic shaped like a T that has copper wrapped around it.
Low-Tech Birth Control Methods Are Still Around
Condoms were the most commonly used primary coital method (15 percent), followed by withdrawal (7 percent).
More Hormone Delivery Systems Keep Coming
According to the Guttmacher Institute, injectables, if used perfectly, have a 0.2 percent failure rate, and a 4 percent failure rate if used typically.
Other Forms of Emergency Contraception
The FDA approved the brands Preven in 1998 and Plan B in 1999. But their availability greatly improved in 2006 when the FDA approved over-the-counter sales of Plan B for people ages 18 and over, and again in 2013, when it approved over-the-counter sales for people under 18.
Sterilization Is Still the Contraception King
Among contraceptive users ages 15–49 in 2018, female permanent contraception was the most common method used (28 percent), followed by pills (21 percent), male condoms, and IUDs (both 13 percent), notes the Guttmacher Institute.
In 2018, more than one-third (36 percent) of users ages 15–49 relied on some form of permanent contraception, although it was much more common among users ages 40 and over.
Resources We Love
Planned Parenthood is a nonprofit organization with the mission of ensuring that everyone has access to the care and resources they need to make informed decisions about their bodies, their lives, and their futures. Planned Parenthood delivers sexual and reproductive healthcare, sex education, and information to millions of people every year.
The Guttmacher Institute is a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide. The institute dreams of a future in which everyone can realize their rights and access the resources they need to achieve sexual and reproductive health.