The pill’s 50th

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth-control pill. When the Food and Drug Administration approved the combined oral contraceptive pill in 1960, it became the first hormone-based birth control to be approved, marketed and sold in the United States. In the 50 years since, its cultural, physical and political impact has been nothing short of revolutionary.

I’ve been on the pill at numerous points during my adult life, and aside from the occasional gripes about side effects, I’ve mostly taken that tiny, white piece of processed estrogen and progestin for granted.

Not anymore.

Last week, the Oklahoma Legislature voted to override Gov. Brad Henry’s veto of an abortion measure that requires women to have an ultrasound and receive a detailed description of the fetus before getting an abortion. And, yes, that applies even in cases of rape and incest.

Meanwhile, several states over, conservative Florida legislators are trying to pass a bill that would require a woman seeking an abortion to first pay for an ultrasound and also view images of the fetus.

Abortion isn’t birth control, but with the continued force of anti-choice fervor chipping away at a woman’s right to choose, the pill and other forms of hormone-based fertility blockers remain a woman’s only real, reliable option in the case of unwanted pregnancies.

Is it enough, however? Simply put: No.

There’s plenty to criticize when it comes to modern ovulation-preventing options: The pill and its various successors—implants, shots, et al.—can give you headaches and induce nausea, make you gain weight, lose your sexual drive and cause irregular periods.

More seriously, continued use of hormonal birth control has been linked to high blood pressure and an increased risk for breast cancer.

In my 20s, I used Norplant—a set of six tiny foamlike capsules inserted in the upper left arm. They worked great for me, with no side effects. Other women weren’t so lucky, however, and the implants were discontinued by its U.S. manufacturer in 1996, amid lawsuits from women who complained they weren’t fully informed of the product’s various side effects.

But what are the alternatives—and what does it take to make them available? Birth control has always been a major political issue: The pill wasn’t available to married women in all 50 states until 1965, and unmarried women had to wait until 1972 before they received the same unilateral rights.

Today more than 100 million women use the pill worldwide; in the United States, users number more than 12 million, and we should celebrate the pill and its contributions to the 1960s-born sexual revolution that brought about major changes in the home, the classroom and the office.

But as President Barack Obama considers Supreme Court candidates (a decision that could help to uphold or overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision) and we fight to stop legislators from dismantling the right to end a pregnancy, we must also recognize the pill’s faults and demand better choices.

We need cheaper, over-the-counter choices of birth control. We must rally for products with fewer side effects and better reliability rates.

We must demand that all health-insurance carriers be required to cover hormone-based birth-control products and that all public schools include the topic in sex-education discussions.

We’ve come a long way, baby, from those days of relying on condoms, counting the days on a calendar or simply abstaining.

But it’s not enough.