The Pill is turning 50: Has it lived up to its reputation?

We can all agree that the pill has changed the course of reproductive justice, but Laura Eldridge encourages us to take a more critical look at the pill and its possible limitations.

Oral contraceptives have allowed women to take more control over their sexual health and to planned their lives with more assurance. The pill has been shown to do more than just prevent unintended pregnancies: studies have claimed that the pill does everything from treating severe menstrual pain and acne to decreasing urinary incontinence, preventing bacterial vaginosis and pelvic inflammatory diseases. Sometimes the pill is painted as a wonder drug – it’s over 99% effective in preventing pregnancy when taken correctly and it can reduce many symptoms of premenstrual syndrom.

Eldridge’s article challenges our opinion of the pill slightly, by reminding us of its history and its consequences. Hormone based drugs still show risks among women, including mood swings and a crushed libido to strokes and heart attacks caused by blood clots. The actual creation of the pill was a result of years of testing on poor women, and part of the need for the pill did not come from preventing pregnancy overall, but for population control among poor communities of color. Eldrigde writes, “The pill was able to be born because of deep social and economic injustices, not solely as a response to them. The pill trials were conducted on poor women in Puerto Rico, in part because they had fewer legal protections against some of the dangers of new drug trials.”

Issues of racism and sexism emerged from the creation and use of the first pill, as female doctors were often scoffed at for their concerns about possible side effects, and as the mission of the pill became so much about keeping disadvantaged populations from procreating. Barbara Seaman wrote “The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill” which documented the side effects women faced as a result of taking the pill, shedding light on the little information that was provided to these women from drug companies.

Things are different today: the hormone dose in pills has reduced significantly, and there are yards of warning label attached to each form of oral contraceptive. Perhaps most moving of all, Eldridge reminds us that these changes are “due to the tireless efforts of the women’s health movement.”

Part of looking back and seeing how far we’ve come is, indeed, also about seeing how far there is to go. This month especially, we need to consider how much work still needs to be done to provide adequate and accurate sexual health resources for all communities, how more innovative birth control methods must continue to be created for women AND MEN, and that the stigma around the right not to have a child must still be eradicated.


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