The minute I decided to try for a baby, lo, one appeared. Before I’d even had a chance to buy in the folic acid. And that’s a blessing, of course. When you hear of infertile women who are consumed by their desire to be mothers, women who undergo round after round of IVF treatment, you can only be grateful for the fact you’ve never had to so much as glance at an ovulation chart.
Even so, without the pill such fecundity might have proved a curse. Without the pill, I would probably have become one of those careworn women you see in old photographs, a clutch of children hanging on her skirts and another in her belly. Married at 23, I’d have had no chance of a career or a life outside the home. My days would have been a relentless cycle of cooking, cleaning and child-bearing until, with my body ravaged and my energy spent, I succumbed to some infection or other.
It was a woman like that – Anne Higgins, an Irish emigrant to the US, who endured 18 pregnancies in 22 years before dying of tuberculosis at 45 – who inspired the pill. Working as a nurse in the slums of New York and witnessing a clutch of deaths from self-induced abortions, Anne’s daughter, Margaret Sanger, made it her life’s ambition to find a way of helping women take control of their own fertility. Having secured funding from heiress Kathleen McCormick, she approached scientists already working on methods of birth control with her idea for an oral contraceptive – and the rest is history.
Given the pace of social change, and the way we now take birth control for granted, it is difficult for post-feminist women to get a handle on how truly revolutionary the pill was when it was first launched in the UK. Back then, in the time, as Philip Larkin put it, between Lady Chatterley and the Beatles, women were still at the mercy of their reproductive cycles and a society which scorned sex out of wedlock. So much so that, at first, the pill was given only to married women, with some doctors going so far as to demand to see the wedding certificate. Even then, however, wily women found loopholes. Dame Jenni Murray – of Woman’s Hour fame – has described how she bought a cheap wedding ring before heading to a family planning clinic as a respectable “married” lady.
As the Sixties began to swing, the pill’s rise was meteoric, but it took until 1970 (the year in which teenage pregnancies peaked in the UK) for family planning clinics to be forced to offer it to single girls. Today it is used by 100 million women worldwide. And yet, despite its popularity, the pill has always been mired in controversy. Significant though their contribution to reproductive health was, Sanger and her UK counterpart Marie Stopes were both advocates of eugenics. While they saw birth control as a means of weeding out the socially undesirable, others feared it would encourage casual sex among young people and infidelity in married couples.
The Catholic Church, which believes every sex act should be open to conception, has never sanctioned the pill, and continues to preach against it even in parts of the world where population control would be a boon. In 1983, Victoria Gillick – a Catholic and mother of ten – found herself in a firestorm when she challenged the right of doctors to prescribe the pill (or other forms of contraception) to under-16s without their parents’ knowledge. And just last year Raquel Welch (that icon of moral probity) claimed it had fuelled sexual promiscuity and been responsible for the decline of marriage.
Over the past 50 years, the pill has experienced periods of decline: at the height of the Aids epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s, of course, the emphasis shifted to condoms. Then in 1995, the government warned that third generation pills carried twice the risk of blood clots forming in the legs than other products – a health scare which led to a sudden spike in abortions.
Now, of course, science has moved on and women today have a veritable smorgasbord of contraceptive options: the mirena coil, the Depo-Provera injection – even implants. Yet in the UK, 3.5 million – one in three of those of child-bearing age – continue to take oral contraceptives.
Perhaps the pill has had some unwanted social side-effects. Perhaps by making casual sex more acceptable, it has left women prey to other dangers such as STDs, and – ironically – unwanted pregnancies. Perhaps, by allowing women to put babies on the back-burner while they concentrated on their careers, it led some to leave it too late to become mothers.
But compare the lives of women today to their great grandmothers’. No longer enslaved by their fertility, they have choices their forebears could not have dreamed of.
The pill was responsible for so much of that. As the 50th anniversary of its UK debut approaches, it’s impossible to do anything but marvel at all it achieved.