50th Anniversary of the Birth Control Pill
The Population Council celebrates five decades of American women’s access to the birth control pill. The Council continues to work toward improving reproductive health for all through research and testing of an array of reversible contraceptive methods for both men and women.
Before 1960, contraceptive options for American women consisted of periodic abstinence, condoms, diaphragms, and withdrawal. This method mix had remained unchanged for more than a century until the first birth control pill, Enovid, reached the American market in 1960. The birth control pill became the dominant family planning method used by American couples within a decade of its introduction. The oral pill is still the most popular contraceptive method for women under age 30 in this country.
Enovid offered women the opportunity to safely and easily control their fertility with few side effects. However, in 1977, Council research identified the contribution of the combined use of cigarettes and birth control pills to increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death among women, particularly those 40 years and older. Dissemination of these results led to changes in the policies around prescribing the pill, thus lowering women’s overall health risks. Today all labels on pills and other hormonal contraceptives contain warnings in boldface type about the risks of prescribing these products to women who smoke and are over the age of 35. In the years since Enovid was introduced, additional advances in scientific knowledge have resulted in subsequent generations of products that are even safer and more easily tolerated.
Recognizing that women need a choice of contraceptive methods based on their age, lifestyle, sexual activity, desire to space or limit childbearing, and other factors, the Population Council has developed and licensed some of the most widely used long-acting, reversible contraceptives in the world. Millions of women worldwide rely on Population Council–developed products for family planning, including three models of copper-bearing intrauterine devices, including the Copper T 380, commonly known as ParaGard®; Mirena®, a levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine system; Jadelle®, a two-rod levonorgestrel implant; and Norplant® implants.
However, fifty years after the FDA’s landmark approval of birth control pills and with more contraceptive options available for women, nearly fifty percent of pregnancies in the United States still are unintended. A lack of concurrence between the kinds of contraceptive methods that meet consumers’ needs and the products available contributes to this wide gap between desire to use a method and its actual use.
In addition to developing new contraceptive methods, including a contraceptive vaginal ring that can be used for one year, Council researchers are investigating compounds that provide health benefits beyond planning pregnancy. The Council is conducting research on selective hormone receptors (e.g., ulipristal) that could make contraceptive delivery systems safer and more effective in preventing unwanted pregnancy and contribute to breast health by arresting the potential emergence of tumor cells. Other Population Council contraceptive development initiatives include:
- Adjudin. The Council is conducting basic research that may pave the way for a nonhormonal contraceptive for men. Studies have indicated that Adjudin may induce reversible infertility without interfering with hormones. Researchers are exploring a nasal spray, gel, implant, and patch as possible drug-delivery options.
- MENT®. Preliminary studies in which men wear an implant containing this synthetic steroid for one year have shown promising results in inhibiting sperm production. Other possible MENT presentations may include a gel and a patch.
- One-year contraceptive vaginal ring. This version of the ring is re-usable for 13 cycles. The new ring remains in the vagina for three weeks per menstrual cycle, is removed for one week, and can be re-inserted for up to 12 additional cycles before it must be replaced. Users of the currently available contraceptive vaginal ring product utilize 13 rings per year.
- Contraceptive gel. This clear, fast-drying, easy-to-use gel containing effective hormonal contraception can be absorbed through the skin of a woman's abdomen. Other possible delivery systems for hormonal contraception may include a transdermal spray.
About the Population Council
The Population Council confronts critical health and development issues—from stopping the spread of HIV to improving reproductive health and ensuring that young people lead full and productive lives. Through biomedical, social science, and public health research in 50 countries, we work with our partners to deliver solutions that lead to more effective policies, programs, and technologies that improve lives around the world. Established in 1952 and headquartered in New York, the Council is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization governed by an international board of trustees.
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