The Pill celebrates 50th birthday

THE Pill celebrated 50 years of service as a contraceptive on May 9. Ironically, that date also marked this year’s Mother’s Day in the US.

The Pill – an oral contraception method – was first introduced to the US market in 1960, and arrived in Australia nine months later to become the first widely used method by which a woman could control her own fertility and, consequently, her destiny.

For young women, it’s hard to imagine a world without the Pill, and with the horrors commonly suffered as a result of unwanted pregnancies and their shattering consequences – backyard abortions, miserable shotgun weddings, heartbreaking adoptions. Before the Pill, such was the lot of far too many women.

It is now estimated that about 100 million women worldwide use an oral contraceptive pill, which contains a combination of hormones that interrupt their natural cycle of fertility and which, when taken properly, has a 99 per cent success rate, making it the most effective and reversible form of birth control.

Australia’s first family planning clinic was set up in Sydney’s Martin Place in 1933, where staff could only provide a diaphragm contraceptive to married women. Likewise, the Pill was only available to married women on its initial release in Australia on February 1, 1961.

Dr Edith Weisberg, who is currently director of research at the Sydney-based Family Planning NSW, said in a recent interview with AAP: “I was a junior resident at the time. My recollection is that it was very much not accepted to give the Pill to unmarried women. The belief was it would make them promiscuous.”

The proportion of Australian women in the workforce did not rise above 40 per cent until the 1960s, and until 1966 women working in the federal public service had to resign when they married.

As Weisberg recollects: “It’s only really around the time the Pill became available that contraception became respectable. I think that the fact women could control their own fertility gave them far more options in their life. The Pill has made a great difference to everybody.”

For Dr Gillian Smith, a doctor at Lismore Family Planning Service, the fascination, too, is not merely the medical implications the Pill has had for women, but its social impact. According to Dr Smith: “The Pill was the first big leap forward. It was – and is – a highly effective contraception and low in risk.”

The Pill ushered in an era of freedom to choose not to have children, to have fewer children, more widely spaced children, or later in life. But, as Dr Smith elaborates: “There’s also a positive impact on the mortality rate. It is usually riskier medically for very young woman to have babies, plus there are poorer outcomes for the health and development of those children.”

The Pill hasn’t always been magic for young Australian women.

According to Dr Smith access isn’t always what it should be.

“Compared with other Western countries, we have higher pregnancy rates and, correspondingly, high termination rates,” says Dr Smith, who sees a lack of education as the main culprit.

“There’s still a lot of myths; for instance that the Pill can affect fertility and that the Pill is related to weight gain,” Dr Smith says. “But for most women the Pill is very safe and very effective.”

Dr Smith estimates the current Pill is approximately 20 per cent less strong than it was when it first came out.

“There are grandmothers out there with stories of the often harsh side-effects of the original Pill,” Dr Smith acknowledges. “Thankfully these side-effects have greatly lessened as the dose has come down gradually.”

But as Dr Smith warns, “It’s important to remember when you are on highly effective contraception, such as the Pill, it doesn’t protect you from unwanted outcomes such as chlamydia – or a broken heart.”

Jan Carmody, a former Sydney model now in her seventies and living in Bangalow, remembers a Pill ‘story’ with fondness. Jan was one half of ’60s celebrity couple Jan and Peter Hanlon. Jan was a successful June Dally-Watkins protégé while her husband Peter was considered Sydney’s most successful hairdresser.

“In 1966, there was a popular television show called The Marriage Game,” Carmody says.

“Couples had to answer questions about each other – questions the other, apparently didn’t know they were being asked. The producer took us into a room to brief us on the questions that they would ask us. He then told us what one of the questions would be: What was the last thing you do before you go to bed? In the rehearsal I blurted out that I took the Pill.”

According to Carmody, the producer thought it was a great response; it was sure to get lots of media attention and boost ratings.

The next day, all hell broke loose. A headline in the leading Sydney newspaper of the day said ‘dreadful’– in capital letters. The editorial piece went on to say that it was a good thing Australia still had black and white televisions as the compere’s blush was in full technicolour.

This is a quaint story from an elegant older woman, but it does illustrate how far we’ve come in terms of acceptance of the Pill, or indeed any form of contraception. To outrage audiences because a married woman said she was on the Pill is unbelievable today.

For others, the advent of the Pill was nothing less than life-changing.

Sixty-year-old Kerry Sims reflecting on the impact the Pill had on her destiny says: “I was 16 not long after the Pill became available and I had just become sexually active with my first boyfriend. Before the Pill, birth control was confusing; the choices were condoms or some kind of rhythm method, which seemed pretty vague to me.”

Though the Pill was not available for ‘just anyone’ it was being prescribed for girls with difficult periods – a convenient truth for Sims.

“The Pill put my decision to have a baby in my hands,” Sims says. “I was part of the first generation of women who did not have to put their dreams on hold to raise a family before we were ready. Girls only three or four years older than me had to drop out of school, go to homes for unwed mothers and usually put their babies up for adoption.”

For Sims, who was a politically active young woman in the ’70s, the Pill was part of the whole women’s movement.

“We were empowered to achieve our dreams because we were not controlled by unwanted pregnancies,” she says.

Most of the benefits the advent of the Pill has heralded in are felt predominantly in the developed West. It’s easy to forget that in most Asian countries and certainly in Islamic fundamentalist countries, reproductive rights and the means to them are unavailable, or even illegal.

In a recent article in The Australian Literary Review, Germaine Greer looks back over the past 40 years since she wrote The Female Eunuch, declaring the infamous book as her first, but not her best. She reminds us that the feminist revolution has been called the longest revolution and humbly states, “When the revolution starts, I shall be forgotten.”

In other words, we still have a long way to go, baby.

(Additional material AAP)

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