- Historic Sites
The Story Of The Pill
How a Crash Program Developed an Efficient Oral Contraceptive in Less Than a Decade
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
A good beginning for this story is a meeting in early 1951 of three remarkable people—the greatest feminist of our age, a great philanthropist who was as notably eccentric as she was fantastically wealthy, and a biological scientist whose subsequent world fame was achieved in large part because of this meeting. Would that it could be described in circumstantial detail and invested with the drama it should have in view of what followed from it.
Alas, this cannot be done with any assurance of accuracy. Only the three principals could have told precisely where (a New York hotel? a Worcester research laboratory?) or when (January? February?) their initial encounter took place. None made a written record of it. And since the three died within a few months of one another in 1966 and 1967, all we can now be sure of is that there was a meeting, and that it was far more than an interchange among three extraordinary people. Viewing it in historical perspective, we may see it as a convergence of two lines of historic force whose technological product, the Pill, has often been compared to the Bomb in its impact upon social attitudes and individual lives.
Of one of these lines of force, Margaret Sanger was the personification.
In 1951 she was sixty-eight years old—a small, slender, frail-looking woman who, nevertheless, impressed others as a flaming youthful spirit, wedded to life and defiant of death. Her copper-colored hair, crowning glory of her beauty as a girl, remained but slightly touched with gray. Her eyes were as quick and eager as they had been when, nearly forty years before (in 1914), she introduced into our language the phrase “birth control” through a monthly magazine of which she was founder and editor. The name of her magazine, The Woman Rebel , accurately labeled the life role she had by then assumed. As a young nurse specializing in obstetrical cases she had again and again witnessed and been outraged by the agonies, often fatal, imposed upon women by unwanted pregnancies—pregnancies that could have been avoided if religious prejudice and prudery, both mightily sustained by what would later be called “male chauvinism,” had not forbidden all knowledge of contraceptive methods. Her outrage had been highly emotional, yet from the first, her battle for birth control was guided by a clear sense of social, economic, and cultural context. This enabled her to endure with rare equanimity the torrent of insult and abuse, the repeated arrests and imprisonments (she was jailed eight times), that were inevitably provoked by her assault upon the prevailing legal code and its underlying assumptions. It also enabled her to widen the basis for her campaign from that of women’s rights to that of large-scale population control when the urgent necessity for the latter, especially in underdeveloped countries, became obvious to all with eyes to see during the years immediately following World War II.
As early as 1930, impressed and depressed by the imperfections of existing contraceptive measures, Sanger had become interested in the possibility of developing a safe and efficient physiological contraceptive. In that year she was told that scientists in the Soviet Union had actually done so—had created a spermatoxin which, injected in women, immunized them against pregnancy for several months without bad side-effects. Four years later, she herself visited Russia and talked with the scientist, a Doctor Tushnov, who had tested the spermatoxin on thirty women, immunizing twenty-two of them for prolonged periods. But she then learned to her dismay that further experiments along this line were now prohibited by Soviet authorities: in a typically abrupt reversal of Communist policy, population growth had become the official aim (there was a Soviet “labor shortage”).
By this time, more because of her efforts than anyone else’s, the almost total religious opposition to her cause was breaking down. The National Council of Jewish Women had endorsed birth control; so had major Jewish religious organizations and Protestant Christian denominations. In the spring of 1931 the powerful Federal Council of the Churches of Christ, representing well over 20,000,000 Protestants, had not only sanctioned the separation of the sexual act from procreation when performed between loving husband and wife, but also had called for a “new morality” grounded in knowledge and personal freedom rather than in ignorance and fear—“just what I would have written myself,” as a joyful Margaret Sanger told the press.