A small pill, 50 years later is still controversial

Western Carolina University is all about the 1960’s this year with their ‘Take It All In” theme, but something that hasn’t been touched on is the birth control pill. It was born in the 1960’s, although it wasn’t available to single women without a male signature until 1968.

Birth control pills come in varying dosages per pill. This one is a daily pill.   Photo by Katerina Spasovska

Birth control pills come in varying dosages per pill. This one is a daily pill. Photo by Katerina Spasovska

It’s been a very controversial topic in the last few years, especially around election time, and that’s no change from when it was originally approved on May 9, 1960. The Affordable Care Act mandates that all insurance plans have to cover birth control. However, some companies with religious owners, such as Hobby Lobby, don’t want to cover emergency birth control or intra-uterine devices (IUD’s) for their employees. They brought their case to the Supreme Court, where discussion of the mandate began on March 25, 2014.

Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and mother of the birth control pill, wanted a birth control pill to be created because she witnessed the hard life her mother and hundreds of other women lived because they had had too many children and had no way to avoid pregnancies that they did not want or could not afford.

According to Marilyn Chamberlin, former head of the Women’s Studies department here at WCU, that’s what the pill was originally marketed for – to help married women reduce the number of children that they were having, especially after the 1950’s. However, it was actually prescribed for pre-menstrual systems, with a side effect of suppressing pregnancies because the law didn’t allow it to be prescribed as birth control.

Chamberlin said that when the pill was approved, “ [The U.S. had] just come out of a eugenics period, so there was a fear that it would only be used by lower class women, but the African American women didn’t buy . . . that it was related to eugenics.” [The Western Carolina Journalist profiled one of the victims of the North Carolina Eugenics Board here.]

There were some issues with the pill as it was – the side effects that were known years later.

“They tested it down in Puerto Rico and it was successful, at least by their standards, although they found out a few years later that it had caused headaches and had side effects like clotting, which they had in the study, but they really wanted to get birth control out, so they suppressed the side effects, so that they could get the birth control out. . . About 25% of the women taking it developed some serious side effects with clotting and strokes, so there was some concern about pulling it off the market. What they did instead was they just reduced the estrogen level – it was like 10x what it needed to be. So as long as they reduce it down, it went through,” explained Chamberlin.

Because of the existence of the birth control pill, a sort of “sexual revolution,” as Chamberlin called it, occurred. “We see the beginnings of an increase in cohabitation, we see the beginning of an extension in the age of first marriage, we see an extension in the age of first birth of your child, and also a decline in family size.”

Now, these things are normal – it’s uncommon for people to get married before the age of 25 or to have more than three children. The label on the prescriptions has changed as well, now that it’s not illegal to use birth control. It’s being prescribed for birth control specifically, but it is also often prescribed as a way to “regulate periods, eliminate periods and also reduce cramps, heavy bleeding, the number of days a period lasts, and headaches,” said Chamberlin. “What we see now is even more younger girls who suffer from severe forms of pre-menstrual symptoms.”

However, there is still a lot of controversy about birth control and abortion, especially in states like North Carolina that are located in the “bible belt.” The Raleigh News & Observer wrote an article on January 31, 2014 discussing the North Carolina Senatorial candidates positions on abortion, and most of them hold the position that abortion should be illegal except in special circumstance cases such as rape, incest and severe endangerment of the mother.

Many students that were approached did not wish to discuss birth control, even with the offer of anonymity. This is understandable, especially given the hostile environment that can sometimes surround these discussions.

When asked how the world would be different without birth control, a WCU female student who wanted to remain anonymous said, “I know that without birth control, my endometriosis would be so bad that I wouldn’t be able to walk, and they treat that through birth control. The only other treatment option is surgery, which is where they go and remove the uterine lining that is growing in places it shouldn’t, but that’s a quick fix, and it’s just going to grow back. My birth control makes my life so much easier to live.”

Students interested in learning more about contraceptives can call the Bird Building at (828) 227-7640 to schedule an appointment to discuss their options for birth control or visit during their hours. Bird is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. It is recommended that you schedule an appointment to ensure that you have the time you need to discuss with the doctor.

About Ceillie Simkiss

Ceillie Simkiss is a senior at Western Carolina University in the Communications program focusing on Journalism, with a minor in art. Currently enrolled in Features and Magazine Writing, she works as Editor-in-Chief for The Western Carolina Journalist. She also works for the Western Carolinian as a Photographer and News Designer. She can be found on Facebook (Ceillie Simkiss), Twitter (@CandidCeillie) and LinkedIn (Ceillie Simkiss).