The Invention Giving Women Control

Polly Painter, Year 12, Millfield School, Somerset

The pill has ignited a revolution towards female empowerment. Invented by Gregory Goodwin Pincus and Carl Djerassi and approved in 1960, the invention of the pill was a monumental challenge but also an astounding breakthrough.

In conjunction with introducing birth control into a country where thirty states had anti-birth control legislations in place, Pincus soon realised that it wasn’t the science that determined the success of an invention. It was the forces surrounding the science, which established the greatest obstacle to surmount: negative public opinion regarding contraception.

Despite these impediments, the pill has allowed women the right to control family planning alongside their careers, as well as choose contraception irrespective of their partner’s decisions and improve their human capital. It has introduced healthier, better educated, more prosperous families which have contributed to the economic gains of society.

The pill consists of a tiny capsule of hormones, most commonly containing progesterone which controls the thickness of the endometrium and oestrogen involved in the maturation of the egg. The monophasic pill is taken once every day for 21 days, after which there is a seven-day ‘rest’ period, and then the cycle starts again. The pill has proven more than 99% effective, does not interrupt sexual intercourse and leads to lighter, more regular and less painful bleeds when menstruation occurs. However, it does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases and so a barrier method must be used alongside.

The pill has not always been publicly accepted. Contraception has been a controversial topic since its birth, for two main reasons: people believe contraception is linked to abortion and therefore it inhibits natural reproduction. Contraception revolves around the taboo subject of sex, which most people find uncomfortable to discuss. Once the idea that sex is separate from procreation and isn’t associated with promiscuity is established, we can start to discuss the enduring impacts contraception has on families, communities and global populations.

When Melinda Gates visited a Kenyan slum in Nairobi and discussed birth control with a women’s group, she was struck by one particular phrase that she felt fully encapsulated the desire of a mother: “I want to bring every good thing to this child before I have another”. I feel this is a universal sentiment – to want good for our children – however, the ability to provide every good thing is not universal. I think it’s so important to give a woman the opportunity to decide the number of children she wants for this reason, and therefore grant her access to contraception. When a mother finds herself in a situation where she can cater better for two children rather than three, contraception offers her huge empowerment and control to decide what’s best for her family.

Birth control innovations can be used to explain the increasing number of women enrolled in higher education programmes as well as increased participation in the labour market since 1960. Women have had more opportunities to excel in their chosen field, in order to gain invaluable experience and contribute to the economy. This has also caused the trend in family size to decrease due to a perspective-shift towards a career, allowing less time to start a family as female fertility decreases with age. Furthermore, the availability of this inexpensive, convenient birth control method has led to an increase in women’s health and wellbeing caused by a decrease in complications during birth. There are also fewer unwanted pregnancies which has reduced the incidence of post-natal depression. With smaller family sizes, children are also more likely to access higher education, and therefore contribute to society.

Contraception has also led a cultural revolution towards a greater acceptance of working mothers, older mothers and children born out of wedlock. It allows couples to control when and if they want to have children – an extremely powerful tool.

Ultimately, the pill and other contraceptive methods have introduced freedom of choice, which is paramount to female empowerment and family planning. The pill has led to improved maternal health, huge economic developments and social acceptance of mothers who may have previously been outcast from society. The pill proves that science is a catalyst in the pursuit of happiness.

Runner-up for the Schools Science Writing Competition, Trinity Term, 2020