Free the Pill! 

It's highly effective and "safer than aspirin." Selling it over the counter could prevent hundreds of thousands of abortions annually. So why on earth can't women get their birth control without a prescription?

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In the bad old days, the home remedies women used to prevent pregnancy were so thoroughly bizarre, vile, and dangerous that it's hard to believe our species survived at all. Except, of course, that the remedies rarely worked.

Out of desperation, ladies consumed everything from mercury to gunpowder to dried beaver testicles brewed in alcohol to pennyroyal, which is highly toxic except in small amounts. They tried spermicides made out of nearly any sticky thing imaginable (honey, rosin, olive oil, elephant dung), and cervical caps fashioned out of just about anything else (paper, fruit rinds, beeswax, rubber, sponge). Back then, emergency contraception meant nasty postcoital douches of vinegar, liquid chloride, or Lysol; some of these attempts caused severe infections. Women who were more concerned with heavenly payback stuck to the church-sanctioned method of abstinence, or, if married, the rhythm method.

The ineffectiveness of most of the early methods was partly obscured by the fact that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, women became fertile much later -- around age seventeen or eighteen -- and teenagers could experiment somewhat without risking parenthood. Nowadays, partly due to better nutrition, most girls get their first period between twelve and thirteen, meaning that the unwed teen mom is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon. So is our understanding of how pregnancy works. It wasn't until 1827 that scientists discovered that mammals have eggs, or until 1843 that they understood the route to fertilization. It was around that time the first modern contraceptive methods were introduced: the diaphragm in 1842 and the rubber condom in 1869.

Along with this greater understanding of reproductive biology came a government crackdown fueled by fears that birth control would lead to promiscuity and lewdness. Congress passed the anti-obscenity Comstock Law in 1873, making it illegal to distribute contraceptive devices through the mail, which was how most people got them. State laws made it a crime punishable by fines or jail time to distribute information on the subject, or even for married couples to use birth control at home.

America's first birth-control activists were led by Margaret Sanger, a nurse appalled by bungled back-alley abortions she'd seen, and by the death of her own mother after eighteen pregnancies. She opened the first birth-control clinic in 1916 and was promptly arrested. Activists like Sanger adopted highly confrontational tactics: They would boldly flout the Comstock Law to provoke high-profile arrests and force matters into the courts. Their fight, which took nearly fifty years to win, kicked into high gear in 1961 when Planned Parenthood leaders Estelle Griswold and Charles Lee Buxton bucked state law to open a clinic in Connecticut, home at the time to some of the nation's strictest anti-birth-control laws. Forty years ago this month, the US Supreme Court quashed the Comstock Law in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut, a ruling that gave birth to the notion of a constitutional right to privacy. This key concept underlies not only the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, but many other privacy rights that are now considered fundamental to American life.

All the while, Sanger had dreamed of a pill women could take to prevent pregnancy. Discreet and female-controlled -- no one but the woman need know she was using it -- it would let women choose when to bear children, and thus allow them to play a greater role in the workforce and society. By the 1940s, Sanger's dream was entering the realm of possibility. Scientists understood enough about the link between hormones and female fertility to know estrogen and progesterone could inhibit ovulation. But natural progesterone was fabulously expensive -- up to $1,100 an ounce -- and it could not yet be made in a lab. A major breakthrough came when chemist Russell Marker discovered that it could be derived from a wild yam native to Mexico, which local women traditionally ate to prevent pregnancy -- one old-time remedy actually had worked!

But while a birth-control pill was now scientifically feasible, religious authorities found the idea morally repugnant. The Catholic Church, in particular, opposed any form of contraception except the rhythm method, in which married couples have sex only during the "safe" parts of the menstrual cycle, when women are unlikely to conceive. Feminists, hoping to sway the debate from morality to science, sought out doctors to legitimize their cause. They found a champion in John Rock, a Catholic doctor who argued that the pill was natural because it mimics chemicals already present in women's bodies; by suppressing ovulation, he said, the drug merely extended a woman's number of "safe" days.

Fearing boycotts, many drug companies still wouldn't touch the Pill. Finally, in 1957, drug company G.D. Searle approached the FDA with a drug it called Enovid, asking that it be approved as a therapy for "menstrual disorders," since the Pill also regulates the menstrual cycle. The agency approved Enovid, but required a label warning that the drug would prevent ovulation.

American women weren't dumb. Within two years, a half million had gone to their doctors complaining of "menstrual disorders" and asking for Enovid. Pharmaceutical companies weren't dumb either: They smelled profits. The average American woman wants only two children, which means she needs some form of contraception for the better part of three decades. That's called built-in customer loyalty. By 1960 Searle had come around to marketing Enovid as a contraceptive, and the Pill had finally arrived. Rival companies quickly followed. Today 98 percent of American women have used some form of birth control, and 82 percent have tried the Pill.

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