The pill: Love it or loathe it?

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Since it was fist developed in the 1960s, the oral contraceptive drug commonly known as 'the pill' has become widely used and highly controversial. The Feed investigates its history.

The oral contraceptive known as "the pill", which contains a mix of estrogen and progestogen, became the first medical drug made specifically to treat people who aren’t sick.

This tiny but controversial tablet has been credited with triggering the sexual revolution, bringing to an end the undisputed authority of the Vatican, and thawing out the Cold War. It has also been accused of turning women into lab rats, inciting racial genocide, and being a communist ploy to destroy the western family. The truth is only somewhat less dramatic.

The pill was first created by two American men; one a disgraced biologist who had been working to treat infertility, the other a deeply religious conservative who often promoted the act of procreation. It was this unlikely duo that came to design the world’s most popular form of contraception.

While American women certainly wanted the pill, few were willing to volunteer for trials. Tests were instead moved to Puerto Rico, where the most common form of female contraception at the time was surgical sterilisation. Early forms of the drug contained extremely strong doses of hormones leading to side effects such as nausea and dizziness, however researchers dismissed these as minor concerns. Just 4 years later it was released under the name Enovid, a drug that had originally been used to treat infertility and had now been rebranded to cause it.

While the pill may have been intended for birth control, its major selling point at the time was population control. The 60s were gripped with anxiety over the booming global populace and the pill offered a cheap and easy answer, a medical bullet to stop the population bomb. However it should be noted that the population in the 1960s was estimated to be around 3 billion. Today, it is more than 7 billion. In this sense at least, the pill was a complete flop.

In 1964, Pope Paul the 6th appointed a commission to advise on the morality of this new form of birth control. An overwhelming majority of the commission argued in favour of the pill, but the Pope sided with the minority, and the Catholic Church still bans use of oral contraceptives to this day.

The large doses of hormones contained in early versions of the pill quickly lead to unintended side effects. New York Magazine claimed the sale of C cup bras went up 50 per cent after the pill came onto the market. More alarming were reports of blood clots with 26 cases and six deaths linked indirectly to use of the pill.

Today oral contraceptives have been greatly improved. One study has shown that regular users of the pill can expect to live longer and are less likely to contract certain forms of cancer and heart disease. In 2012 it was estimated that of all fertile Australian women in a relationship, 66% are currently on the pill.

The pill, one tiny drug that gave the world some enormous side effects.

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