The Awkward History of Americans Talking About Contraception

In the 1940s, Planned Parenthood became the most vocal proponent of contraception, and the term "family planning" was introduced as a less radical way of talking about birth control that nonetheless retained focus on family size instead of sexuality. But by the 1960s, the prevention of pregnancy was becoming less of a broad population issue and more of a personal concern. Turned intimate, the new discourse concerned a woman's right to sexual expression and to control over her body. When Our Bodies, Ourselves was first published by the Boston Women's Health Collective in 1971, its preface asserted the attainment of this control through public knowledge about contraception:

This knowledge has freed many of us from the constant energy-draining anxiety about becoming pregnant. It has made our pregnancies better because they no longer happen to us, but we actively choose them and enthusiastically participate in them. It has made our parenthood better because it is our choice rather than our destiny. This knowledge has freed us from playing the role of mother if it is not a role that fits us. It has given us a sense of a larger life space to work in, an invigorating and challenging sense of time and room to discover the energies and talents that are in us, to do the work we want to do. And one of the things we most want to do is to help make this freedom of choice, this life span, available to every woman.

In 1965, the Supreme Court made contraception legal for married couples; in 1972, it made access possible for single people as well. Meanwhile, in the late 50s and early 60s, the "magic pill" Sanger once envisioned became a reality. The development and legalization of the Pill was a definitive moment in contraception, which is likely why we continue to refer to this particular drug as the drug, with a capital P.

As with the repurposing of condoms for disease prevention, the Pill was initially approved only for the treatment of menstrual disorders. But "women's health" took on new meaning in 1960, when the pharmaceutical product was approved by the FDA as a form of oral birth control. Despite fears about the safety of continuous use of the drug, it quickly caught on. By 20 years after it was first developed, 30 million women worldwide, including 10 million in the U.S., were on the Pill, allowing it to become a way of life.


As of last year, birth control is considered preventive care, required by Department of Health and Human Services to be covered by private insurers. And the U.S. government characterizes its family planning services, aided by Title X, as "educational, comprehensive medical or social activities which enable individuals, including minors, to determine freely the number and spacing of their children and to select the means by which this may be achieved." We see this freedom to plan and make personal decisions reflected in the concept of "emergency contraception," including the brand name "Plan B."

On the horizon for contraceptive technologies is "the Pill for men." If this becomes a reality, it will be interesting to see what place it finds for itself in the conversation about reproductive health and rights. Will paternal responsibility become the new face of women's health, allowing female partners to forgo the pill and its hormonal side effects? Or will it be thought of in terms of extra insurance for men who do not wish to become fathers? Certainly, it will put a stronger emphasis on equal responsibility in all of these matters. And just as certainly, there will be those who would rather avoid talking about it altogether.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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