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Birth control pill marks 50 years

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration Advisory Committee approved the use of the birth control pill 50 years ago on May 9, 1960. Proponents and opponents agree that it forever changed families worldwide.

BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Published: May 9, 2010
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The pill is tiny, powerful and controversial.

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration Advisory Committee approved the use of the birth control pill 50 years ago today.


Proponents and opponents agree it forever changed families worldwide.

Women "began to experience some degree of control over their reproductive health for the very first time,” said Dr. J. David Lackey, a Yukon obstetrician/gynecologist.

"Before the pill was available, we really didn’t have anything that was safe and effective for contraception.”

Since the advent of the pill, America has seen a decline in unplanned pregnancies, abortions and infant mortality, according to Planned Parenthood.

The number of women who die during pregnancy has also fallen. But it remains controversial, particularly among some religious leaders.

Better, but imperfect
A sign was put on Barbara Santee’s chest: "Incomplete Abortion.”

It was 1955, and she was only 18 as hospital staff rolled her through the halls to the St. John Hospital operating room in Tulsa. Her illegal abortion had been botched.

"It was like putting a red A on my chest,” said Santee, a reproductive rights advocate in northeast Oklahoma.

Santee saw the abortion as her only way out of an unwanted pregnancy, she said. If she had the option of taking birth control, she would have never had the abortion, she said.

"My mother didn’t educate me (about sex) because she didn’t know,” Santee said. "If it (birth control) had been available even on a clandestine market … somehow I would have gotten it. When you take your life into your own hands to control your own fertility, that’s a pretty strong feeling you have.”

Santee had a son five years later — when she was ready. Four months after his birth, the pill was approved. Santee, along with a lot of other women in Oklahoma, took it. It was a relief for many at the time, she said.

"A lot of women, they gobbled it up,” she said. "They were hungry for something like that to help.”

Fifty years later, it’s still common in Oklahoma. It’s the most popular form of birth control requested by patients at Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma, a spokeswoman said.

The pill is about 95 percent effective, while condoms are only about 80 percent effective, according to Planned Parenthood.

The pill offers a high, though imperfect, degree of control, said Lackey, who works at Integris Canadian Valley Hospital.

The amount of hormones used in the pill has decreased during the past 50 years, Lackey said. With that, the frequency and severity of side effects have decreased.

The diversity of birth control has increased, too. Women can have injections, a hormone patch, implants or a variety of other options. But more options don’t necessarily mean more accessibility, he said.

"The accessibility issue isn’t so much do you have 12 (birth control) choices or 50,” Lackey said. "The accessibility is primarily a cost issue.”

Social barriers also still exist, said Dr.