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 imperfectA 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. Frank Wilson III, medical director for Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma. "Unfortunately in Oklahoma (in) this day and time,” he said, "pharmacists are refusing to fill physician prescriptions, such as emergency contraceptives, because it goes against their beliefs.”
Church remains opposedThe Catholic Church has not wavered in its opposition to oral contraceptives through the years, said Cristy Welch, natural family planning coordinator for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s Office of Family Life. "It is not open to life, and … it can have potential harm,” Welch said in explaining the church’s opposition. "The church’s teaching is that intercourse should be both life-giving and love-giving, and so the pill takes away from that.” Welch said she has taken notice of several articles written about the 50th anniversary of the pill. She said over the years, the church has had to battle against prevailing culture, which accepts oral contraceptives as a normal part of life. "It’s hard because of the way media and medicine have influenced our culture,” she said. "It’s being sold as something that’s beneficial for people’s health.” She said some people see the church as "very countercultural” when they realize that its stance against the pill hasn’t changed. One way to combat that reaction is to share the church’s teachings with young people, she said. Welch visits the two Catholic high schools in Oklahoma City — Bishop McGuinness and Mount St. Mary — each year to talk to students about natural family planning. Natural family planning is an umbrella term of different methods for a woman to monitor natural biology markers of fertility and use that information to plan to achieve or postpone pregnancy.
Teens targetedTeens are being targeted by nonreligious leaders, too. "Our ultimate goal is prevention,” said Keri Parks, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma. "There are still too many unintended pregnancies in our state.” About 1 in 3 pregnancies in Oklahoma is unintended, Parks said. Oklahoma ranks No. 6 in the nation for teen mothers. The result, she said, can be expensive. Teen moms average a cost of $1,424 per child each year in social services provided by the state, Parks said. Birth control costs about $300 a year. "Teens don’t know that it’s always readily available and they have options,” Parks said. "We encourage parental involvement for all the teens that come to our clinics.” Barbara Santee didn’t know her options in 1955, and the pill wasn’t available. Santee now advocates for women’s rights and reproductive health. "I was from a very poor, very abusive family,” she said. "I didn’t want to get buried in poverty. The only way out of that I could see was education. Even after I had my son, I ended up with three master’s (degrees) and a Ph.D. The pill helped on that tremendously.” Contributing: Carla Hinton, Religion Editor