Wikimedia Commons

The first commercially available birth control pills were sold 54 years ago today. Since then, a number of other forms of hormonal birth control have been developed, including intrauterine devices (IUDs), implants, patches, rings and shots. The CDC reports roughly 82 percent of sexually active women between the ages of 15 and 44 will use some form of hormonal contraception in their lifetimes.

Women have been practicing non-hormonal forms of birth control since prehistory, including periodic abstinence (the rhythm method), early withdrawal ("pulling out"), prolonged breastfeeding, rudimentary condoms and even early forms of spermicide. PBS reported that in ancient Egypt, women combined cotton, honey, dates, and acacia leaves into a vaginal suppository. The internal body heat fermented the acacia into lactic acid, an ingredient still used in some modern spermicides.

Advertisement

Despite its widespread use, birth control has been a controversial topic since reproductive rights advocates started calling for widespread availability of reliable contraception a century ago.

At the heart of the birth control debate is a woman's right to decide when she becomes sexually active and her right to decouple sex from becoming a parent. Here's a brief timeline of the battles birth control has endured in the United States.

1873: The Comstock Law passes, prohibiting any form of obscenity from being sent via U.S. mail. "Obscenity" included any information regarding contraception, pregnancy prevention methods, or abortifacients. Some states took it a step further and outlawed the sale and use of contraception altogether.

Advertisement

IMAGE: A Victorian-era postcard characterizes unwanted pregnancy as a villain. CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

But Comstock came too late. A fuse had been lit. Women were already aware that there were ways to prevent pregnancy, and even if they couldn't mail that knowledge, they could still talk about it. According to TIME: "The typical white American woman in 1800 gave birth seven times; by 1900 the average was down to 3.5."

Advertisement

1914: Margaret Sanger, the future founder of Planned Parenthood, starts a monthly newsletter called "The Woman Rebel." In it, she coined the phrase "birth control." She was arrested and indicted for violating the Comstock Law in August of that year.

1936: A federal court of appeals rules in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries that despite the Comstock Law, the government cannot interfere with a doctor prescribing or providing forms of birth control.

1951: Two scientists start separately developing a hormonal pill to prevent conception. In the United States, Margaret Sanger convinces Gregory Pincus to work on a "magic pill" to prevent pregnancy; in Mexico, Carl Djerassi synthesizes ovulation-blocking progesterone from yams.

Advertisement

1957: The Food and Drug Administration approves the birth control pill under the name Enovid, but only to treat "severe menstrual disorders." According to The New York Times, a "suspiciously large number of women" suddenly developed severe menstrual disorders.

1960: In May, the FDA approved Enovid for contraceptive use. On August 18, it became available at the pharmacy. States created a variety of sometimes-conflicting laws on who could get birth control: In some states, married women could not legally obtain contraception; in others, it was illegal to give it to unmarried women.

1961: The first Planned Parenthood birth control clinic opens in Connecticut.

1965: The Supreme Court's Griswold v. Connecticut ruling establishes that the constitutional right to privacy covers married women's right to take birth control.

Advertisement

IMAGE: Marcia Goldstein, the publicity director for Planned Parenthood in 1967, reviews a bus ad. CREDIT: Getty Images

1968: Pope Paul VI writes "Humanae Vitae: On the Regulation of Birth," which outlaws all forms of artificial contraception for Catholics. It didn't quite work: American sociologist and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley found that in 1970, 70 percent of Catholic women were using some form of artificial birth control.

Advertisement

1969: Journalist and feminist activist Barbara Seaman releases a book called "The Doctor's Case Against the Pill," which questioned the side effects of oral contraceptives. Women who took them were reporting blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, and depression as a result of the high levels of hormones in the early formulations. The first birth control pills contained 10,000 micrograms of progestin and 150 micrograms of estrogen; today, hormonal birth control has about 50-150 micrograms of progestin and 20-50 micrograms of estrogen.

1970: The Nelson Pill Hearings took place in Congress as a result of "The Doctor's Case." No women were called to testify. The hearings resulted in the first-ever prescription drug insert — a pamphlet with warnings about the side effects that came with every pack of pills.

1972: The Supreme Court's ruling on Eisenstadt v. Baird establishes that single women have the right to obtain birth control.

Advertisement

IMAGE: Women protest the Pope's "Humanae Vitae" in 1973. CREDIT: Getty Images

1973: The Roe v. Wade ruling results in Congress passing the Church Act, which creates the first "conscience clause" to allow healthcare providers to opt out of performing abortions or sterilizations if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

Advertisement

1982: The Adolescent Family Life Act is passed, funding abstinence-only sex education.

1993: The Economist names birth control one of the "Seven Wonders of the Modern World."

1996: The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is passed; it contains $50 million in funding for abstinence-only education.

Advertisement

1999: Emergency contraceptive Plan B becomes available commercially with a prescription.

2000: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules that employer-sponsored health insurance plans must cover contraception.

2000: The Republican-controlled Congress passes a bill called Special Projects of Regional and National Significance–Community-Based Abstinence Education, which adds another $20 million to abstinence-only funding and asserts that schools using those funds must be teaching an eight-point abstinence-only curriculum that includes asserting that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

Advertisement

IMAGE: Protesters at a rally against abstinence-only sex education in 2004. CREDIT: Getty Images

2005: The Deficit Reduction Act upped the price of birth control for college health clinics; as a result, prices for the schools (and subsequently, the students) for contraceptives went up by as much as ten times the original amount.

Advertisement

2006: Laws are proposed in nine states to expand the conscience clause to extend to pharmacists, allowing them to refuse to fill or transfer prescriptions for birth control. The model for the conscience clause expansion laws was created by anti-abortion group Americans United for Life.

2010: The Affordable Care Act passes Congress and is signed into law; one of its provisions is that new health insurance plans must provide generic hormonal birth control at no cost to the policyholder.

2012: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hold a hearing on the inclusion of birth control in the Affordable Care Act. All five panelists are men. Attorney and women's rights activist Sandra Fluke is thrust into the national spotlight after she testifies about the uses for hormonal birth control in treating conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Advertisement

2013: An FDA ruling makes Plan B One-Step available without a prescription.

2014: The Supreme Court rules in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that privately held corporations may choose to not cover forms of birth control in the company-sponsored health insurance plans that the owners disagree with for religious reasons.

Planned Parenthood has some statistics on the impact the pill has had for women in terms of education and work life in the past 54 years. Today, women make up a larger part of the labor force, and the labor force participation rate of married women has doubled. Women today receive more than half of all bachelor's degrees and doctoral degrees, and represent a much higher percentage of law and business school students than they did in 1960.

Advertisement

Obviously, the fight for access to birth control is ongoing. But today, we're going to celebrate birth control and everything it's done for us. Happy birthday, birth control pills!