2021 marks 60 years since the pill was first made available to women in the UK. It is fair to say that the pill has changed our society and women’s place in it, affording us the ability to choose when to start a family, to have control over painful periods, to pursue further education or careers, and to enjoy sex. It has been integral in taking ownership of our bodies and lives. How could there be a downside?
However, even though oral contraception has been available to women since 1961, it was initially only to married, older women. Why? Maybe – like with any kind towards political step towards gender equality – it was a compromise, a way of getting something rather than nothing. Perhaps the government did not want to appear to be supporting the ‘Free Love’ movement of the era, or invalidating the socially dominant nuclear family.
The next progress in contraception was in 1967, when local health services could provide women with contraceptive advice, regardless of marital status. This was the Family Planning Act, a private member’s bill pushed by Edwin Brooks (b.1929), a Labour MP who saw low-income homes having little to no access to such advice as an issue, leading to high birth rates.
Finally, in the 1974 reorganisation of the NHS, family planning services came under NHS control, offering oral contraception to any woman over 16. Along with this came the 3 weeks on, 1 week off system that many still follow when taking some variations of the pill. It has recently been found to be unnecessary, and more likely to get you pregnant than not having a break. A GP I spoke to deemed the practice to be “misogynistic”, existing simply to remind womb-bearing subjects of their physical capacity to bleed and give birth.
By 1970, 700,00 individuals between the ages of 16 and 40 were taking the pill. As of 2007 that number was up to 3.5 million. Now there is even vague talk of having progesterone only pills made available over the counter!
Now, I must admit, I have never been on the pill. My periods were never too bad and I have never liked taking medication, so at 17 I jumped right to the implant. It was the same for my sister. We both had, and still do have, very different opinions to our parents about contraception and sex in general. School did not help much; as girls we were told that we would get periods and use tampons or pads, as teenagers we were told to use condoms to avoid STDs, but little about contraception. We had to figure it out for ourselves.
Another reason why I stayed away from the pill was the effect I saw it have on some of my friends’ moods. It seems crazy that this tiny thing that is meant to make our lives a bit easier can have such harsh side effects, and that it is socially expected that we grin and bear it without complaint. When talking to a GP, they said that there was little evidence for correlation between the pill and mental health problems. Why? Along with other issues surrounding female sexual and reproductive health, there has been far too little study into it. It is time there should be.
As always, there’s still progress to be made in reducing the side effects of the contraceptive pill so that we can live our lives to the fullest, but the fact we have free access to the pill is something to be grateful for. We have a choice to take some control over our bodies, so let’s utilise it and push for further research and development towards a better future for sexual and reproductive health.
image: Pexels via Pixabay