May 1, 2010
Which came first, the pill or social revolution? As the oral contraceptive reaches a certain age, KATHY SHERIDAN assesses the impact of a ‘wonder drug’ now used by 100 million women worldwide
THE PILL is 50 years old. That’s if you date its birth from May 9th 1960, the day the US Food and Drug Administration stamped “approved” on GD Searle Co’s wonder drug, Enovid. It changed the world. Or did it? It was a panacea. Or was it a poison?
The last question is more easily answered. The early users suffered horrible side-effects, such as dizziness, nausea, weight gain, sore breasts, even blood clots, caused by the massive doses of oestrogen in the original pill, as much as 150 micrograms compared to the 20 to 30mg in the modern version.
On top of that, there was the niggle about the heft of chemical and hormonal power contained in that tiny, life-changing disc. Were users ingesting a toxic time bomb? Not according to Aberdeen University, which last month published a 40-year study of 46,000 British women. It found that users of the pill live longer and are less likely to die prematurely of heart disease, cancer or a range of other medical ailments.
The pill is now used by some 100 million women around the world and has a clean bill of health, yet questions still hang over it. In a random trawl of well-educated, thirtysomething women, one, who started using it at 14, remains enthusiastic; another has become somewhat wary (see panel); and a third says she has never taken it (“The thought of chemicals messing with my natural cycle made me queasy, so I took my chances with condoms”). They have the luxury of choice, of course.
“There are a lot more options now,” says Niall Behan of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA). “Before, there was only the pill. Now we’ve seen a big shift in recent years, to contraceptive coils and implants . . . There are no worries about taking a daily pill, no repeat prescriptions . . . They’re good for up to three years and easily removed.”