Our Bodies, Our Blog

Free the Pill!

By Guest Contributor |

by Carrie Baker

This article was previously published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and is reposted with permission.

Sixty years ago this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill for distribution in the United States — a game changer for women’s lives. Before approval of the pill, most women were married by age 19, and more than half of them were pregnant within the first seven months.

Once the pill became available, women for the first time in history had a reliable form of contraception that freed them from the unrelenting fear of unwanted pregnancies. With a 99% success rate, if taken properly, the birth control pill meant that women could invest in their educations and careers without the fear that they would have to cut their ambitions short because of an unexpected pregnancy. The pill also encouraged more open attitudes toward sex and fueled the women’s movement.

In my classes at Smith College, I teach about the history of the pill. How two elderly female activists — Margaret Sanger and Katharine Dexter McCormick — demanded a contraceptive pill that women could take like aspirin and then paid for the scientific research. How a Harvard biologist named Gregory Pincus convinced a pharmaceutical company into risking the possibility of a devastating boycott to develop this revolutionary contraceptive. I teach my students about how a dangerously high dosage of the contraceptive pill was tested on women in Puerto Rico, and how doctors ignored women’s reports of side effects.

The FDA approved the pill on May 9, 1960, at a dosage level 10 times the standard dosage today. Women reported side effects — nausea, dizziness, headaches, stomach pain and vomiting — but doctors minimized these complaints. Then in 1969, journalist Barbara Seaman published a hard-hitting expose about the dangers of the high dosage birth control pill.

Congress scheduled hearings in January of 1970. As a doctor who testified at the hearing later described the dosage level of the pill at the time, “they used a sledgehammer to drive a small nail.” In typical fashion at the time (and still), male members of Congress invited a long line of male doctors and researchers to testify. Young feminists were having nothing of it.  They showed up in droves and disrupted the hearings, demanding action from the legislators. As a result, the dosage of the pill was adjusted downward. The PBS documentary, “The Pill,” tells this fascinating story.

For 50 years, the pill has given women a safe and reliable way to prevent the heartache and health risks of unwanted pregnancies. And while the Roman Catholic Church has opposed contraception, polls show that the birth control pill enjoys widespread support among the American public.

Despite the safety and popularity of the birth control pill, health insurance companies often did not cover the costs of the pill. While most FDA drugs are immediately covered by health insurance, even Viagra, the pill was excluded from many plans for years — a blatant example of male bias in the insurance industry. Feminists fought for insurance coverage of the pill by lobbying Congress, to no avail. They also sued employers for sex discrimination for failure to cover contraception in employer-sponsored health plans, with some success.

But the breakthrough was the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, which for the first time prohibited sex discrimination in health insurance and required coverage of all preventative health care without copays. Then in August of 2011, the Obama administration issued regulations defining preventative health care to include coverage of all FDA-approved forms of contraception. For the first time, women with health insurance had a legal right to contraception coverage.

But this victory did not last long. Conservatives immediately began mobilizing to demand a broad exception from the contraception coverage requirement. The Obama administration had exempted churches and other religious institutions, but conservatives wanted exemptions for business owners with religious opposition to birth control. The craft retailer Hobby Lobby sued and took their case — Burwell v. Hobby Lobby — all the way to the Supreme Court. The conservative court ruled in their favor, carving a large exemption into the ACA contraceptive requirement for closely-held, privately owned businesses.

Then, in October of 2017, the Trump administration issued new regulations, vastly expanding the exemption to apply to all businesses and to cover not only religious objections, but moral objections of any kind. Trump gave all employers the right to veto women’s access to birth control. Reproductive rights advocates have challenged the exemption, and the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case earlier this month.

I tell my students that when I was their age in the 1980s, contraception was not a  political issue. It was not controversial outside of the Catholic hierarchy (Catholic women had always used contraception at rates similar to all women).

But today, there is an all-out war against contraception in America. Anti-abortion conservatives have blurred the line between abortion and contraception, arguing that “the pill kills.” What does it kill? Babies, women, the environment, and marriage, argues Rita Diller, national director of Stop Planned Parenthood International. Republicans’ all-out war on Planned Parenthood has had tremendous success under the Trump administration, which gutted the country’s national family planning program — called Title X — last year.

But reproductive rights advocates are pushing back with a campaign to make the birth control pill more accessible and affordable. The group Free the Pill is lobbying the FDA to make the birth control pill available over the counter, removing unnecessary doctor’s visits for prescriptions and giving more people greater control over their reproductive health. In fact, the pill is already available over the counter in many countries around the world. And the pill is extremely safe — safer than many drugs already available over the counter.

The Oral Contraceptives Over-the-Counter Working Group — a coalition of over 100 national, state, and local reproductive health, rights and justice organizations — argues that the prescription requirement for hormonal contraception is a barrier for some people, including those who lack health insurance, as well as those who are insured but face other obstacles such as difficulties getting to a health facility or expenses related to taking time off from work for a clinic visit.

Additionally, young women and immigrant women report cultural and linguistic barriers to accessing quality, comprehensive reproductive health services, and these barriers can make prescription access challenging. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated barriers to health care, and the struggling economy has resulted in mounting job losses, making the need for accessible, affordable birth control pills more critical than ever.

Sixty years is too long to wait for birth control options that better meet people’s needs. Women have a human right to safe and effective birth control. The FDA should approve hormonal birth control for sale over the counter, and Congress should require health insurers to cover contraception without a prescription. In this way, women would  move significantly closer to realizing their human right to have full control over their reproductive lives.

To join the fight for great access to birth control, go to freethepill.org and follow the latest news on twitter at #FreeThePill.

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.

group shot of young reproductive justice advocatesgroup shot of young reproductive justice advocates

Please Support Civil Liberties and Public Policy During the Covid-19 Crisis: An Appeal from Judy Norsigian

By Judy Norsigian |

These challenging times require fierce, broad, and intersectional activism – which is just what Civil Liberties and Public Policy (CLPP) has been doing for the past four decades. This now-independent nonprofit, which used to be affiliated with Hampshire College, continues its unique movement-building work preparing younger activists to work on the front lines of today’s struggle for reproductive justice. Please consider supporting CLPP today with a generous donation. 

As we know, the Covid-19 pandemic is disproportionately harming those in our communities who were already facing … More

photo of quote from Barbara Seamanphoto of quote from Barbara Seaman

Our Doctors, Ourselves: Barbara Seaman and Popular Health Feminism in the 1970s

By OBOS |

“If the plastic speculum was the tool of choice for self-help advocates, leading women to a better understanding of their own bodies, then the popular media was Barbara Seaman’s preferred weapon in the cultural battle against medical sexism.”
— Kelly O’Donnell, in her article “Our Doctors, Ourselves: Barbara Seaman and Popular Health Feminism in the 1970s”

Barbara Seaman, a popular journalist in the 1960s and 70s who wrote for magazines including Brides, Ms., Ladies Home Journal, and Family Circle, was one of the first journalists to … More

The Very Early Perimenopause: What We Can Learn from Dr. Jerilynn Prior’s Research

By Guest Contributor |

by Nina Coslov

In my early 40s, I started noticing changes in my body. A once great sleeper, I was now waking at 2 a.m. – often with lots of energy and sometimes with anxiety. I’d be awake for about 3 hours before I could get back to sleep. Around the same time, premenstrual breast tenderness returned — something I hadn’t experienced since my 20s, before I had children. Not long after, I’d notice from time to time a pervasive edginess, a revving — an energetic … More

Woman handing menstrual supplies to Colombian prisonersWoman handing menstrual supplies to Colombian prisoners

Dirty Business: Lack of Menstrual Equity in Colombian Prisons

By Guest Contributor |

By Charlie Ruth Castro

Lee este post en español

Let’s talk about menstruation – a natural and necessary process among women, but one that we have been culturally taught to hate, hide or even make fun of.  Also, let me talk about a dirty business perpetrated by certain officers from INPEC, the Colombian national institution in charge of penitentiary policy. In many prisons, INPEC has routinely failed to supply adequate menstrual products for the female prison population.

Being deprived of ways to deal with bleeding is outrageous, … More

Woman handing menstrual supplies to Colombian prisonersWoman handing menstrual supplies to Colombian prisoners

Negocio Sucio: Falta de Equidad Menstrual en las Cárceles Colombianas

By Guest Contributor |

By Charlie Ruth Castro

Read this post in English

Vamos a hablar de menstruación, el proceso más natural y necesario para la buena salud reproductiva entre las mujeres, pero aquel que culturalmente nos han enseñado a aborrecer, ocultar o incluso a hacerle burla. Y por otro lado voy a hablar de un negocio sucio perpetrado por ciertos funcionarios del INPEC -la institución nacional a cargo de la política penitenciaria- en muchas de las cárceles de Colombia: el desvío de presupuestos para el suministro de toallas higiénicas … More

text: The fight to take back our genestext: The fight to take back our genes

Congress Wants to Give Companies the Right to Own Our Genes

By Guest Contributor |

by Lori Andrews

Six years ago, on June 13, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in AMP v. Myriad took a great step forward for women’s health by unanimously ruling that human genes could not be patented. Now a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives have released a bill that would allow companies to own our genes once again.

Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides that any patent system must “promote progress in science and the useful arts.” But patents on genes do not promote the … More

“Simone de Beauvoir alone would never have gotten me from intellect to action”

By Guest Contributor |

Note from OBOS co-founder Judy Norsigian: After publication of my reflections piece in the June 2019 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), I received this wonderful email from Kay Johnson. Her story reminds us all once again of how ONE life experience (reading a book/having a terrific teacher or mentor/participating in an eye-opening social justice action/etc.) can change the course of our lives and bring us into partnership with others also committed to racial, economic and social justice for all.

I am … More

Refusing to Be Silenced: Federal Gag Rule an Active Threat to All Who Care about HIV

By Guest Contributor |

by Anna Forbes

On April 23, Judge Michael McShane of Federal District Court in Oregon issued a preliminary injunction against a federal “gag rule” written to forbid health care providers from even talking about abortion to patients who have questions about it.

The two parallel suits before him were filed by the American Medical Association, Planned Parenthood of America, and a coalition of over 20 states (along with numerous other plaintiffs) that oppose this gag rule.

Scheduled to go into effect on for May 3, the rule … More

“A Female Body in this Specific Moment”: Our Bodies Ourselves Exhibition

By OBOS |

As the 50th anniversary of the first edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” approaches, a New Haven museum has launched an exhibition featuring art inspired and informed by the book.

The exhibition, also titled Our Bodies Ourselves, features a variety of media created by more than 70 artists. The works are on display at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art through April 10.

A sack that hangs with the video from “Gestation” Photo: Lucy Gellman

The exhibit includes participatory installations like Megan Shaughnessy’s video work, which … More