The Pill: 50 Years Later

In 1960 the Food and Drug Administration approved the first hormonal contraceptive for use in the United States. How did Americans react to the birth of the birth control pill, and how do they feel about it 50 years later?

Given the sensitivity of sexual subject matter, it is perhaps surprising that birth control and contraception were on the pollsters' agenda in the earliest days of scientific surveys. Almost 75 years ago, in a 1936 Roper/Fortune question, 63% said that they believed in the teaching and practice of birth control. In its commentary on the poll, Fortune's writers noted that 43% of Catholics favored its availability. A Gallup question from around the same time found that 70% believed that the distribution of birth control information should be legal. The questions may have been asked in anticipation of a N.Y. Circuit Court case in which a judge dismissed an action against a doctor who planned to distribute such information.

A few years later, in 1943, 85% of women told Roper/Fortune interviewers that knowledge of birth control should be made available to married women. In a follow-up question, 70% of these women said it should not be kept away from unmarried women. In identical survey questions asked between 1959 and 1963 by Gallup, around three-quarters said birth control information should be available to anyone who wanted it.

Many people felt that widespread availability of the pill would promote promiscuity, but the pollsters don't appear to have linked the two.

While providing information about birth control had wide support, it is unclear how Americans reacted to the pill's actual introduction in the 1960s. We know that majorities oppose providing young people with the pill. In 1965, in a Gallup question, only 18% of women and 14% of men approved of giving the pill to women in college after a university health officer had given prescriptions for the pill to two unmarried (but engaged) students. In 1970, only 24% of men and 12% of women favored making the pills available to teenage girls.

Disapproval did not appear to keep young people from taking the pill. In a Louis Harris question from 1970, 44% of women over the age of 16 said they had used the pill, including 60% of women under the age of 30. Those with higher levels of formal education often lead change, and in 1970, 60% of college-educated women, compared with 30% of those with a grade school education, said they had used the contraceptive. In 2010, when CBS News asked about usage, 75% of women said they had used the pill. Seven percent said they were using it at the time of the survey.

Congress held hearings on the pill's safety in the 1960s and many of the early survey questions reflect that concern. Forty-three percent told Gallup in 1966 that the pills could be used safely. When CBS News repeated the question this year, 64% gave that response. Not everyone has been convinced. Around a quarter in both years said the pill could not be used safely.

Few survey questions addressed how the pill might affect sexual mores, although the subject of how sexual attitudes and behaviors were changing was getting a lot of attention from the pollsters of the day. Many people felt that widespread availability of the pill would promote promiscuity, but the pollsters don't appear to have linked the two. In a 1962 Gallup survey for the Saturday Evening Post, 58% of unmarried women worried that morals were becoming too loose. In three Roper/Virginia Slims surveys done between 1974 and 1985, majorities or pluralities of men and women said the "new morality" would lead to the breakdown of morals and separately to the weakening of marriage. In 1985 only 2 in 10 women, and 28% of men, said the new morality would lead to more successful marriages.

In an essay in July 1972, George Gallup, Jr. said that those who study surveys had concluded that "more permissive sexual standards represent evolution rather than revolution. They view these standards as part of the new independence among young people and the greater individual freedom of society in general." While debate about the state of our morals continues, most people (56% in the new CBS poll) say the pill has made women's lives better. Only 9% believe it has made them worse, and 28% say it has made no difference for them.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: stock.xchang/forwardcom

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