SJ Chapman, Resident Blogger (’12, Northwestern University Law School)
Carl Djerassi, who created the key ingredient in oral contraception, died on January 30. The legacy he left behind was invaluable: a safe way for women take control of their reproductive lives. Djerassi’s death spurred Megan Gibson to write a stunning article for Time on the history of birth control. Gibson writes about epochs I can’t fathom – before birth control was available… before people even knew what it was.
Gibson writes, “For as long as men and women have been making babies, they’ve been trying not to,” quoting The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. Experimenting with contraception goes back to at least 3000 BC, where condoms appear in legends of King Minos of Crete.
Women began using methods for birth control that ranged from silly to lethal. Women held their breath during sex, tied weasel testicles around their thighs, inserted crocodile dung into their vaginas, drank lead, drank mercury, or douched with Lysol. Women used IUD precursors made of precious metals or glass, risking serious injury or infection.
Nearly 5000 years passed between 3000 BC and 1838, when vulcanized rubber led to the invention of rubber condoms, cervical caps and diaphragms.
Then, in the 1950s, Carl Djerassi led a team of scientists to develop a progesterone pill to block ovulation. His synthesis led to the invention of the birth control pill, released in 1960. By 1965, more than 6 million American women were on the pill.
During the 1960s, the battle against laws and stigma raged as women fought to gain access to the pill. Finally in 1972 the Supreme Court ruled that the pill was legal for all women to use. Today, more than 100 million women use the pill around the world, and it’s free to Americans under the Affordable Care Act.
Because of the pill, we live in an age when women can confidently and safely take control over their reproductive lives. Not that there aren’t better methods waiting for us in the future. (Oh how I welcome the day when an LSRJ blogger writes “women used to resort to inane methods of birth control, like taking pills at regular 24 hour intervals to hormonally alter their bodies”). But until that future arrives, I’ll be eternally grateful for Carl Djerassi’s contribution to reproductive justice. And I’ll always be saddened by his passing.