In a time when the role of women was under great scrutiny, it is not surprising that the development of The Pill induced a bit of controversy. From questions of morality and religious disagreement to the pressing issue of gender equality, norethindrone (AKA “the pill”) has long since its emergence in the 60’s been not only a source of immense debate but also a major sign of progress; scientifically and socially speaking. As the great philosopher and author Plato said; “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Fighting against high rates of infant mortality and maternal death, many women aimed to have as many children as possible to guarantee that some, if any, made it to maturity. With the availability and convenience of antibiotics and antiseptics in the middle of the twentieth century however, women were now faced with the problem of having too many children. Thus was born the “necessity” to prevent and reduce conception, and from it stemmed the need for an oral contraceptive.
The solution to this problem was norethindrone, the first oral contraceptive. The development of this contraceptive was based on the concept of a naturally occurring biological event; when a woman is pregnant she cannot conceive again. The reason for this is the presence of the pregnancy hormone progesterone. So if scientists could synthesis progesterone and make it easily ingested, then the suppression of ovulation would become possible, and the first oral contraceptive would be born. Two problems delayed its development. First, it was difficult to find a way to take progesterone orally; it was inconvenient to have to inject it and would lose it effectiveness when mixed with stomach acids. Second, an outside source of the chemical was yet to be discovered (or at least a cheap, easily accessible source). These obstacles were conquered by chemist Russell Marker, who began experimenting with the sarsaparilla vine. The vine produced a compound which he called sarsasaponin. The compound was extremely close to synthesizing progesterone, but there was a side group in the four-ring steroid system that had to be removed before it could produce his desired product. The removal of this side group became known as the “Marker degradation”, and is still referred to as such. Marker later discovered that he could find more of his starting material in wild yams from Mexico. Carl Djerassi took Marker’s work a step further and developed a cheaper method as well as allowed the compound to be taken orally. He concluded that in removing a CH3 group, the molecule would be able to withstand its encounter with potent stomach acid. Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick took the pill yet another step further by having it transformed into a pill that could be “swallowed like aspirin” and by testing it to reduce the number of side effects that accompanied its consumption.
Le Couteur and Burreson merely introduce the impact that the pill has had on society and science. In the case of its scientific impact, the pill allowed for the invention of performance-enhancing drugs copiously used by athletes. Regardless of what light that fact is seen in, it is one of major influence. Socially speaking is where the pill truly takes center stage. As the authors state, the pill is associate with “the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the women’s liberation movement, the rise of feminism, the increased percentage of women in the workplace, and even the breakdown of the family”. That statement alone shows that the pill has undoubtedly had a major impact on men and women alike; women who benefited from and men who were affected by women’s rise in society’s hierarchy. There is an infinitely accumulating list of ways it has influenced aspects varying from relationships, education, business, and politics, among the many others. The pill allowed women to wait longer to have children so they could go to school longer than in previous generations and for some women to go to school for the first time. This increase in education amongst women allowed them to have more opportunities in the workplace. Additionally, they were able to spend more time working as they could now control the number of maternity leaves taken. Women were now able to take control of the decisions they made with their body without having to worry about the consequences. That is the only reason I have any skepticism about the pill; women take advantage of their freedom and develop an air of ignorance in their choices of what to do with their bodies. However, it is an amazing feat that women do have the freedom to be ignorant, which is possible thanks to the pill. Gender equality was long overdue when the pill made its debut, but it was better late than never. The pill paved the way for women’s suffrage, an increase in divorce rates, and a voice for women that could no longer be stifled. Whether it was a conscious effort or not, I believe that the true necessity that lead to the invention of the pill was the necessity for tolerance and equal opportunity.