International Women’s Day is celebrated each year around the world on 8 March. The global event recognises the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, with this year’s theme being ‘embrace equity’. The theme ‘embrace equity’ gives us cause to reflect on the fact that out of thousands of medicines that have been developed, not one has dramatically transformed generations and impacted the lives of women, more so than oral contraceptive pill – commonly known as the pill.
Introduced in May 1950, the development of the pill, for the first time in history allowed the separation of sexual practice from conception. This in turn, forced a re-assessment and re-evaluation of social, political and religious viewpoints. In the 1950’s there was limited choice for women, with life being centred on the family and domestic duties. Women who had held wartime jobs were expected to abandon their careers in order to provide employment for men returning from war. They were encouraged to stay at home, raise children and care for their husbands. The pill was initially marketed for “cycle control” for good reason – socially, legally, and politically, contraception was taboo.
The release of the oral contraceptive pill Anovlar in Australia on 1 February 1961 ushered in a momentous change in women’s lives. Initially available only to married women, the pill gave women the freedom to avoid unwanted pregnancies and plan parenthood. This control over their reproductive future saw more women enter the workforce. Increased participation became the basis for ongoing social change that included legislation around equal pay for equal work and freedom from discrimination.
Although much appears to have changed in half a century, not a lot really has. The doses and delivery methods of contraception have changed, however the responsibilities, along with the burden of both expense and the health risk of contraception still have had a high cost for women.
Despite some advances in the options available, women alone are still planning and executing their preferred contraception method. This includes shared methods and male condom use, which women often negotiate. While this burden may not be equally shared by men, at the same time, men lose autonomy by not being responsible for contraception. Maybe we can look forward to a future with a more equal and equitable distribution of risk and responsibility. There is some recent research suggesting that a non-hormonal male pill could potentially expand men’s birth control options.
The recent announcement on 19 February, by the NSW state government for a proposed pharmacist prescribing pilot to allow pharmacists to continue a prescription for the re-supply of certain oral contraceptive pills (OCP) is another step forward in improving access to contraception for women. With the issues around access to GP care a critical issue, these changes will make a real difference to people who need a prescription.
So, with over 60% of the current pharmacist workforce identifying as female, take pause and reflect as we celebrate this International Women’s Day, how this could have been very different without one medicine – the pill.