The Combined Oral Contraceptive Pill (COCP), often referred to as the birth-control pill, or simply "the Pill", is a combination of an estrogen (oestrogen) and a progestin (progestogen), taken by mouth to inhibit normal female fertility. They were first approved for contraceptive use in the United States in 1960, and are a very popular form of birth control. They are currently used by more than 100 million women worldwide and by almost 12 million women in the United States. Usage varies widely by country, age, education, and marital status: one quarter of women aged 16–49 in Great Britain currently use the Pill (combined pill or progestogen only pill ("minipill")), compared to only 1% of women in Japan.
In 1939, Russell Marker, a professor of organic chemistry at Pennsylvania State University, developed a method of synthesizing progesterone from plant steroid sapogenins, initially using sarsapogenin from sarsaparilla which proved too expensive. After three years of extensive botanical research he discovered a much better starting material, the aglycone moiety of the saponin, diosgenin, from inedible Mexican yams (Dioscorea mexicana) found in the rain forests of Veracruz near Orizaba. Unable to interest his research sponsor Parke-Davis in the commercial potential of synthesizing progesterone from Mexican yams, Marker left Penn State and in 1944 co-founded Syntex with two partners in Mexico City before leaving Syntex a year later. Syntex broke the monopoly of European pharmaceutical companies on steroid hormones, reducing the price of progesterone almost 200-fold over the next eight years.
Midway through 20th century, the stage was set for the development of a hormonal contraceptive, but pharmaceutical companies, universities and governments showed no interest in pursuing research.
In March 1952, Sanger wrote a brief note mentioning Pincus' research to her longtime friend and supporter, suffragist and philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick, who visited the WFEB and its co-founder and old friend Hudson Hoagland in June 1952 to learn about contraceptive research there. Frustrated when research stalled from PPFA's lack of interest and meager funding, McCormick arranged a meeting at the WFEB on June 6, 1953 with Sanger and Hoagland where she first met Pincus who committed to dramatically expand and accelerate research with McCormick providing fifty times PPFA's previous funding.
Pincus and McCormick enlisted Harvard clinical professor of gynecology John Rock, chief of gynecology at the Free Hospital for Women and an expert in the treatment of infertility, to lead clinical research with women. At a scientific conference in 1952, Pincus and Rock, who had known each other for many years, discovered they were using similar approaches to achieve opposite goals. In 1952, Rock induced a three-month anovulatory "pseudo-pregnancy" state in eighty of his infertility patients with continuous gradually increasing oral doses of estrogen (diethylstilbestrol 5–30 mg/day) and progesterone (50–300 mg/day) and within the following four months an encouraging 15% became pregnant.
In 1953, at Pincus' suggestion, Rock induced a three-month anovulatory "pseudo-pregnancy" state in twenty-seven of his infertility patients with an oral 300 mg/day progesterone-only regimen for 20 days from cycle days 5–24 followed by pill-free days to produce withdrawal bleeding. This produced the same encouraging 15% pregnancy rate during the following four months without the troubling amenorrhea of the previous continuous estrogen and progesterone regimen. But 20% of the women experienced breakthrough bleeding and in the first cycle ovulation was suppressed in only 85% of the women, indicating that even higher and more expensive oral doses of progesterone would be needed to initially consistently suppress ovulation.
Chemists Carl Djerassi, Luis Miramontes, and George Rosenkranz at Syntex in Mexico City had synthesized the first orally highly active progestin norethindrone in 1951. Chemist Frank B. Colton at Searle in Skokie, Illinois had synthesized the orally highly active progestins norethynodrel (an isomer of norethindrone) in 1952 and norethandrolone in 1953.
In December 1954, Rock began the first studies of the ovulation-suppressing potential of 5–50 mg doses of the three oral progestins for three months (for 21 days per cycle—days 5–25 followed by pill-free days to produce withdrawal bleeding) in fifty of his infertility patients in Brookline, Massachusetts. 5 mg doses of norethindrone or norethynodrel and all doses of norethandrolone suppressed ovulation but caused breakthrough bleeding, but 10 mg and higher doses of norethindrone or norethynodrel suppressed ovulation without breakthrough bleeding and led to a 14% pregnancy rate in the following five months. Pincus and Rock selected Searle's norethynodrel for the first contraceptive trials in women citing its total lack of androgenicity versus Syntex's norethindrone's very slight androgenicity in animal tests.
The first contraceptive trial of Enovid led by Edris Rice-Wray began in April 1956 in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico. A second contraceptive trial of Enovid (and norethindrone) led by Edward T. Tyler began in June 1956 in Los Angeles. On January 23, 1957, Searle held a symposium reviewing gynecologic and contraceptive research on Enovid through 1956 and concluded Enovid's estrogen content could be reduced by 33% to lower the incidence of estrogenic gastrointestinal side effects without significantly increasing the incidence of breakthrough bleeding.
Although FDA-approved for contraceptive use, Searle never marketed Enovid 10 mg as a contraceptive. Eight months later, on February 15, 1961, the FDA approved Enovid 5 mg for contraceptive use. In July 1961, Searle finally began marketing Enovid 5 mg (5 mg norethynodrel and 75 µg mestranol) to physicians as a contraceptive.
Although the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960, contraceptives were not available to married women in all states until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 and were not available to unmarried women in all states until Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972.
The first published case report of a blood clot and pulmonary embolism in a woman using Enavid (Enovid 10 mg in the U.S.) at a dose of 20 mg/day did not appear until November 1961, four years after its approval, by which time it had been used by over one million women. It would take almost a decade of epidemiological studies to conclusively establish an increased risk of venous thrombosis in oral contraceptive users and an increased risk of stroke and myocardial infarction in oral contraceptive users who smoke or have high blood pressure or other cardiovascular or cerebrovascular risk factors. These risks of oral contraceptives were dramatized in the 1969 book The Doctors' Case Against the Pill by feminist journalist Barbara Seaman who helped arrange the 1970 Nelson Pill Hearings called by Senator Gaylord Nelson. The hearings were conducted by Senators who were all men and the witnesses in the first round of hearings were all men, leading Alice Wolfson and other feminists to protest the hearings and generate media attention. Their work led to mandating the inclusion of patient package inserts with oral contraceptives to explain their possible side effects and risks to help facilitate informed consent. Today's standard dose oral contraceptives contain an estrogen dose that is one third lower than the first marketed oral contraceptive and contain lower doses of different, more potent progestins in a variety of formulations.
In March 1960, the Birmingham FPA began trials of norethynodrel 2.5 mg + mestranol 50 µg, but a high pregnancy rate initially occurred when the pills accidentally contained only 36 µg of mestranol—the trials were continued with norethynodrel 5 mg + mestranol 75 µg (Conovid in Britain, Enovid 5 mg in the U.S.). In August 1960, the Slough FPA began trials of norethynodrel 2.5 mg + mestranol 100 µg (Conovid-E in Britain, Enovid-E in the U.S.). In May 1961, the London FPA began trials of Schering's Anovlar.
In October 1961, at the recommendation of the Medical Advisory Council of its CIFC, the FPA added Searle's Conovid to its Approved List of Contraceptives. On December 4, 1961, Enoch Powell, then Minister of Health, announced that the oral contraceptive pill Conovid could be prescribed through the NHS at a subsidized price of 2s per month. In 1962, Schering's Anovlar and Searle's Conovid-E were added to the FPA's Approved List of Contraceptives.
The Pill was approved for use in September 1999; the Pill prescription guidelines the government endorsed require Pill users to visit a doctor every three months for pelvic examinations and undergo tests for sexually transmitted diseases and uterine cancer. In the United States and Europe, in contrast, an annual or bi-annual clinic visit is standard for Pill users.
Combined oral contraceptive pills should be taken at the same time each day. If one or more tablets are forgotten for more than 12 hours, contraceptive protection will be reduced. Most brands of combined pills are packaged in one of two different packet sizes, with days marked off for a 28 day cycle. For the 21-pill packet, a pill is consumed daily for three weeks, followed by a week of no pills. For the 28-pill packet, 21 pills are taken, followed by week of placebo or sugar pills. A woman on the pill will have a withdrawal bleed sometime during the placebo week, and is still protected from pregnancy during this week.
Failure to take pills during the placebo week does not impact the effectiveness of the pill, provided that daily ingestion of active pills is resumed at the end of the week.
The withdrawal bleeding that occurs during the break from active pills is thought to be comforting, as a physical confirmation of not being pregnant. The 28-day pill package also simulates the average menstrual cycle, though the hormonal events during a pill cycle are significantly different from those of a normal ovulatory menstrual cycle. The withdrawal bleeding is also predictable; as a woman goes longer periods of time taking only active pills, unexpected breakthrough bleeding becomes a more common side effect.
Starting in 2003, women have also been able to use a three-month version of the Pill. Similar to the effect of using a constant-dosage formulation and skipping the placebo weeks for three months, Seasonale gives the benefit of less frequent periods, at the potential drawback of breakthrough bleeding. Seasonique is another version in which the placebo week every three months is replaced with a week of low-dose estrogen.
A version of the combined pill has also been packaged to completely eliminate placebo pills and withdrawal bleeds. Marketed as Anya or Lybrel, studies have shown that after seven months 71% of users no longer had any breakthrough bleeding, the most common side effect of going longer periods of time without breaks from active pills.
The typical use pregnancy rate among COCP users varies depending on the population being studied, ranging from 2-8% per year. The perfect use pregnancy rate of COCPs is 0.3% per year.
Several factors account for typical use effectiveness being lower than perfect use effectiveness:
For instance, someone using oral forms of hormonal birth control might be given incorrect information by a health care provider as to the frequency of intake, or by mistake not take the pill one day, or simply not bother to go to the pharmacy on time to renew the prescription.
COCPs provide effective contraception from the very first pill if started within five days of the beginning of the menstrual cycle (within five days of the first day of menstruation). If started at any other time in the menstrual cycle, COCPs provide effective contraception only after 7 consecutive days use of active pills, so a backup method of contraception must be used until active pills have been taken for 7 consecutive days. COCPs should be taken at approximately the same time every day.
Contraceptive efficacy may be impaired by: 1) missing more than one active pill in a packet, 2) delay in starting the next packet of active pills (i.e. extending the pill-free, inactive or placebo pill period beyond 7 days), 3) intestinal malabsorption of active pills due to vomiting or diarrhea, 4) drug interactions with active pills that decrease contraceptive estrogen or progestogen levels.
Progestagen negative feedback decreases the pulse frequency of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) release by the hypothalamus, which decreases the release of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and greatly decreases the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) by the anterior pituitary. Decreased levels of FSH inhibit follicular development, preventing an increase in estradiol levels. Progestagen negative feedback and the lack of estrogen positive feedback on LH release prevent a mid-cycle LH surge. Inhibition of follicular development and the absence of a LH surge prevent ovulation.
Estrogen was originally included in oral contraceptives for better cycle control (to stabilize the endometrium and thereby reduce the incidence of breakthrough bleeding), but was also found to inhibit follicular development and help prevent ovulation. Estrogen negative feedback on the anterior pituitary greatly decreases the release of FSH, which inhibits follicular development and helps prevent ovulation.
A secondary mechanism of action of all progestagen-containing contraceptives is inhibition of sperm penetration through the cervix into the upper genital tract (uterus and fallopian tubes) by decreasing the amount of and increasing the viscosity of the cervical mucus.
Other secondary mechanisms have been hypothesized. One example is endometrial effects that prevent implantation of an embryo in the uterus. Pro-life groups consider such a mechanism to be abortifacient, and the existence of postfertilization mechanisms is a controversial topic. Some scientists point out that the possibility of fertilization during COCP use is very small. From this, they conclude that endometrial changes are unlikely to play an important role, if any, in the observed effectiveness of COCPs. Others make more complex arguments against the existence of these mechanisms , while yet other scientists argue the existing data supports such mechanisms. The controversy is currently unresolved.
Many clinicians consider the public perception of weight gain on the Pill to be inaccurate and dangerous. The aforementioned 1992 French review article noted that one unpublished 1989 study by Professor Elizabeth Connell at Emory University of 550 women found that 23% of the 6% of women who discontinued the Pill because of poor cycle control experienced subsequent unwanted pregnancies. A 2000 British review article concluded there is no evidence that modern low-dose pills cause weight gain, but that fear of weight gain contributed to poor compliance in taking the Pill and subsequent unintended pregnancy, especially among adolescents.
Progestin-only contraceptives are known to worsen the condition of women who are already depressed. However, current medical reference textbooks on contraception and major organizations such as the American ACOG, the WHO, and the United Kingdom's RCOG agree that current evidence indicates low-dose combined oral contraceptives are unlikely to increase the risk of depression, and unlikely to worsen the condition in women who are currently depressed. Contraceptive Technology states that low-dose COCPs have not been implicated in disruptions of serotonin or tryptophan.
The pill may effect what male body odors a woman prefers, which might influence their selection of partner.
Oral contraceptives come in a variety of formulations. The main division is between combined oral contraceptive pills, containing both estrogen and progestins and progestin only pills. Combined oral contraceptive pills also come in varying types, including varying doses of estrogen, and whether the dose of estrogen or progestin changes from week to week.
Research into the relationship between breast cancer risk and hormonal contraception is complex and seemingly contradictory. The large 1996 collaborative reanalysis of individual data on over 150,000 women in 54 studies of breast cancer found that: "The results provide strong evidence for two main conclusions. First, while women are taking combined oral contraceptives and in the 10 years after stopping there is a small increase in the relative risk of having breast cancer diagnosed. Second, there is no significant excess risk of having breast cancer diagnosed 10 or more years after stopping use. The cancers diagnosed in women who had used combined oral contraceptives were less advanced clinically than those diagnosed in women who had never used these contraceptives." This data has been interpreted to suggest that oral contraceptives have little or no biological effect on breast cancer development, but that women who seek gynecologic care to obtain contraceptives have more early breast cancers detected through screening.
It is generally accepted by medical authorities that the health risks of oral contraceptives are lower than those from pregnancy and birth, and "the health benefits of any method of contraception are far greater than any risks from the method". Some organizations have argued that comparing a contraceptive method to no method (pregnancy) is not relevant—instead, the comparison of safety should be among available methods of contraception.
Combined oral contraceptive use reduces the risk of ovarian cancer by 40% and the risk of endometrial cancer by 50% compared to never users. The risk reduction increases with duration of use, with an 80% reduction in risk for both ovarian and endometrial cancer with use for more than 10 years. The risk reduction for both ovarian and endometrial cancer persists for at least 20 years.
Because the Pill was so effective, and soon so widespread, it also heightened the debate about the moral and health consequences of pre-marital sex and promiscuity. Never before had sexual activity been so divorced from reproduction. For a couple using the Pill, intercourse became purely an expression of love, or a means of physical pleasure, or both; but it was no longer a means of reproduction. While this was true of previous contraceptives, their relatively high failure rates and their less widespread use failed to emphasize this distinction as clearly as did the Pill. The spread of oral contraceptive use thus led many religious figures and institutions to debate the proper role of sexuality and its relationship to procreation. The Roman Catholic Church in particular, after studying the phenomenon of oral contraceptives, re-emphasized traditional Catholic teaching on birth control in the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical reiterated the traditional Catholic teaching that artificial contraception distorted the nature and purpose of sex.
A backlash against oral contraceptives occurred in the early and mid-1970s, when reports and speculations appeared that linked the use of the Pill to breast cancer. Until then, many women in the feminist movement had hailed the Pill as an "equalizer" that had given them the same sexual freedom as men had traditionally enjoyed. This new development, however, caused many of them to denounce oral contraceptives as a male invention designed to facilitate male sexual freedom with women at the cost of health risk to women. At the same time, society was beginning to take note of the impact of the Pill on traditional gender roles. Women now did not have to choose between a relationship and a career; singer Loretta Lynn commented on this in her 1974 album with a song entitled "The Pill," which told the story of a married woman's use of the drug to liberate herself from her traditional role as wife and mother.