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The Pill Turns 50

This week is the 50th anniversary of the pill, a medical breakthrough that has changed society and the sexual landscape forever.

It still has critics, but 100 million women around the world use it to control when and how many times they become pregnant.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards told CBS News, "The invention of the birth control pill revolutionized life for women in America. It's completely changed women's options."

The Pill promised to free women from biological bonds, and it did just that.

In the 1950s, women made up about a third of the workforce. Today, women hold nearly half of all U.S. jobs. In the 1950s, American women on average had 3.8 children. Today, that number has dropped to 2.1.

Richards said, "It made them able to pursue high education, pursue careers and plan the size of their families, which was something they could never do before."

For the first decade after its creation, the pill could only be legally prescribed to married women. However, even with that condition, it was condemned by the Catholic Church and many conservatives.

Historian Ellen Chesler, author of "Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America," said, "It was really considered immoral to suggest that women's primary role should not be that of wife and mother, but rather that women should have rights to experience their sexuality free of consequence, just like men have always done."

Gloria Steinem, a longtime leading feminist, said on "The Early Show" Thursday that sexual acceptance with The Pill was the subject of her first piece in Esquire magazine in 1962.

"I ended up saying that the problem was the acceptance of women's sexuality, as much as the women's ability to control it. Were there enough liberated men to go around to the newly liberated women? Which turned out to be kind of prescient."

"Early Show" co-anchor Harry Smith pointed out at the time, men wrote about The Pill and were very up in arms about what was being unleashed.

Steinem replied, "Some of them still are actually -- in a political sense."

Though The Pill was purported to change the world, the medication is still relatively difficult to access for many women, Smith observed.

Steinem said, "Because of abstinence-only education, which has been a problem, because pharmacists now can refuse to fill a prescription because of health insurance. So we still have a long way to go in expanding access."

CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said unintended pregnancies among teens is a growing issue once more in the U.S., with the numbers going up for the first time in decades.

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"Obviously there are still issues," she said. "And I think a lot of the aspects of The Pill really have to be uncoupled from the sexual, pregnancy, family planning aspects, because it is medication, and it's used off-label, albeit, but for many, many other medical indications."

Academy Award winning actress Hilary Swank added, "I think for my generation, people like Gloria, and I played Alice Paul (in the film 'Iron Jawed Angels') who helped women get the right to vote. These women have blazed trails for us, for my generation and generations to come, and we still have a lot of work to do to be able to live our lives the way we want. My mom said to me, 'You can do anything you want in life as long as you work hard.' She believed in me, she gave me that gift. And so I'm here, this anniversary to me marks a real time for empowerment for women. And to be here to say, you know, don't give up, don't give up your dreams."

Photos: Hilary Swank

Steinem agreed The Pill has been an important part of the journey for women.

She said, "It dramatized what has been true throughout human history to varying degrees, which is that human sexuality is not entirely about procreation. It's also about expressing love and communication and bonding."

Steinem added, "There have always been methods of contraception, but this was much more dramatic, complete and public. ... It really changed the image of women and of women's lives."


For more on the Pill's 50th anniversary and to enter a celabratory contest, enter here.

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