Fifty Years after the Pill, More than 200 Million Women Still Lack Access to Contraception

6 May 2010
Author: UNFPA

NEW YORK—May 9th, which also falls on Mother’s Day in the United States this year, marks the 50th anniversary of the approval of oral contraceptive pills in the US. The Pill, as the contraceptive became widely known it expanded women's ability to control their fertility and their personal choices. While new technologies have been added to the mix of contracepive options, the Pill is still the most popular form of contraception worldwide.

Yet great numbers are also relying on newer methods of birth control, with the increased availability of options catering to a range of needs. A number of reversible, long-term methods have become available, such as intrauterine devices and hormonal implants. Shorter-term options such as spermicides and once-a-month injectibles add to the mix. The female condom, developed in the 1980s, was game-changing in its own way: an over-the-counter device that women can initiate.

Over the years more than 200 million women have used the Pill. But an equal number worldwide but do not have access to a choice of contraceptive options.

Benefits of contraception are far-reaching

Providing access to family planning for women and their families has myriad of social, health, and economic benefits. The immediate health benefits of fulfilling unmet need for contraception could result in 640,000 fewer newborn deaths and 150,000 fewer maternal deaths each year, according to a recent analysis.

The Pill, and the introduction of subsequent contraceptive methods, did more than improve health and grant women freedom over their reproductive lives. In affording women control of their fertility, it allowed greater access to education, acquisition of skills and the ability to enter the job market.

“The birth control pill has increased options for women worldwide as they exercise their right to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children,” said UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid. “It has also expanded women's ability to take advantage of opportunities for education and employment, enhancing their contributions to their families, societies and nations.”

As such, family planning has been one of the success stories of development, Ms. Obaid said, as well as a major contributor to women’s social mobility, poverty reduction and improved health. "But today more than 200 million women in developing countries still have an unmet need for modern contraception,” she added. “Greater investments are needed to protect the health and rights of women.”

Jagdish Upadhyay heads up the Global Programme to Enhance Reproductive Health Commodity Security at UNFPA, which works to make sure that millions of men and women worldwide are provided with the reproductive health supplies they need. In 2008, UNFPA and donors provided over $210 million in contraceptive methods, over $50 million of which went to oral contraceptives alone.

“To keep pace with the rising demand, however, donor contributions would need to nearly double to satisfy unmet need by 2015,” says Mr. Upadhyay. That is the year by which the Millennium Development Goals are to be met. One of the targets calls for universal access to reproductive health, which includes having access to family planning options.

Symposium to explore the Pill and its impact

The Pill and its consequences will be discussed in an all-day symposium on reproductive health technology, “50 Years after the Pill — The Revolution Continues,” on 8 June during the Women Deliver conference. The symposium will be opened by psychosexual therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General (and former UNFPA Executive Director) Dr. Nafis Sadik. It will feature experts in the field of reproductive health discussing the social, economic, and health benefits of modern contraceptives.

After reviewing various biomedical, public health and social and cultural dimensions of modern contraception over the last 50 years, the symposium will look ahead to the future of reproductive health technology, including the use of microbicides as a method of women-initiated HIV prevention, new methods of cervical cancer screening, the use of mobile phones, and low-technology ways to prevent post-childbirth bleeding. The current lack of access to contraceptives faced by women in much of the developing world will also be an important focus of the discussion.

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