Birth Control Pill Founder Carl Djerassi Understood Politics Would Take Greater Role in Family Planning than Science

Published on February 4th, 2015

A CAPS Advisory Board member, chemist and professor widely credited as the father of the birth control pill, or “the Pill,” Carl Djerassi, died January 30 at age 91.

Born in Vienna, Djerassi and his mother came to the United States in 1939, nearly destitute; Carl’s father emigrated 10 years later. After earning a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Djerassi was a professor of chemistry at Wayne State University in Detroit and later at Stanford University. Upon the news of Djerassi’s passing, Stanford University tweeted, “Carl Djerassi is probably the greatest chemist our department ever had.”

Carl Djerassi, 2009.

The recipient of numerous awards for his work in chemistry, Djerassi also was a poet, novelist and arts patron. He said he was fortunate to be able to engage in other pursuits because of his success with the Pill, which was the result of his work in Mexico City in 1951. There, he and his research team developed a synthetic molecule, norethindrone, which became the active ingredient of early birth control pills.

The Pill, of course, changed life for women. While not wholly responsible for the beginning of the feminist movement in 1960s America, it had a significant role. Djerassi wrote in “This Man’s Pill” that the Pill also significantly changed his life, piquing his interest in how science affects society.

In 1969 and 1970, he wrote articles discussing the worldwide implications of U.S. contraceptive research. He said, “The thoughts behind these two public policy articles had convinced me that politics, rather than science, would play the dominant role in shaping the future of human birth control.”

Truly prophetic words.

While today the Pill is the most popular method of contraception for women in the U.S., it and other popular forms of birth control for family planning are popular political footballs; science and reason often take a distant third to politicians, religious leaders and others with different agendas. And misguided politicians and leaders around the world continue to attack birth control, ignoring the clear links to better outcomes for mothers, children, families and communities that family planning provides.

A recent example of political machinations comes from the Philippines, a tragically overpopulated country, marked by extreme poverty and gripped by Catholic doctrine that doesn’t permit birth control. Last year, though, the Reproductive Health Law was upheld after years of battle by the Catholic Church and its proponents in office. The law provides for improved access to reproductive health care, including contraception.

Just recently though, a Filipino lawmaker demanded the law’s repeal, calling for “reinforcing the positive Filipino values in our children,” rather than “teaching them to use contraceptives.” He said the people of the Philippines should be “using church-approved ways to regulate births.” That means abstinence.

Among the most significant medical advancements in the 20th century, Djerassi’s contribution of a little pill has been revolutionary and empowering. He will be remembered for giving families the opportunity to plan their lives and not be ruled solely by biology. Hopefully, with more time, there will be greater acceptance of this benefit from Djerassi’s application of chemistry and science, not just in the Philippines, but other regions and countries throughout the world.

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