The Contraceptive Pill [50 Things That Made the Modern Economy]

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Humans have sex. A potential consequence of sex is pregnancy. When pregnancy is unwanted, people come up with creative ways to prevent it. Crocodile dung. Half a lemon as a cervical cap.

The birth control pill is one of those pregnancy-prevention systems.  Under typical use, the failure rate for the pill is 6%, versus an 18% failure rate for condoms.  The sponge and diaphragm have failure rates similar to condoms.  When the pill is used optimally, the failure rate is even lower.

What I found most interesting about this episode was learning about the profound social and economic effects the pill had on society, especially for women.  First, for married women; and then, for young, unmarried women.

The pill was first approved in 1960, but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that its availability expanded.  I came of age about the same time birth control became “the most popular form of contraception for 18 and 19-year-old women in the United States.” And this is when the economic impact started to be felt.

As I embarked on my own educational and career pursuits, I had no appreciation for the dramatic change the birth control pill was generating for women.  It produced a shift that gave women much more control over their reproductive futures. With that control, they had the ability to delay child bearing, invest in their education, and embark on careers. They had opportunities to become financially independent.

This BBC podcast gives a succinct, clear and enlightening overview of the impact of the pill on women and society; on the benefits delivered. It’s stuff I never knew.

I love how this podcast, in nine or ten minutes, shines light on things many of us take for granted.  Harford has continued beyond his original 50 episodes. Check out the web site for a complete list of topics he’s covered, including The Plough (another great episode), Paper Money and Plastic.

The web site includes resources used for each episode, should you want to go deeper.


50 Things That Made the Modern Economy:Tim Harford tells the fascinating stories of inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world.”


Photo source: Walk the Goats


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