But like any proper lady, the Pill has kept some things close. Here are seven of her most surprising secrets.
-- Robin Nixon, LiveScience Staff Writer
In 1943, Russell Marker, a researcher at Penn State, found an alternative source: yams.
A wild Mexican yam, known as cabeza de negro, provided large quantities of progesterone precursors, making cheap mass production possible. (Of course, historically speaking, yams are among the tamer of contraceptives people have tried.)
Still, it was a deeply devout Catholic who made the Pill a reality.
John Rock, a medical doctor who believed a robust sex life was a key ingredient to a healthy marriage, conducted the clinical trials that led to the FDA's approval of the first birth control pill, according to the documentary "The Pill" by Chana Gazit.
He also published an influential book "The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor's Proposal to End the Battle over Birth Control" (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1963). In the book, Rock argued that the Pill works with a woman's natural cycle and thus was as non-sinful as the rhythm method. While the Church wasn't convinced, Rock essentially became the Pill's public face during the 1960s.
By the 1970s, however, as the potential health risks of the Pill became public, feminists saw the drug as one more example of an overbearing patriarchy, Gazit explains. They stormed Capitol Hill demanding to know why women should bear all the health risks for birth control.
Non-barrier methods of male contraception are still in development.
Hormonal pollution of rivers, from birth control pills and other contaminants, is affecting the fertility of wildlife, studies suggest. The effect on human populations is uncertain, but studies have concluded that concentrations are high enough in some areas to potentially affect human health, according to a 2008 review article in the journal Fertility and Sterility.
Normally, the chemicals of attraction pull us toward people whose genes are quite different from our own. Greater genetic variation may enhance a couple's fertility and make resulting offspring heartier.
The Pill, by inducing a hormonal state that mimics pregnancy, could mess up this process. When a woman is pregnant, she gravitates toward people genetically like herself, theoretically because family members will protect her and her baby during this vulnerable period. But these are not the people she would normally want to mate with!
On the guy's side, men subconsciously scout for hormonal and physical clues of pregnancy before becoming involved with a gal — after all, the whole point is to impregnate her himself. As a result, men might find ovulating women more attractive than those on the Pill, scientists say.
A review of studies on this topic was published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution in 2009.
Today, some manufacturers include iron in the last week's pills, in a well-meaning attempt to help menstruating women deal with iron loss. In some women, however, iron supplementation causes gastrointestinal upset, including nausea, abdominal distress, constipation and diarrhea. So if these issues crop up during the last week of a pill cycle, they may not be caused by your period but the supplement.
Within two years, half a million women mysteriously developed severe menstrual issues — presumably taking the drug for its "side effect."
The FDA approved the first version of the Pill for contraceptive use on June 23, 1960. And today, the Pill is primarily used for contraception. However, it can also treat an array of medical issues, from polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis to anemia and acne. It is even used to treat bulimia.
Of course, it has also been used to expand women's role in the work place and spur an international sexual revolution, earning its title as one of the seven wonders of the modern world (The Economist, 1993).