The pill : prescription for revolution.

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About this work


A review of 30 years of the social and medical effects of the oral contraceptive starting with the history of the first contraceptive pill trials. Some of the first women to use it describe the improvement in their career prospects and sense of wellbeing. Archive film clips from the 1950s, in contrast, show women describing the misery of trying to obtain contraceptive advice at family planning clinics which catered strictly for married, or at least engaged clients. But faith in the pill was quickly shattered by warnings of thrombosis and the safer, low- oestrogen pills which replaced the pioneer varieties were eventually suspected of causing cancer. The film conveys the hectic history of the oral contraceptive, the brief, if illusive, period of sexual freedom for women which was the essence of the famous 1960s sexual revolution, and the disillusion which rapidly followed. Today, the pill has lost its association with sexual freedom for it provides no protection against HIV. yet it permanently changed women's view of their own destiny and opened up to them levels of personal and professional expectation that had never before been part of their outlook.

Pictures: Pill production; "Choice: Family Planning" BBC-TV, 1965 - clip; Family Planning clinic - daunting receptionist; Witness describes misery of being processed at family planning clinic; brief scene of woman entering cubicle; Witness revisits scene of abortion; Drs. Pinkus and Rock at their Reproductive Study Center, U.S.; Isolator, worker, heavily gloved and masked; Puerto Rico clinic where pill trial took place; Birmingham Family Planning Assciation., scene of first British trial (exterior); Family Planning clinic, interior, consultation; Newspaper cuttings heralding pill; One of the first pill packs, "Panorama", 1965; Sloane Street Family Planning HQ, exterior; Woman's chart; "World in Action", Granada, 1965, on men's assumptions about women taking pill; Scene in BIBA; Brook Clinic, dispensary; Richard Branson, aged 20 or thereabouts; Newspaper cuttings - health warning; Many different pill packs; Family Planning clinic waiting room - 1960s; BBC TV News -warning; Condom production.

Extracts from archive film:- "Choice" (BBC TV, 1965); interviews with women with large families; British family planning clinic; advertisements for pills for female disorders; Drs. Gregory Pinkus and John Rock; Puerto-Rican family planning clinic; "Panorama" (BBC TV, 1965); records on side effects of oral contraceptive from Family Planning Clinic HQ, Sloane Street; "World in Action" (Granada, 1965); "People of Tomorrow" (BBC TV, 1971) interview with Richard Branson (pioneer of contraception advice for single women); BBC TV News item 1983 on pill-cancer dangers. "Timewatch" reviews the social and medical effects of the contraceptive pill over the 30 years during which it has been generally available.

Archive film and interviews with witnesses convey the way in which involuntary fertility dominated most women's lives before the 1960s. Family planning clinics were rather daunting places, only open to married women and could only supply the contraceptive cap device. Women could otherwise resort to abortifacients, but when these did not work they could find themselves caught between the terrors of unwanted pregnancy and abortion (illegal until 1967). The oral contraceptive consisted of a daily dose of oestrogen and progesterone and was initially intended to control populations in underdeveloped countries. The first clinical trials were carried out in the U.S.A. by Drs. Gregory Pinkus and John Rock and involved both male and female patients; male testing, however, was abandoned because of adverse physical effects. Unable to obtain permission for a mass trial in the U.S.A., Drs. Pinkus and Rock conducted one in Puerto Rico in 1956. This trial was almost totally successful.

The first British trials took place in 1960 at a Birmingham family planning clinic, though the women volunteers had to get permission from their husbands and G.P.s. When the pill first became available in Britain, in the early 1960s, women had to prove that they were either married or engaged to qualify for a prescription. It took confidence and determination for single women to obtain it, but they could do so through the Brook Advisory Service. Not until 1974 did it become freely available on the N.H.S. From the mid-1960s a new generation of women began taking the pill in their late teens and taking it for granted that their fertility was under their own control. The pill's popularity increased as greater numbers of young women left home for college or university.

But a cluster of sudden deaths from thrombosis, revealed by the 1969 Committee on the Safety of Medicines to be linked with high-oestrogen pills, caused widespread fright. 150,000 women stopped taking oral contraceptives and abortions increased in the subsequent year. High-oestrogen pills were banned but adverse myths abounded and there was vengeful satisfaction among some opponents of the pill. With the arrival of lower-dose pills and the availability of the oral contraceptive through the N.H.S. in 1974, its popularity revived and it became the most widely used form of contraception. The new sexual freedom of women excited the media which made full use of them as images of instantly-available sexual gratification. Women found themselves deprived of an acceptable reason for refusing sexual relations and more open to abuse if they did refuse.

This problem, however, was balanced by the vast increase in their career opportunities; television began showing women achieving power and influence, thereby reinforcing young women's confidence and motivation, and there was a great increase in the number of women graduates. Women were postponing childbearing, confident that they could control their fertility either way, but in 1983 cancer warnings undermined the popularity of the oral contraceptive once again. Some women found they were unable to conceive when they stopped taking the pill and for at least one woman the question arose as to whether her subsequent fertility treatment was responsible for her developing breast cancer.

Today's oral contraceptives are one-fifth of the strength of earlier versions and actually protect against some forms of cancer. AIDS, however, has radically changed attitudes towards the pill. The era of sexual adventuring is over and there is a trend among some young women to regard the pill, once "the feminist's friend" as a drug manufactured by men and imposed on women regardless of health risks. Disenchantment with the pill, however, has not changed its social legacy. The film shows how women's lives have been changed by the permanent removal of the narrow choice between fertility and any other options.


[London?] : BBC-TV, 1993.

Physical description

1 videocassette (VHS) (50 min.) : sound, color, PAL.


Copyright note



Supporting paperwork available in the department.
First broadcast 10 March 1993.


Where to find it

  • Copy 1

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  • Copy 2

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