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A very merry un-birthday to the pill

March Hare: Let’s all congratulate us with another cup of tea. A very merry un-birthday to you! Mad Hatter: Now, statistics prove, prove that you’ve one birthday. March Hare: Imagine, just one birthday every year. Mad Hatter: Ah, but there are three hundred and sixty-four un-birthdays! March Hare: Precisely why we’re gathered here to cheer. Both: A very merry un-birthday to you, to you. Alice: To me? Mad Hatter: To you! Both: A very merry un-birthday to you! Alice: For me? Both: For you. Mad Hatter: Now blow the candle out, my dear, and make your wish come true. — “Alice in Wonderland” Disney Studios, 1951 Today is a very important birthday in the United States. Fifty-eight years ago, June 23, 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the birth-control pill. Because of that signal event, there have — indeed — been very many merry un-birthdays in our nation. In fact, millions — probably tens of millions — of un-birthdays.

Last week, I wrote about the “birth dearth,” the gradual decline in births that began at the end of the “baby boom” which our country experienced beginning in 1946, after World War II veterans returned home, and 1964. Although there was strong opposition to “artificial birth control,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) that it was unconstitutional for the government to prohibit married couples from using birth control.

Within just a few years, use of the birth-control pill became popular, especially among middle-class women, and with greater prevalence among college graduates. Fear of global overpopulation was a major issue of the era, particularly after the publication of “The Population Bomb,” a 1968 book by Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich (not credited as co-author).

Their concerns about the problems attendant to an overpopulated world, coupled with Rachel Carson’s cautions about the overuse of pesticides to produce enough food to feed present and future populations in her 1962 publication, “Silent Spring,” fueled a movement in the U.S. and other industrial nations of the time to limit overall population growth. But, even after the Supreme Court ruling, 26 states prohibited birth control for unmarried women.

Internationally, the Catholic Church opposed the use of artificial birth control methods. In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), an encyclical that re-affirmed the orthodox teachings of the church regarding the purpose of marriage and child-bearing. There was immediate dissent, even among some members of the church hierarchy. While the encyclical was in effect, many priests worked around the prohibition by counseling that women could use the pill to “regulate” the ovulation cycle, which was exactly the same way that the pill was used to prevent conception.

For several years, various jurisdictions as well as the Catholic Church officially rebuked the use of the pill for unmarried women. Finally, in Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), birth control became legal for all Americans. That ruling had an obvious effect on the nation’s population growth.

The number of births each year, as well as the TFR (Total Fertility Rate), or the average number of children produced by each woman during her lifetime, declined. As I wrote last week, “The trend was gradual, and — with few exceptions — it was continuous from 1964 when the TFR was above 3.0 to 1974 when it dropped below replacement level.”

In Central and South America, acceptance of the pill depends upon economic conditions and the extent of industrialization. European trends

The United States did not lead the trend toward zero or negative population growth. Many other industrialized countries, particularly those of northern and western Europe, seized the new technology with less hesitancy. By 1994, when the United States’ TFR was still lingering around 2.1 (replacement level , or “zero population growth”) countries like Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark were established at “negative population growth” (TFR below 2.1). Even predominantly Catholic countries, like France, Portugal, and Spain had dropped below replacement level.

Today, no country in northern Europe is replacing its population. No country in western Europe has a TFR above 1.9, and two-thirds of the countries are at or below 1.5. In eastern Europe, only Russia, the Czech Republic, and Belarus have a TFR above 1.5. They are currently at 1.6, 1.6, and 1.7 respectively. Of the fifteen countries that constitute southern Europe, only four have a TFR above 1.5, and they are Albania (1.6), Montenegro (1.6), Slovenia (1.6), and Kosovo (1.8). In all cases, it has been the availability of the pill that has brought the dramatic end to population growth. Asia and Africa

Asia is a mixed bag. The countries of central and south Asia are still growing, with a few exceptions like Iran, Brunei, and Singapore. Many of the countries are still experiencing significant expansion, with Afghanistan leading the pack (TFR = 5.3). But, east Asia is a different story, led by Japan. In a single decade (1950-1960), Japan cut its birth rate in half, the greatest decrease in history. However, it accomplished that feat by legalizing abortions.

Since the mid-1960s, like other modern countries, Japan has relied on the pill and now has a TFR of 1.1. As I pointed out last week, Japan’s long history of negative population growth has caused problems different from those of overpopulation, specifically an aging population, small work force, and a shrinking domestic market which makes the country dependent on the export economy.

During the 1970s, China adopted a one-child policy for couples living in highly populated areas, particularly along its major rivers and maritime provinces. Although it has relaxed that policy in recent years, the idea of limiting population growth has caught on. According to the World Population Data Sheet, China’s TFR is 1.8; Hong Kong, 1.2; Macao, 1.1, and Taiwan, 1.2.

Only the continent of Africa has not been significantly affected by the advent of the birth-control pill. A combination of poverty and a tradition of large families have worked against the realization of population control. As a whole, the continent has a TFR of 4.6, with many countries still above 5.0. In Niger (TFR = 7.3), population will double in about 18 years at its current rate of growth. Its people, along with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, are desperately in need of very many merry un-birthdays.

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Jim Glynn may be contacted at

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