5 Ways Birth Control Has Changed America

Fifty years ago, a Supreme Court decision legalized contraception and changed our country for the better

The 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut legalized birth control for married couples. Credit: Garo/Phanie Sarl/Corbis

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized birth control for married couples. (The decision was expanded to non-married Americans in 1972.)

The case involved Estelle Griswold, then head of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, who was arrested and fined $100 for providing contraception, in violation of a state law still on the books from 1879. The high court found that law unconstitutional on the grounds that "marital privacy" covered the right to contraception.

Griswold helped kick off a dramatic shift in American attitudes about sexual freedom, not to mention related Supreme Court cases – most notably the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which found privacy rights covered abortion as well.

Most people instinctively understand the sheer awesomeness that is being able to have sex without fear of pregnancy, which is why more than 99 percent of sexually active women have used contraception. So the value of birth control should be a settled question, right? But in recent years we've seen a surge in political and legal activity aimed at reducing access. The Supreme Court ruled last summer, in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, that your boss should be able to deprive you of contraception coverage if whatever god he believes in thinks sex is naughty. In Colorado, Republicans just shut down a popular program involving long-acting birth control, even though it had reduced the state's teen birth rate by 40 percent. The anti-choice group the American Life League has taken to marking Griswold's anniversary each year with "The Pill Kills" events, to push for government restrictions on contraception. And defunding Planned Parenthood, a source of affordable contraception for countless Americans, has become practically a sport among Republican state legislators.

In light of this, it's worth remembering some of the ways Griswold, and the American embrace of birth control, has shaped our country for the better.

There are economic benefits. A 2012 University of Michigan study that examined women's gains over a period of decades determined that a whopping one-third of women's wage gains from the Sixties through the Nineties were attributable to greater access to contraception. Moreover, they found that the earlier women started taking the pill – at age 18 instead of 21, for instance – the more money the made over a lifetime.

Conversely, research on the effects of unintended childbirth shows that it is deeply detrimental to your pocketbook. Unintended child-bearing is linked to lower participation in the job market and higher dependency on government services. That so many Republicans would rather see more women on welfare than condone non-procreative sex tells you a lot about where their priorities lie.

There's been a mind-boggling decline in the teen birth rate. Most people think the teen pregnancy rate has been going up lately – there's this idea out there that kids today, with their hip-hop music and their "revealing" clothes, are somehow less "moral" than ever and therefore must be experiencing more unintended pregnancies. But in fact the teen pregnancy rate has been declining steadily since the late Fifties, and is now at an all-time low. But teens aren't having less sex than they did in the Elvis Presley era. The main reason for the decline is better contraception use, plain and simple.

Women's educational attainment has surged. These days, greater percentages of both men and women have college degrees than they did in the past – but women's rate of growth has trumped men's dramatically. In 1970, only 8 percent of women and 14 percent of men were college graduates. Now, more than 35 percent of women ages 24 to 35 have a college degree, while fewer than 30 percent of men do.

This shift can be attributed to a lot of factors – more schools accepting women, more women seeking professional careers – but birth control has played a huge role. It should be obvious that avoiding unwanted pregnancies helps women complete college, but in case you're a skeptic, there's plenty of research showing that in states where more unmarried women have access to contraception, more of them finish college.

Wild oats are being sown. Or in sociologist speak: People are getting married later. The median age of first marriage is now 28.7 for men and 26.5 for women, up from 22.8 and 20.3, respectively, in 1960. It's undeniable that this is tied to liberal attitudes about things like sex and contraception, because the average age for marriage is higher in blue states than in red states. People are taking their time before marriage, sampling what's out there and having fun before taking the plunge. That's because they have contraception, and know they can screw around, so to speak, without worrying too much about an unexpected pregnancy.

Of course, not everyone is convinced it's a great thing for people to have more time to date around and have fun sexytime experiences before settling down. For those people, we have statistics: The divorce rate is going down, in no small part because people are marrying later in life. More sex, more experiences, fewer divorces: What's not to love? 

People are happier. Having baby-free sex is widely known to cause short-term bouts of happiness, but it's also good for the long-term health of your relationship and your own mental health. Numerous studies have shown that unplanned pregnancy is linked to increased conflict in relationships, and that couples who experience unplanned births are more likely to break up than ones who plan their pregnancies. Unplanned births don't just put stress on relationships, but also on individuals. Research has shown that women who have unintended births experience more depression and lower levels of happiness than women who planned their births. Male partners of women having unplanned births are also more likely to experience depression.

Looking at all this, it's hard to deny that contraception has done great things for women's lives and people's sexual and romantic satisfaction. So why is the right is looking for ways to take that away?