Call the Midwife: the real history of the contraceptive pill

When did the pill arrive in Poplar? And was it actually a health risk when it was first introduced?

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The contraceptive pill first came to Poplar in 1961, when the nurses and nuns debated the moral implications of its arrival.

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Call The Midwife’s series six finale finally sees Wilma Goddens being prescribed the pill at the family contraceptive clinic – but her experience with the new medication illustrates that its introduction was far from straightforward.

When was the contraceptive pill first introduced in the UK? 

The Pill first arrived in Britain in 1961 and it was initially only made available to married women. Between 1962 and 1969 the NHS estimates that the number of women taking the pill rose from around 50,000 to one million.

By 1967 the laws were relaxed to allow unmarried women to be prescribed the pill. 

How is it introduced in Call The Midwife?

The pill first comes to Poplar in series five, episode seven, when Doctor Turner explains how excited he is that it’s to be licensed for prescription in a few weeks. The nuns aren’t so sure about it, though. “It’s a miracle with moral implications,” Sister Julienne frowns.

During a scheduled debate about the new contraceptive at Nonnatus House, Tom is asked to provide a Christian perspective on prescribing the drug to unmarried women.

Sister Julienne is concerned that it will promote “recreational intercourse” but Tom says he’d preach self-restraint over anything else. Barbara, who’s had quite the snogging session with her other half, scolds him later in the evening.

“How could you sit there and lecture people on self-restraint in a room where your Brylcreem has made a mark on the wall as big as an elephant’s face?” she asks.

In series six the pill makes a comeback as young mum Wilma Goddens visits the community centre to obtain a prescription. She’s finally returning to work and wants to take charge of her life – and her reproductive organs – without damaging her husband’s pride.

Was the pill dangerous when it was first introduced?

Though it was initially thought to be 100 per cent safe, concerns were raised about the pill’s side effects. Reports in the 1970s suggested that people who smoked and took the pill together might be at an increased risk of blood clots.

There were further scares in the 1980s, suggesting possible links between the pill and breast cancer, strokes, heart attacks and blood clots, which led to a reduction in the number of users. 

And in 1995 a thrombosis scare caused a drop in usage. 

What changed?

Some of the concerns seemed linked to hormone levels in the pill, so they’ve now been lowered. Plus, there are lots of guidelines to assess those who might be at risk.

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For more information on the contraceptive pill check out the official NHS website