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Historical Examples: Birth Control Pill

Jul 11, 2023 | Value Change Examples

Written by: Ibo van de Poel

An often discussed example of value change is the change in sexual morality due to the introduction of the birth control pill. This is often seen as a typical example of a value or moral change. For example, van der Burg (2003: 14) writes:  

“The changes in sexual morality in the Western world over the past fifty years have been radical. Sexuality and procreation have become largely separated. Homosexuality and sex outside marriage have become more generally accepted.”   

Diczfalusy (2000: 3) makes a direct link with the introduction of the birth control pill: 

“In retrospect, it is clear that the introduction of steroidal contraception in 1959 and beyond was a major historical revolution, scientifically, medically, socially, and also ethically.” 

Here, we will not try to provide an explanatory account of the entire sexual revolution but rather focus on the change in sexual morality due to the introduction of the birth control pill in the Netherlands. Swierstra (2013: 212-213) describes this more specific value change as follows:  

“Before its introduction in the Netherlands a conservative sexual morality reigned ….  In the decades after the pill’s introduction, under the headings of ‘women’s liberation’ and ‘sexual revolution’, these sexual morals were radically transformed. … In short, this technological device – the pill – has proven to be a motor of moral change.” 

However, he also warns not to “overstate the case” (Swierstra 2013: 213): many Dutch still adhere to traditional sexual morality, while others might also have embraced the new sexual morality without the pill. To explain how the pill nevertheless contributed to the change in sexual morality, he notes that: “The pill created new conditions that enabled more people than previously to take the dominant norms and values less seriously, while previously marginalised norms and values could come to the fore and gain societal acceptability” (Swierstra 2013: 213). 

This indeed goes quite some way in providing in what might be called a sociological explanation of value change. It cites a change at the macroscopic level (the introduction of new technology – the pill), which in turn led to changes in the pay-off of certain options for the agents at the individual level, and a consequent change in behaviour, which in turn may have led, cumulatively, to a change at the macroscopic level in the predominant sexual morality.  

It should be noted that this particular explanation assumes that the agents at the individual level already had the desire for a more liberal sexual morality and had corresponding individual values (values here understood as part of their personality). Indeed, it has been suggested that although a more traditional sexual morality was still, at the societal level, the norm around 1963 when the birth control pill was introduced in the Netherlands, individual values had already started shifting before, although this had not yet let to a change in the dominant social value (Ketting 2000). In fact, this shift seems to fit the more general claim of Inglehart (2018) that in more affluent societies, there is a (intergenerational) value change from materialist to postmaterialist values.  

This explanation can be further fleshed out by pointing out that the pill implied not just a change for those we wanted to have more casual sex but also for general practitioners (Ketting 2000). General practitioners in the Netherlands had been reluctant in prescribing anticonceptives. The reason was that, at the time, anticonceptives were quite unreliable, and general practitioners did not want to contribute to the number of abortions, which was conceived as being very well possible if they prescribed unreliable anticonceptives. The pill was, however, very reliable and thus might well contribute to decreasing the number of abortions.1 This tilted the argument: unlike previous contraceptives, prescribing the pill came to be seen as a very acceptable if not desirable course of action for general practitioners 

Another important characteristic of the pill was that its use was not directly connected to having sex, unlike, for example, condoms (Ketting 2000). It can even be taken for medical reasons by women who are not planning to have (casual) sex. This made it less taboo and probably lowered the threshold for using it. In fact, in the Netherlands, by 1976, already 40% of the women used the pill (Ketting 2000); it would seem unlikely that all of them did so because they wanted a looser sexual morality.  

So if the pill had ‘only’ allowed people to take some of the existing norms less seriously and to have casual sex with fewer consequences, it might have contributed to value change to a far smaller degree than it actually did; in fact, technology that allowed casual sex, like the condom, existed already since the Middle Ages. Rather, it seems to be the use of the pill for reasons that are not directly connected to casual sex, as well as a long-term intergenerational value change in people’s personal values, which was largely independent of the birth control pill, that enabled the pill to play the causal role it played.  

The above sketches the contours of what an explanation of the descriptive value change might look like, but what about normative value change? Swierstra does not cast a moral judgement on the moral desirability of the sexual revolution. He mentions that some might have judged it as moral regress, but from how he writes, one gets the impression he would disagree with such a judgement. Like Swierstra, my aim here is not to give a moral judgment about the value change contained in the sexual revolution. Still, I think it is worthwhile to reflect on the example to see what a more normative account of value change might look like in a case like this.  

A first thing to note is that one can have a normative judgement on the desirability of the value change triggered by the birth control pill relatively independent from the exact descriptive explanation of this change. That is to say, if one subscribes to the above suggested descriptive explanation of this value change, one can still normatively embrace or reject it or consider it normatively irrelevant. This is not to say that the descriptive account is completely irrelevant to such a normative judgement: we may recognise the actual (motivating) reasons agents had, and have, for acting – and for propagating the value change – as good reasons, or as not so good reasons, from a normative point of view, and this may feed into our normative judgement. It would, however, not seem decisive for such a normative judgement. 

This seems more generally true, and it seems to show that descriptive accounts and normative accounts of (specific) value changes are relatively independent of each other. I am not saying that we do not have reasons to aim for actual (descriptive) value changes that reflect what is normatively desirable; we might well have such reasons. I am only saying that there might well be a gap between the descriptive explanation of a value change and our normative judgement about it, and the existence of such a gap seems unproblematic. After all, the descriptive and normative accounts serve different aims, namely trying to explain and understand why the value change actually occurred versus casting a normative judgment.2 

Another interesting question raised by the example is whether we might also interpret it as a case in which normative or moral values themselves have changed. It would be if (and only if, it seems) the kind of sexual morality that was acceptable or desirable before the introduction of the birth pill or before the sexual revolution is different from the kind of sexual morality that is acceptable or desirable after it. I find it hard to see how that would be possible. Certainly, people’s views about what is acceptable have changed, and most likely people’s desires as well, but that does not mean that what is morally acceptable has changed. I am not saying that such changes in what is morally or normatively acceptable or what is morally good are not possible; I am only saying that the birth control pill or the sexual revolution does not seem me to be such a case. The reason why I believe so is that I fail to see a factor that has changed and that would justify a change in what is morally good or acceptable in this particular case.  

The text is from: Van de Poel, I. (2022). Understanding value change. Prometheus, 38(1), 7-24. doi:10.13169/prometheus.38.1.0007 


  1. It actually did not much influence the abortion rate. Ketting (2000) attributes this to another value change brought by the pill. Pregnancy, and getting children, became increasingly to be seen as something that could be planned and controlled, so that accidental pregnancies were less accepted. Whereas in the past only highly undesirable pregnancies led to abortion, increasingly unintended pregnancies led to abortion. The net effect (no significant change in abortion rate) may then be the result of two opposing tendencies: the high reliability of the pill and the lower acceptance of the still-occurring accidental pregnancies. 
  2. Of course normative judgements are perhaps only relevant if that they can influence the actual course of events. But for that we only need to show that is possible that they motivate the behaviour of actors, not that they actually have done so in a specific case. Like Boudon (2013), I take Weber’s ideal type of value-rational action to be an example of how people’s behaviour can be actually motivated by moral values. 

Reference list 

  • Boudon, R. (2013) The Origin of Values: Sociology and Philosophy of Beliefs, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick.  
  • Diczfalusy, E. (2000) ‘The contraceptive revolution’, Contraception, 61, 1, pp.3–7. doi: 
  • Inglehart, R. (2018) Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.  
  • Ketting, E. (2000) ‘De invloed van orale anticonceptie op de maatschappij’, Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde, 144, pp.283–6. 
  • Swierstra, T. (2013) ‘Nanotechnology and technomoral change’, Etica & Politica / Ethics & Politics, 15, 1, pp.200–19. 
  • Van der Burg, W. (2003) ‘Dynamic ethics’, Journal of Value Inquiry, 37, pp.13–34.