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HISTORY

The shady origins of the contraceptive pill

This is the story of the pill that is inextricably linked to free love, women’s liberation, and empowerment of women over the decision of their bodies.

Named one of the medical wonders of the last centuries, the contraceptive pill is nowadays one of the most common birth control methods despite most of its side effects, at that is mainly because it’s cheap and easy to get.

However, although it has become a beacon of the sexual revolution of the 60s and until now, the contraceptive pill has always carried with itself a dark and dubious ethical past, mostly because of how it was tested and later approved by the FDA.

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This is the story of the pill that is inextricably linked to free love, women’s liberation, and empowerment of women over the decision of their bodies.

The origins of the contraceptive pill

The first trials to develop a birth control pill began in 1955. Thanks to Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood founder, who decided to fund the research of Gregory Pincus and John Rock that were looking for a pill to stop ovulation. Margaret’s task was to facilitate the researchers to develop a reliable and easy-to-use contraceptive pill.

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Both Rock and Pincus began their trials with synthetic hormones, a previous work done by the Mexican scientists Luis Miramontes, who in 1951 created synthetic progesterone that helped to stop ovulation in women.

But when the trials of the pill were needed, everything started to get shady. Rock and Pincus need to test in humans, more specifically in women but it was a difficult task. Many states forbid giving contraceptive methods while in others, finding subjects to participate in the trials was almost impossible due to the side effects of the new medicine, such as pain, clots nausea, and heavy bleedings.

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The unethical testing

Eager to try and get approval for this new pill, researchers chose the unethical path for the contraceptive pill. Not only they test it on women within mental hospitals according to Jonathan Eig, author of The Birth of the Pill, but later went with low-income women in Puerto Rico and with no further explanations, they began to administer the pill.

A report from the journal The Harvard Crimson in which many of the dark secrets of the contraceptive pill were unveiled, claims that in order for the pill to get approved, it needed more testing, so they went to Puerto Rico and convinced over 1,500 women to try the new medication with the promise to stop having children they could not financially support.

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The problem with the testing was that those women were not informed about the side effects or risks of taking the pill, mainly because it wasn’t a requirement at the moment and because regulations on the island were very flexible regarding contraceptive methods.

According to the medical reports, almost 22% of the women who participated in the study in Puerto Rico, left it due to the heavy side effects, since the early stages of the contraceptive pills had three times more the amount of hormones than today’s version.

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It is important to note that after this testing, the FDA created a series of regulations that obliged researchers to fully explain what kind of medication participants are trying and what could be their side effects.

Not very reliable numbers

But that was not the only unethical issue surrounding the contraceptive pill. The approval of the new medication was possible thanks to a study that involved only 130 women, very far from today’s standards for approval that requires not only years of study but thousands of people that already tried the new drug. Of course, this did not take into account those Puerto Rican women.

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According to Eig, Pincus and Rock did not mention women in their report, but rather menstrual cycles, a number that was way bigger than the subjects that participated in the study.

The researchers cited to have used 40,000 pills and the tracking of 1,279 menstrual cycles, but only about 100 women took those pills, claims Eig in its book.

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The revolutionary pill

On June 23, 1960, Enovid became the first contraceptive pill approved by the FDA. The first version contained a higher dose of hormones than today’s version and, despite its shady origins, nowadays is one of the most common and used birth control methods with more than 100 million women using it according to Harvard University.

In 1993, The Economist named the pill one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and besides being a birth control method, it has helped women to regulate and have better reproductive health.

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Amongst the benefits of the pill, according to Planned Parenthood are:

  • Reduce symptoms of endometriosis
  • Reduce bone thinning
  • Reduced iron deficiency
  • Reduce the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers
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