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Erasing the history of birth control in America

April 23, 2010

This year is the 50th anniversary of the FDA approval of the hormonal contraceptive pill, an undeniably earth-shaking event for women’s rights in the United States. Time has a mostly great piece up exploring the history of contraception, and the genealogy of the Pill here in the US, which reminds us of how monumental the Pill is, but also that the desire and ability to control reproduction (and divorce sex from procreation) is basically as old as time.

However, there was one little piece of this article that gave me pause, both for its smallness and for its content:

Testing hormonal pills on women for infertility was not illegal, but testing the pill as a contraceptive was, so in 1956 [infertility specialist John] Rock and [medical researcher Gregory] Pincus conducted clinical trials in Puerto Rico, where many women were desperate for some better means of birth control. The Pill proved effective at blocking ovulation and was approved for the treatment of “female disorders” in 1957.
And that’s all she wrote, in this otherwise quite well-researched and thoughtful piece about the social relations of reproductive control.

It’s true that many Puerto Rican women–like their American counterparts–were eager for a safer and more reliable way to limit their births; when offered, many jumped at the chance to take a simple daily pill that would protect them from unwanted pregnancies. But most didn’t know–were not told–that they were participating in a medical trial, taking a pill whose side effects were unstudied in human beings, or being stuck in the control group with a sugar pill, commanded by the roll of the randomized trial dice to risk the very condition they hoped to avoid.

The earliest versions of the Pill, before synthetic hormones were honed and calibrated, before estrogen was included, before we knew what the Pill could do to a person, had intense side effects, including extreme nausea, headaches, stomach pain, and breakthrough bleeding. The lead medical researcher in Puerto Rico herself concluded that, while the Pill was nearly 100% effective at preventing ovulation, its side effects obviated its chances for general use.

Rock and Pincus, for their part, argued that these reactions were largely psychosomatic. Perhaps it’s no surprise that, although improvements have been made since the 1950s, the Pill continues to have aggravating side effects for many women.

But we have to remember that those improvements–and our access to the Pill at all–came on the backs of women who were treated as objects of clinical and not moral attention, experimented on without their consent for the benefit of certain women in the US. Devalued bodies used in the pursuit of the aims of the privileged.

Of course, this is not an isolated incident in the history of reproductive technology. Women of color, women who are poor, women who are immigrants, and women who live in “developing” countries have often faced this kind of treatment, and have too often had to fight for their right to body autonomy, to make decisions about and care for their families, and to even a minimal level of grudging admission that they and the children they nurture who look like them are worth it.

The Time piece is incomplete with only a passing glance at this part of the story.

See Andrea Tone, “Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America” Hill and Wang: New York. 2001. pp. 222-225.

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