Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2793: BIRTH CONTROL PILL'S TANGLED HISTORY

John Lienhard presents Steven Mintz and Maria Elena Soliño

Today, the birth control pill’s tangled history. The University of Houston’s Hispanic Studies Department presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The day after Mother’s Day in 1960, the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive. Today, 8 of 10 women take the pill at some point in their lives.

No innovation had a greater impact on women’s lives. While the pill did not launch the sexual revolution, it did give women greater control over their sex lives. By giving women control over the timing and number of births, the pill made it much easier for married women to enter and remain in the paid workforce. As early as the 1930s, scientists discovered that high doses of androgens and estrogens prevented ovulation. But extracting these hormones from animals was cost prohibitive. Neither government nor major pharmaceutical companies showed any interest in funding research on oral contraceptives.

Two women in their seventies made the birth control pill a reality. Margaret Sanger, who opened America’s first birth control clinic in 1916 and coined the term “birth control,” was the founder of Planned Parenthood. Katherine McCormick, the second woman graduate of MIT, was a biologist. Together, they found the funding that supported the pill’s development.

One part of the birth control pill’s history that deserves special attention is how it was tested. Researchers chose to test the pill among the poor in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was far more accepting of contraception than the mainland United States, despite the country’s largely Catholic population. With five births for every death, birth control and mass emigration were the only way to keep Puerto Rico economically viable.

In 1956, the pill’s clinical trials began in Rio Piedras, just outside San Juan. A fifth of the women involved in the test suffered side effects, ranging from nausea and headaches, to more severe problems, including high blood pressure and potentially lethal blood clots.

None of the women were told that they were taking part in an experiment. The side effects were largely brushed aside by the pill’s developers.

The story of the birth control pill raises a host of important issues. One involves informed consent: Is it appropriate to ask impoverished women to serve as “guinea pigs” without telling them that they are involved in a drug test?

But this story also reminds us about technology’s limitations. Certain types of birth control pills still can have lethal side effects. How can these pills be safely and ethically tested? On whom will they do further testing? And even today certain groups are fighting to keep birth control from being covered by insurance, a move that would impact minority women disproportionately, and thus despite scientific advances in effective birth control, today, half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.

This episode was written in collaboration with Steven Mintz, and I’m María Elena Soliño of the University of Houston where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

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American Experience: The Pill (PBS) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/index.html

Marks, Lara V. Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.

May, Elaine Tyler. America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Rovner, Julie. “Catholic Groups Fight Contraceptive Rule, But Many Already Offer Coverage.” Aired on NPR, Dec.2, 2011. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/12/02/143022996/catholic-groups-fight-contraceptive-rule-but-many-already-offer-coverage

Ramirez de Arellano, Annette B., and Conrad Seipp. Colonialism, Catholicism, and Contraception: A History of Birth Control in Puerto Rico. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Siegel Watkins, Elizabeth. On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraception. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Steven Mintz is a historian of families and children at Columbia University, where he directs the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center. Maria Elena Soliño is Associate Professor of Spanish Literature and Film in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston.

The image is in the Creative Commons.

This episode was first aired on May 15, 2012.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.