We must acknowledge the history behind the birth control pill

The development of this drug has a dark history, which is not uncommon in women’s health research

Courtesy+of+IMDb

Courtesy of IMDb

By Olivia Capriotti, Collegian Staff

On May 9, 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first commercially-made birth control pill. This early form of the hormone drug was widely marketed as a solution to unwanted pregnancy.

However, the history behind this medication is complex, marked by both oppression and progress. It wasn’t developed with proper research standards or with consideration for women’s health, and Puerto Rican women were at the forefront of this testing. The freedom that the birth control pill provided was created at the expense of this group of women.

For an institution that values advocacy and celebrates its’ strong history of feminist and reproductive activism, the University of Massachusetts must acknowledge that research on women’s health issues have a complicated past.

The landmark Roe v. Wade decision incited the early 1970s as a time of significant change for reproductive rights and healthcare access, but prior to this era women traveled to other communities for reproductive healthcare. Puerto Rico was one such location that had less restrictive laws. It was also the target of two doctors seeking to do clinical trials for their experimental hormonal birth control medication.

Gregory Pincus, who was the lead researcher in these trials, traveled down to San Juan, Puerto Rico to run trials on women that lived in the low-income neighborhood of Rio Piedras. A Harvard-trained physician, his work focused on the development of synthetic hormones. Prior to the trials in Puerto Rico, Pincus tested on patients at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, which he co-founded; in 1997, the foundation merged with University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.

Pincus targeted impoverished women living in a public housing project in Rio Piedras, where they had limited access to education and work opportunities. The testing took place without their informed consent, and these women had no idea that the medication they took was experimental. They were told that the drug was to help prevent pregnancy, but nothing more.

After taking what would become the medication Enovid, many participants experienced adverse side effects such as nausea and blood clotting. The long-term effects of such compounds on the body were not fully understood at the time. Even to this day, women are still suffering from a lack of knowledge around the side effects and symptoms that may accompany birth control pills.

Dating back to the early 1900s, many scientific experiments were rooted in eugenics and poor ethical standards, where eugenicists believed that certain populations were “genetically inferior.” Women of color and other marginalized communities were often victims of these experiments, subjected to forced sterilization.

The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, is frequently celebrated as a pioneer of the birth control movement, but few know that her decision-making was rooted in eugenics principles; birth control was deemed essential for controlling “unfit” populations.

The development of the birth control pill was a milestone for many, but we must first acknowledge that it was developed at the expense of a vulnerable group of women. These trials, conducted without their informed consent, resulted in detrimental effects on their health and autonomy.

The exploitation of these women point to a larger, systemic issue of how so-called scientific research upheld bias, resulting in deceptive and prejudiced data. To this day, there is a lack of clinical research on women’s health issues, seen in lack of funding for these studies. It wasn’t until 1993 that legislation was passed dictating that women be included in clinical trials.

The scientific mistreatment that Puerto Rican women underwent is symbolic of this troubling history, and it is crucial that we recognize these lasting impacts on women’s health in existence today.

Olivia Capriotti can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @CapriottiOlivia.