History of the Birth Control Pill
Updated: Nov 15, 2022
All these years I’ve stayed at home
While you had all your fun
And every year that’s gone by
Another baby’s come
There’s a-gonna be some changes made
Right here on nursery hill
You’ve set this chicken your last time
‘Cause now I’ve got the pill …
This incubator is overused
Because you’ve kept it filled
The feelin’ good comes easy now
Since I’ve got the pill
It’s gettin’ dark it’s roosting time
Tonight’s too good to be real
Oh but daddy don’t you worry none
‘Cause mama’s got the pill
Oh daddy don’t you worry none
‘Cause mama’s got the pill
Hmmm… the lyrics to WAP look a little different to me. In 2020, Cardi B graced the world with WAP and people everywhere are still rejoicing because now we have a sex-positive anthem that teaches pussy owners to prioritize their sexual desires and needs. But in 1975, women had a different anthem, one that celebrated liberation and independence as they finally had the ability to choose when they got pregnant; “The Pill” by Loretta Lynn.
Today there exists a multitude of birth control pills if that’s your method of choice. Yes, some may cause nasty side effects, and it’s still a trial and error process for many people (psst Reya can help). But there’s no denying that the birth control pill has come a long way so let’s dive into the history of how far we’ve come in our quest to cum without fear of unwanted pregnancy!
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The invention of birth control was a game-changer for women. In the 20th century, society was often threatened by the prospect of women having a life of their own and to combat the possibility of women existing with the same choices that men had, the government criminalized birth control. In Canada, the law passed in 1892 forbidding all drugs, methods and articles that prevented conception. In the U.S., the Comstock Act was passed in 1873, which prohibited the postal service from transporting any form of birth control. Contraceptive prohibitions varied depending on the state, but overall the use of any birth control method was often met with fines and imprisonment.
These harsh laws were met with resistance from women across North America. Margaret Sanger is often praised for improving birth control access and fighting for a better contraceptive method for women. Although she was a key player in the accessibility of birth control in the U.S., there’s something to know that most history textbooks leave out; she had some ties to eugenic practices.
Eugenics are defined as the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits. Some historians argue that Sanger only spoke the language of eugenics to gain traction amongst the public so contraceptives would become more widely accepted. But if she were truly opposed to eugenics, would she have even used it in her argument? Others believe that she was a hard-core eugenicist and this was the driving force behind her pursuit for birth control options. Unfortunately, Sanger isn’t alive today to tell us the truth, so it is important that we consider all sides of the story when learning about medical history.
Sanger’s controversial practices are important to consider especially when she is acknowledged for opening the first family planning clinics. Historians contest the belief that Sanger held racist eugenic motives, but they do agree that the driving force behind her work was the elimination of extremely poor and mentally unstable populations. Sanger thought that birth control was the solution to “cleansing” society, which is why she often opened clinics in poor areas. Yes, this did provide at risk communities access to healthcare, but she should not be praised for her actions when they had despicable underlying motives. Can someone please let the late Sanger know that the solution to poverty is actually quality education and access to healthcare? Greatly appreciated.
Sorry everyone, the dark past behind the pill’s creation doesn’t end with Sanger. Clinical trials for an oral contraceptive method took place in Puerto Rico, where birth control use was not a criminal offence. But this wasn’t the only reason why researchers chose this location. Population control measures were commonplace in Puerto Rico, with approximately ⅓ of women being involuntarily sterilized after the birth of their second child. Participation in clinical trials for the pill was marketed as an alternative to pregnancy and sterilization, and it was an option that many women chose.
A reported total of 221 Puerto Rican women were participants in the trial. Three of these women died during the trial. None of the women knew that they were participants of a clinical trial, and as a result none of them gave consent. To increase the tally of unethical practices, most of these women were only partly literate, or illiterate, making them prime subjects for a risky trial. These women served as guinea pigs for researchers that were only interested in the pill’s efficacy and not its side effects. When participants brought up side effects, they were deemed “unreliable subjects”.
And were the side effects ever real. 17% of women in the first trial reported extreme nausea and dizziness. 25 of them dropped out because of these side effects, but the researchers did not see this number. The only statistic they were concerned with was the 100% efficacy rate. Further trials were conducted on women in mental asylums before the pill, known as Envoid, hit the market in 1960.
Envoid contained 10 000 micrograms of progestin and 150 micrograms of estrogen when it was first released. Compare that with today’s pills that contain only 50-150 micrograms of progestin and 20-50 micrograms of estrogen and you can understand why it had some nasty side effects. These high levels of hormones increased the rare risk of heart attacks and strokes. The 1961 FDA report revealed 132 incidents of blood clots among pill users. However the FDA compared this low blood clot risk of 1.3 out of 100 000 users to the number of women that die from pregnancy complications - 36.9 out of 100 000 - and decided that the pill would remain on the market. Why were women forced to settle for a lower risk of death at the hands of the FDA?
Despite these dangerous side effects, women rushed to get a prescription for the pill. The sexual autonomy held in one little white pill far outweighed a long list of side effects in these women’s minds. Or maybe the pill was so popular because women weren’t informed of the side effects? Yep, bingo.
Manufacturers were not required to provide birth control users with possible side effects until 1970. After many women reported unwanted side effects that they were uninformed of, the FDA announced that package inserts must display information on side effects. But the medical community, which consisted of very few vulva-owners, opposed this rule change because it would undermine the doctor’s authority with their patients. The FDA bowed down and settled for physicians informing their patients of the side effects instead of a package insert.
In the end, pill manufacturers continued providing pill users with either no package insert, or a package insert unreadable for the general public until 1980. Can someone please pull out their calculator and let me know how many women remained unaware of the pill’s side effects for two decades after its invention? Quick math: all of them.
Last week we talked about condoms so it feels necessary to mention the fact that in 1961, a pharmacist was convicted and fined for selling condoms in his drugstore. It was literally illegal to have safe sex. Ironically, 1969 was the year that birth control was decriminalized in Canada. Do you think they knew what 69’ing was back then? Sorry, no more immature jokes.
Between the questionably placed family planning centers and the unethical trials in Puerto Rico, modern birth control did not have a good start. Women unknowingly made sacrifices so that the rest of the female population could have control over their reproduction. Ironically, these women will never know that millions after them have been liberated because of their unwilling participation in that trial.
Though we still have a long way to go with reproductive rights and quality birth control options, we have come a lot further than where it all started. It’s important to share our experiences with contraceptives and family planning and push the needle forward collectively. We simply can not expect to try 5 or more different birth control methods before we find one we like. We deserve better. Let’s ask for more.
Your birth control journey made fast, simple and comfortable.
Editors: Lisa Hou, Dallas Barnes