Birth Control: A Racist And Sexist History

October 21, 2016  |  


After enrolling in a Women’s Studies class in college that heavily covered the history of birth control in the United States, I refused to take the pill. We were taught how women of color were often chosen to be the guinea pigs to test such drugs and many were left sterile. In recent years, I’ve had cousins and friends who’ve developed blood clots because of the pill or had difficulty getting pregnant, after being off off of the contraceptive for two or more years.

And despite scientific advancement and a variety of birth control pills to choose from, I am still extremely weary of it…of all of it. Just this September, a study from JAMA Psychiatry found a significant association between hormonal contraception and “subsequent use of antidepressants and a first diagnosis of depression.”

One user, Holly Grigg-Spall, author of Sweetening the Pill, told Broadly in a report, “I’d used the pill for ten years. One particular kind, Yasmin, had huge side effects —psychological effects, depression, anxiety, panic attacks. I didn’t make the connection between what was going on with me and the pill for two years.

JAMA’s study also found that these particular side effects of the pill affect teenage girls.Girls in this age bracket are often prescribed birth control to treat hormonal issues such as acne, menstrual cramps or poly-cystic ovary syndrome, outside of the pill’s contraceptive needs. Going on the pill for many teens is like a rite of passage Grigg-Spall claimed.

But at what cost?

The history of the pill has always been shady, to say the least. In the 20th century, the pill was invented and funded by Activist/sex educator Margaret Sanger, biologist Gregory Pincus, millionaire heiress Katherine McCormick and Catholic gynecologist John Rock. During the 1950s, Dr. Rock tested the pill on several patients and failed to tell them that the pill would prevent them from conceiving. Still, many women dropped out of his study because they complained of the side effects we still see today: bloating, mood swings and potential blood clots.

Because the pill was still illegal in half of the country and women consistently dropped out of the studies, Dr. Rock and Pincus decided to travel to Puerto Rico and test women there. Unfortunately, their studies had just as harmful affects on these women as well. “Many Puerto Rican women were sterilized without their consent or knowledge in a procedure that was colloquially known as “La Operacion” in the 1950s and 60s. Pincus and Rock assumed that they would find a large, compliant population of test subjects. They believed that if poor, uneducated Puerto Rican women could use the pill, anyone could,” Broadly revealed.

Once the studies ended on the Caribbean island, three women were left dead. No autopsies were performed to see if they had birth-control related deaths. Women in American prisons were then forced to be test subjects and faced similar conditions.

But because the pill proved to work in other women who survived to complete the study, it was released in the United States under the name Enovid, despite it having 10 times the amount of hormones needed to prevent conception.

It wasn’t until journalist Barbara Seaman wrote her historical book, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill that people started to pay attention to birth control’s negative aspects. Her book explained the side effects experienced when taking Enovid because doctors withheld such information from their patients. Semon’s book caught the attention of Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson, who eventually helped to create patient’s right-to-know bills.

But despite the 40-plus years’ worth of progress women’s health care has made, women and their bodies are still being failed. “A big part of it is lack of interest in women’s health issues as a whole,” Grigg-Spall noted. And while the new study by JAMA didn’t reveal information women didn’t already know, Cindy Pearson, National Women’s Health Network believes: “Contraception is just one example of where we feel women should know as much as they want to know. This information shouldn’t be hidden from women for the fear that they will make a wrong decision down the line. Trust women to make good decisions when they have good information.”

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