The Birth Control Pill: An Unethical and Eugenic History

November 20th 2018 Note: The following essay was originally posted on the University of Idaho Women’s Center blog on November 19th, 2018; it was read over and approved by its editor. It was taken down by the center director because it apparently violates freedom of choice. I fail to see how informing others on the true history of birth control is oppressing choice. I find it ironic that an organization that supposedly advocates for women is trying to censor a minority woman. 

December 4, 2018 Note: The original blog post on the UI Women’s Center site has been reposted with this now deleted statement. “On November 20th, the Women’s Center removed an article from our blog. The topic of the blog article was changed at the last minute and the normal processes for posting the article were not all followed due to the Thanksgiving break. However, removing the article because of this was an error and we are putting the article back up on the blog. There are those who will disagree with the statements in this blog. Some disagreements have already been expressed directly to the Women’s Center. There is a constant struggle for recognition of our rights as humans; rights to express sexuality, rights to gender identity, rights for equal treatment without bias, and more. That said, in this struggle, we can never lose sight of the fundamental right of personal expression, including the right to express the contrary or controversial view. Discourse that advances our society requires not just expression, but also listening and a considered response. Ignoring the contrary view derails the discourse. And so, in this light, the Women’s Center is restating the article on our blog. As with all articles on our blog, the content contains the views of the author, not necessarily those of the Women’s Center. We invite you to listen with your eyes and respond as you wish with your hearts and minds.”

The Scientist and the Visionary

In 1936, Dr. Gregory Pincus was denied tenure and released from his professor position at Harvard. Brave New World had been published a few years before and Pincus had just successfully bred rabbits with in vitro-fertilization. People at the school were becoming increasingly fearful of his radical experiments which were done without regard of ethics.

So what did Pincus do? He started his own private laboratory from small donations. After accepting a position as a visiting zoology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, he started the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. It was something unheard of in those times. University laboratories had safety standards, environmental regulations, and a board of ethics committee. By starting his own, Pincus was able to bypass all of that and research what he wanted by whatever means he wanted.

At 71 years old, Margaret Sanger was still looking for the perfect method of birth control. She saw her goal in the works of Pincus. They met in 1951 at a dinner hosted by a mutual friend.

Do you think that it would be possible . . . ?” she asked.

“I think so,” Pincus said.

It would require a good deal of research, he added, but, yes, it was possible. Sanger had been waiting much of her life to hear those words.

“Well,” she said, “then start right away.”

The Eugenicist

Sanger is still praised for her role in “reproductive rights.” But as a woman of color, I cannot get past her role as a eugenicist. Eugenics theory has always been based on racism and it is naïve to assume otherwise.

“Those adjudged to have ‘inferior genes’ were discouraged from reproducing through the establishment of ‘negative eugenics’ programs, such as state-mandated sterilization laws for ‘mental defectives,’ restrictions against who could marry whom, birth control policies, harsh adoption laws and loud nativist calls for laws restricting the entry of ‘swarthy,’ ‘unkempt’ and ‘unassimilable’ immigrants. In essence, eugenics offered Americans in positions of power an authoritative scientific language to substantiate their biases against those they feared as dangerous.”

Now let’s take a look at the language Sanger used in her article Is Race Suicide Probable?

“America . . . is like a garden in which the gardener pays no attention to the weeds. Our criminals are our weeds, and weeds breed fast and are intensely hardy. They must be eliminated. Stop permitting criminals and weaklings to reproduce. All over the country to-day we have enormous insane asylums and similar institutions where we nourish the unfit and criminal instead of exterminating them. Nature eliminates the weeds, but we turn them into parasites and allow them to reproduce.”

Many try to say that Sanger was not racist because of her efforts in the Black community. But even if Sanger was not referring to race when speaking of human weeds, she clearly saw the disabled and mentally-ill as undesirables who were harming society.

Eugenics protest circa 1971 originally published by Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF). Wikimedia Commons/Southern Studies Institute

For me this is an inexcusable way of thinking. The solution isn’t to exterminate those who have more perceived challenges, but to help them live their lives to the fullest. Many would be rightly horrified if the government mandated that epileptics could only have one child. It would be outrageous to say to someone with a psychotic disorder that their existence is bringing the race down so it is better if they are sterilized, even against their will.

But it wasn’t only the “intellectually defected” that Sanger was determined to get rid of, but she also had an agenda against immigrants. Look at the words she uses in her 1932 speech My Way to Peace:

Keep the doors of Immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feeble-minded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic [sic], epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred from entrance by the Immigration Laws of 1924.”

Eugenic ideas like Sanger’s were used to justify the sterilization of people of color. My own grandmother who immigrated to Los Angeles in the sixties could have been the victim of these forced sterilizations of the “unfit.” Sanger did not want people like me to be born.

Unethical Testing

So not only was the birth control pill dreamed up as a way to control the population of the unfit, the early experiments to even create it were unethical. In the fifties it was illegal to distribute or even use birth control, so Pincus had to come up with creative ways to test his new drug. He came upon Dr. John Rock in 1952 and began testing on the women of his clinic with money given to them initially through Planned Parenthood.

These women were seeing Dr. Rock because of infertility problems and were told that they would be given a drug to stop ovulation and would become pregnant after coming off it. A few of the women did become pregnant as promised, however half of the women dropped out of the trial because of its extreme side effects including severe nausea, painful menstruation, and blood clots. Pincus couldn’t use the results because of the high dropout rates so he followed a friend’s advice to find “a ‘cage’ of ovulating females to experiment with.”

He took the trials to the Worcester State Hospital, an asylum for those deemed “insane,” including those suffering from Alzheimer’s or depression. In 1954, “under the guise of learning about the pill’s “possible tranquilizing effect,” Pincus launched a new trial. He recruited 16 female patients at the Worcester State Hospital, fed them birth control pill prototypes, then sliced into their uteruses in an effort to understand the drug’s effect on ovulation. When he was done, he published his findings. These were women (and men) who not only didn’t give their consent, but often didn’t even understand what was happening to them. Doctors in the medical field protested the results, but Pincus’ continued on with his unethical experiments, this time with a new destination in mind.

The teaching of birth control methods in Puerto Rico, 1960. (Credit Hank WalkerThe LIFE Picture CollectionGetty Images)
The teaching of birth control methods in Puerto Rico, 1960. (Credit: Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The Puerto Rico Trials

Forced sterilization was already part of the island’s laws, a result of the fear of the growing Latino population. The Puerto Rican women, especially the poor and uneducated, were seen as burdens and coerced to take part in population control.

“The tragedy of the situation is that the more intelligent classes voluntarily restrict their birth rate, while the most vicious, most ignorant, and most helpless and hopeless part of the population multiplies with tremendous rapidity,”

–James R. Beverley, US appointed governor of Puerto Rico, 1933

And in 1956 Pincus and Dr. Rock saw an opportunity to bypass American laws prohibiting birth control. They recruited a group of female medical students to test the drug and more than half dropped out. Even with the threat of lowered grades, these women could not bear the negative side effects. They also were opposed to the experiments themselves which consisted of daily vaginal smears and occasional laparotomies, in which the abdomen is cut open to view the insides.

Genocide! Puerto Ricans Sterilized (Denise Oliver-Velez)

Using the data from the medical students, Pincus created a prototype birth control pill and was ready to test it in the field. The place to test it was the neighborhood outside of San Juan. Pincus hope to show that if  “the poor, uneducated, women of Puerto Rico could follow the Pill regimen, then women anywhere in the world could too” A statement that one writer calls “condescending.”

The women were only told that the pill was a form of birth control, not that it was still in its experimental phase. When they complained about the side effects, it was either downplayed or outright ignored. Pincus supposedly said that it was in the Puerto Rican nature to complain too much. Three women were reported to have died during the trials with no one trying to find the cause. Another newspaper states that “critics in Puerto Rico have compared the early pill experiments to the U.S. government’s surreptitious syphilis tests on black men in Tuskegee, Ala., about the same time.” It seems to me that Pincus only was concerned if his pill worked and it did not matter what long-term effects Puerto Ricans suffered.

Again, more than half of the women stopped taking the pill. But with these three incomplete results, Pincus was able to gain FDA approval.

Can Today’s Outcomes Override History?

Today the Pill has half as much hormones in them as the first drug. Pincus died in 1967 of a rare blood disease. Dr. Rock, disillusioned after Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, left the Catholic Church. Sanger is still a controversial figure and is both hated and loved.

There are many reasons why I oppose the birth control pill, but it’s unethical and eugenic past is one that I think most people should agree on. Some have argued that these incidents were just the way things were done back then; that of course what was done to these women was wrong but that was the norm in those time. To me, testing on nonconsenting or ill-informed patients, even if it brought about a medical discovery, is still unethical. Just because that was how things were done back then doesn’t make it acceptable. Slavery was the way things were done in this country for almost a century, but it was still immoral. Pincus crossed lines that should not have been crossed, no matter the year or culture.

This is why I advocate for the widely-approved Billings Ovulation Method and Natural Family Planning.  These methods would allow a woman to know when she is fertile, and are ethical and natural. I’m not trying to vilify those who use birth control, but women should know how the Pill came to be. Gregory Pincus and Margaret Sanger should be known for their actions as an immoral scientist who disregarded the pain of women and an eugenicist who wanted to rid the world of those she deemed “unfit.”


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