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Environmental Studies

Endocrine Disrupters and the Pill

How EDs Work
Our Stolen Future
Drugs in the Environment
Examples of EDs
Government Testing
The Pill as an ED
History of the Pill
Case Study: Coastal Waters
Case Study: Fish
Case Study: Men in Italy
What you can do!
Further Information

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History of Pill

    There are four people to thank for the invention of the birth control pill: two activist women and two doctors. The first is Margaret Sanger, who was born in 1879 and grew up during a time when contraceptives were illegal due to the Comstock Act. By 1910, Sanger was working tirelessly against the law, distributing information and contraceptive devices to women. It's said that Sanger's devotion is due in large part to the fact that she was one of eleven children in a working class family. Her mother passed away at just 50 years of age, after her body began to show the strain of eleven childbirths and seven miscarriages. ToSanger escape her family, Sanger went to nursing school in an attempt to become self-suffpictureicient. It was in her work that Sanger became even more convinced of the need for contraception as she watched largely poor immigrant women suffer from unwanted pregnancies. Many of these forced these women to have illegal back-alley abortions that were very dangerous. Sanger married and had three children, but did not end her battle for birth control rights, instead she found herself in trouble with the law, twice. Once in 1915 for sending diaphragms through the mail and again in 1916 for opening a birth control clinic. In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, the early name of Planned Parenthood. Sanger had always wanted to find a cheap, effective, and easy way for women to deal with pregnancy, but so far she had been unable to do so. In 1951, She met with Gregory Pincus, a medical expert in the field of human reproduction.
    Pincus was born in 1903 and had attended Cornell University. He later taught at Harvard, where he began research on the sexual physiology of mammals. In 1934 Pincus accomplished in-vitro fertilization of rabbits. Pincus' achievement was not heralded as a scientific achievement, instead he was considered a mad scientist, this is due largely to the publication of Brave New World shortly before. Pincus was denied tenure at Harvard and became desperate to find work, until a friend offered him a lab position at Clark University. In 1953, two years after first meeting Sanger, she approached Pincus with wealthy heiress Katherine McCormick to attempt to convince him to try to create a new form of birth control.
    McCormick was born in 1875 and grew up in a wealthy Chicago family. Breaking convention, she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology receiving a bachelor's degree in biology. After graduating, she married Stanley McCormick, a wealthy heir to a large fortune. Only two years after being married, however, Stanley McCormick developed schizophrenia and suffered from severe dementia. At this time it was believed that schizophrenia was hereditary, so Katherine McCormick vowed never to have children. She became an advocate for women's rights, where she met Margaret Sanger. McCormick's husband died in 1947, leaving her in control of a vast estate. Sanger helped convince her to invest in female contraception pills, bringing her to meet with Pincus.
    By this point, Pincus had already discovered that progesterone works as an anti-ovulent, and now, with proper funding, he was able to fully pursue the work. However, Pincus needed to conduct human trials and therefore convinced Dr. John Rock to use his thriving fertility clinic to start trials. Rock was a devout Catholic, who supported the right of married women to use contraception. The results of the tests were conclusive showing that synthetic progesterone was effective as a form of birth control. However large scale trials were needed, and both doctors were beginning to be more restricted by laws against human testing and contraception, so Puerto Rico became the site of large scale testing in 1956. In the same year, Pincus in conjunction with pharmaceutical giant Searle submitted Enovid as the first oral contraceptive. In 1957, the FDA approved Enovid, but only for help solving menstrual problems in women. By 1959, nearly half a million women are taking Enovid for "menstrual problems," and just a year later the pill is cleared as a form of birth control.
    Enovid uses a high dose of synthetic progesterone to regulate a woman's cycle. During the 1960's Searle continued to work on the pill, finally clearing with the FDA a lower dosage version of the pill. In 1962 competitive versions of the pill are finally allowed to enter the market and just a year later it is reported that 2.3 American women are using the pill. In 1967 put the worldwide number of women using at 12.5 million. A major step for women's rights was achieved in 1972, when the US Supreme Court case of Eisenstadt versus Baird ruled that a US state could not prohibit the distribution of the pill to unmarried women, opening new doors for women's rights.  By 1984 an estimated 50 to 80 million women are on the pill worldwide. Since then though, the pill has remained a contentious issue. Levels of active hormones have been lowered continually, with the new "low dose" pills being what almost every woman is prescribed now. Also, many brands of pills are now a combination of both progesterone and estrogen. The controversy still boils though, with the possibility of new laws being enacted, which would allow pharmacists to refuse selling the pill to women if they object to it on moral grounds. While McCormick, Sanger, Rock, and Pincus helped develop a scientific break through, it is as controversial today as it was then.

All information on this page is from the American Experience website on the Pill

Last updated:  5/2/2006


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