5 Facts About The Pill That Might Shock You

by Gina M. Florio

With all the hype about the recently approved Female Viagra, more officially known as Flibarensin, we can't help but think back to the history of women's health and sexuality in the United States. It's not exactly the most pleasant story, as our gender has faced immense oppression over the generations; I'm sure we'll look back on this newest development and shake our heads at the drama that ensued over the little pink pill — whose purpose is to bring women more satisfaction in the bedroom. Seeing the news this week, I was immediately reminded of the clash that took place in America when talk of the first birth control pill started breezing through the country.

Many fought for its release, while others battled to keep it out of our reach. Today, because we've got an enormous amount of resources at our fingertips that allow us to choose which mode of contraception is best for our bodies, from the increasingly popular IUD to the diaphragm to the rhythm method, we often forget the events that led up to the Pill being so easily accessible. It is still the most widely used form of birth control: 27.5 percent of women use it regularly, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

How much do you actually know about the history of the Pill? There’s not exactly a class in high school that teaches us about the main players of the early contraception game, what happened in the first rounds of testing, and how racism and sexism played a role in the whole process. But there’s a whole bank of information out there just waiting to be discovered — some of it surprising, some of it downright horrifying. It pays to know how we got to the Pill that is so familiar to us today; it reminds us of what numerous women before us had to endure for us to have the freedom we have today.

Get ready to be shocked by some of the historical details around contraception, starting with these five interesting facts about the invention of the Pill.

1. The Co-Inventor Of The Pill Was A Devout Catholic

John Rock was a doctor and professor of obstetrics at Harvard Medical School for more than three decades. But his faith was just as important to him, if not more so, than his career; he attended 7 a.m. mass every morning, prayed consistently to a crucifix that hung above his desk, and was convinced that his work aligned perfectly with his beliefs. In the '50s and '60s, he gained fame for his work on the first widespread birth control pill, alongside Gregory Pincus, and he was subsequently met with much resistance from the Catholic Church, including and especially the Pope. People even called him a “moral rapist.”

He strongly believed the Pill was a natural way to prevent pregnancy. Progesterone is a hormone our bodies naturally produce in order to stop the ovaries from releasing new eggs — in other words, it’s nature’s contraceptive. Rock essentially put it into a tablet form, causing progesterone to be steadily released and ovulation to be halted. He included estrogen in the Pill, which holds the endometrium together.

From a theological standpoint, the fact that this combination was found in the body naturally meant it was a keeper for Rock. He embarked on his research precisely because nobody was playing God when it came to the Pill — no sperm was killed and there was no disruption to the natural procreation process. Neuroscience and psychology writer Shaunacy Ferro says Rock created contraception in this way so the Catholic Church would approve of it; after all, it was a “pharmacological extension of the Catholic-endorsed rhythm method."

2. There Was (And Is) No Medical Reason For The Pill To Be On A 28-Day Cycle

In his essay “John Rock’s Error,” acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell sheds light on research proving that Rock had it all wrong — what he thought was natural really wasn’t. There has never been any scientific or biological reason why women should have their period once a month. Rock got his commitment to his religion confused with his role in the field of biology, and he was consumed by his attempt to make the Pill appear organic to the Catholic Church.

A scientist named Beverly Strassmann studied a small indigenous village called Sangui in Mali, Africa for two and a half years in 1986. Her findings were extraordinary, and they shook the very core of what we believe to be true of menstruating. The Sangui women, on average, have only about 100 periods in a lifetime, while us women in the industrialized, contemporary world menstruate between 350 and 400 times.

The real scare here is that, every time we ovulate, an egg bursts through the ovary walls, and the cells are forced to divide and reproduce. Gladwell calls it “a flurry of potentially dangerous cell division,” meaning we are at a higher risk for cancer. This isn’t to say that all women who don’t get periods regularly are healthy — lack of period can sometimes be a sign of something very serious as well.

3. Mentally Ill Women Were Forced To Undergo Testing For The Pill

While the creation of the Pill played a part in a much-needed sexual revolution, the story isn’t all rainbows and puppies. In her book about women and the rise of contraception, Testo Junkie, Beatriz Perciado writes that the Pill was used to control certain pockets of Western civilization. Hundreds of women were sterilized at the hands of the very doctors — including Rock and Pincus — who claimed to be protecting women’s health and bodies.

Countless women, unaware and non-consenting, were inadvertently sterilized at Worcester State Hospital in 1954 when the Pill was tested on them; all 28 people were psychiatric patients who had been admitted for diseases such as manic depression and schizophrenia. The state of Massachusetts at the time had strict anti-birth control laws, so, in order to manipulate the system, Rock and Pincus framed it as an infertility study. Fifty of Rock’s own patients volunteered, but they still needed more. They weren’t allowed to publicly ask for additional participants; thus, they used vulnerable women suffering from mental illnesses.

4. Women Of Color Were Also Specifically Targeted For Testing

In 1937, a law was passed that legally allowed sterilization of Puerto Rican women “in the hopes that it would stem Puerto Rico’s endemic poverty.” This allowed the Pill to be tested on them without consequence. One out of every three married women between the ages of 20-49 lost their ability to reproduce, two-fifths of them under the age of 25. The FDA approved these clinical trials, partly because this group of uneducated women living in poverty could be easily monitored throughout the process. Three individuals died from the Pill, but neither Rock nor Pincus decided to investigate what caused the fatalities, and the other extreme side effects weren’t addressed either.

A couple decades later, the testing spread to places like Haiti and Mexico, and it eventually targeted black women in the United States. In an attempt to reduce the birth rate among minority neighborhoods, the Pill was administered to this part of the population. In 1967, African American activists ushered the term “black genocide” into the public, especially after learning that Planned Parenthood was responsible for handing out the Pill to these communities. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and a driving force behind funding the creation of the Pill, was an advocate for eugenics. She has been on record as a champion for improving the human population by sterilizing people of color — and she gave at least one speech at a KKK conference.

5. The Pill Wasn’t Legal For Everyone Until 1972

The U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t too stoked about giving us the legal permission to take the Pill, or any contraception for that matter. Although seemingly stable married couples were given access to it as they planned for families, there were plenty of laws prohibiting the distribution of the Pill to single people (will we ever catch a break?!). In addition to the moral debate over the notion of readily available birth control, there were many risks, including blood clots and heart attack, that made people hesitant to jump on board. In 1957, the FDA only agreed to make it available to women with severe menstrual disorders — not as a form of contraception. It was only three years later that the organization gave the green light for it to be used to prevent pregnancy.

In 1964, the Pill was illegal in eight states and the federal government had yet to intervene. But then Eisenstadt v. Baird came along, a U.S. Supreme Court case in the early '70s that used the Equal Protection Clause to rule that married and unmarried folks couldn't be treated differently, thus gifting the masses with the Pill. By the time this rolled around, though, the Pill was already the most widely used form of birth control out there — more than 6.5 million women were already popping it on the daily, despite the regulations.

Images: Clever Cupcakes, Monik Markus, IISG/Flickr; plannedparenthood (3)/Instagram