In many ways, we're in the golden age of birth control, particularly when you compare what we have now (IUDs, implants, the Pill) with historical alternatives, which included everything from camel saliva to crocodile dung. Just because our position seems to be fairly secure, though, it's worth remembering that even highly modern methods of contraception have had some very dark moments in their history, all of which need to be kept as part of their legacy for women. Whether it was taking advantage of lax medical standards — or of women themselves — the road to today's contraceptives has been a long and occasionally deeply unethical one. That doesn't mean what we have today is ineffective or dangerous, but that it's built on foundations of unethical behavior and human consequences.
This history of birth control matters because it's the cost of the progress of feminist control over our bodies: for the sake of the Pill's development, hundreds of women were forced into trials that significantly endangered their bodies without information or consent, for example. It's a legacy that we should continue to recognize and pay attention to, if only to make sure that no company or doctor ever believes that the conduct of the past is an acceptable way to behave in the future.
Welcome to modern birth control's problematic historical roots; be prepared to be upset, disgusted, and in some cases horrified out of your mind.
The Birth Control Pill
The Pill was at the vanguard of the sexual revolution and ranks as one of the most important inventions in human history, contraceptive or not; but its development was, in many ways, deeply troubling and problematic. The big issue? It took advantage of women in their thousands, jeopardized their health, and kept them in the dark about the true state of their bodies.
Alongside contraceptive advocate Margaret Sanger and heiress Katherine McCormick, the two major engineers of the Pill were the scientists Gregory Pincus and John Rock, who developed the first version of the Pill and set out to test it in 1954 and 1956. Both tests have gone down in history as horrendous: as Bethy Squires explains in her excellent "Racist & Sexist History Of Keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret" for VICE, the testing had two stages, one domestic and one international, and both were distinguished for their attempts to take serious advantage of women and their bodies. The first, on 50 women in Massachusetts, involved a host of sins: the doctors tested the experimental Pill on a bunch of patients without their consent, including a collection of vulnerable psychiatric patients at the local state hospital.
Seeking more confirmation outside of America's strict anti-contraception laws, Rock and Pincus tried a wider test in Puerto Rico on local and Haitian women in 1956, and that was an even more grotesque affair. They once again raided the local mental institutions, forced female medical students to take part despite the truly heinous side affects, and declared the test successful even though three women died while taking part. The really brutal bit about all this is that, as Dr. Marcie Bianco explained, women of color were seen as preferable subjects to "American" women because the Pill might "throw doubt on their femininity."
The condom has had, for the most part, a pretty astonishing and positive history. It's been made from everything from horn to incredibly fine leather, and used for centuries; we've found examples in 1600s privies, and see evidence of them everywhere from Japan to medieval France. By and large, of course, they weren't massively effective until vulcanized rubber was invented; but therein lies one of the stranger and potentially damaging bits in condom history.
The idea of testing a condom's efficacy is extremely old; the earliest record of doing it is actually in the diaries of Casanova, the legendary lover of the 18th century, who reported that he habitually inflated his (which were made of animal skin) before using them to test for holes. However, the practice of doing it as part of manufacturing is actually pretty new, which allowed manufacturers to get away with dirty tricks.
As historians of the condom point out, quality testing nationwide wasn't enforced by the FDA until 1937; but Aine Collier in The Humble Little Condom notes that some condom manufacturers simply took the condoms that had failed tests and repackaged them to be sold as cheaper brands.
A study done across the U.S. in 1938 found that only 40 percent of all condoms were actually working. Luckily, a crackdown ensued, and they're now put through rigorous testing; but problems with repackaging inferior products pop up elsewhere in the world, from 2000's China to the allegation in 1998 that an Indian latex company was selling its rejects to state welfare organizations. Keeping a lid on the effectiveness of condoms is, even now, an issue.
The IUD is, these days, one of the most successful long-term contraceptive options for women who don't want babies in the foreseeable future (and those of us who want one would be advised to get one fitted quickly, before the Trump presidency wreaks unknown havoc on reproductive provisions in the U.S.). It's also, however, still recovering from a stigma that's now nearly 50 years old, and nearly derailed the entire idea: the Dalkon Shield crisis.
The Dalkon Shield was an intrauterine device placed on the American market by A.H. Robins in 1971, and was inserted into the uterus by a doctor with a multifilament string dangling from it to help remove the device when necessary (the Shield itself had fins, and the extra pull was helpful). However, the string turned out to be a tragic mistake.
As Ms Magazine explains, the Dalkon Shield was actually "a product that had an ill-designed removal string that wicked bacteria into the uterus, facilitating Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) and sepsis (blood poisoning) which, when untreated, can cause infertility." The results were horrible. Mother Jones reports that even conservative estimates put the number of severe infection in the U.S. at 200,000, and notes that, even though the company knew the device was deeply unsafe as early as 1972, it still exported thousands of them to 42 different countries worldwide, many unsterilized with unsuitable applicators. The total number of known deaths is 17. It was removed from the market in 1974, and A.H. Robins went bankrupt from payouts to injured women. Despite now being one of the safest and effective birth control methods out there, the stigma around the IUD in America remains.