The Birth Control Pill: An Unethical and Eugenic History

On November 20th, the Women’s Center removed an article from our blog. However, removing the article was an error, and we are putting the article back up on the blog.

By Vicky Diloné

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.

Black and white photograph of Margaret Sanger taken in the 1940s
Margaret Sanger, circa 1940s

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.

Pincus at Harvard in 1932. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

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.

Black and white photograph of women holding protest signs
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.

Black and white photograph of two women teaching about birth control options in 1960
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.

Billings Ovulation Method

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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14 thoughts on “The Birth Control Pill: An Unethical and Eugenic History

  1. While I support the use of birth control pills today, I think her article was very strong. She makes a stand for the marginalized and the used, and is unwilling to turn a blind eye to injustice for the sake of “well that’s just how things were back then.” Diversity is good– YES, that also means diversity in the feminist cause! ✊

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  2. Recognizing the racism and eugenics that were a part of the development of birth control is valid. But birth control is so important for a lot of people now, the past doesn’t invalidate the benefits of medication. Also, just like the pill is not the right choice for everyone, natural family planning is not the right choice for most people.
    And please don’t compare the development of birth control to slavery.

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    1. I am not comparing the victims of the Worcester or Puerto Rico Trials to the slaves taken from Africa. I am comparing the way people react to two different moral issues, how slavery is seen in an objective light and the trials are seen in a relative light. My own ancestors were slaves brought over from Africa by Spanish colonizers to the Dominican Republic, so it is not something I take lightly.

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  3. This article, while I appreciate the history lesson, is horribly biased and to compare birth control to slavery is outrageous. Most great discoveries have troubling pasts. We should be grateful for the sacrifices others made for us to be able to use birth control today. Birth control helps so many people and not just to prevent pregnancy. As a minority woman myself, I do not like this biased article.

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    1. I am not comparing the taking of birth control to the slavery. I am comparing the way people react to two different moral issues, how slavery is seen in an objective light and the Worcester and Puerto Rico trials are seen in a relative light. My own ancestors were slaves taken from Africa by Spanish colonizers to the Dominican Republic, so it is not something I take lightly.

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  4. I agree that this is an important topic for people to know about because we should always be aware of the injustices in our country’s history. However, advocating for a method that is proven not to be reliable is just bad judgement and could potentially hurt people. The website for the Billings Ovulation Method claims that this method is as effective as the pill and more effective than an IUD or condom, which doesn’t make any sense because the IUD is more reliable than the pill to begin with. This assumes that every person can accurately and perfectly understand their cervical mucus and body temperature to be able to tell when they are fertile. Realistically, with imperfect use, 10.5% of women using this method will get pregnant within one year of using this method. https://www.factsaboutfertility.org/task-force-finds-billings-ovulation-method-of-natural-family-planning-effective/ The way the method is portrayed in this article is dangerous and misleading.

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  5. You have a well written argument. For any woman with a dysphoric disorder or who uses the pill for other than birth control, this argument would only create guilt for utilizing needed medicine. Also, I would recommend adding more complete information regarding natural prevention methods with the information above regarding failure rates. Providing Other alternatives would also be helpful. Lastly, you should mention how the pill actually works. As I see it women are still being experimented on without consent. The pill does NOT prevent pregnancy but instead prevents implantation. I doubt many girls and women are told that. This means that you can create an embryo it just can’t survive by attaching….I believe in the right for each woman to choose for themselves what happens to their bodies for their own reasons which don’t need to be shared to be respected.

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    1. Thank you for your feedback. I have a word limit to my posts so I didn’t put all the information that I would have liked to share. Here is a link to how the Pill works: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-how-pill-works/.
      In regards to failure rates, no method of birth control is absolute. Here are some of the studies I’ve seen regarding the effectiveness of the Billings Method: https://toronto.naturalfamilyplanning.ca/downloads/trials.pdf, https://www.jogc.com/article/S1701-2163(16)34571-6/abstract, https://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282(16)42851-7/fulltext.
      I feel that I can only advocate for the natural method for birth control because of personal beliefs surrounding sexuality. I cannot go against my own morals by advocating for other types of hormonal or permanent birth control. There is information readily available on the internet or from your doctor about the different methods.
      I personally think that it is acceptable to use the pill for medical reasons besides birth control, such as acne, extreme menstruation, etc. Also as I stated in my article, it is not my intent to shame women for using birth control, only to inform them of its history. If the truth causes them to have an internal conflict, that is not something I can control.

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  6. Glad to see this article is up again but don’t fool yourself into believing that those who caved in to outside pressure and allowed it to be published don’t still believe you ought to be censored — and not just on their blog. Stand strong against those who are trying to hide the truth. It’s not just a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of fact and of right and wrong.

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  7. I’m a proLife feminist and a former reporter.

    Free speech prevails and this excellent essay has reappeared.

    Students, don’t ever let yourselves be bullied by those trying to oppress you into silence. Women deserve better than to be told their views don’t toe the so-called feminist line.

    Remember, we all started our lives in the womb.

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