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.”

Natural Cycles App

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: A Not-so-improbable Dystopian World

Book cover of The Handmaid's Tale featuring an illustration of two women in red robes and white head coverings walking inside a walled space
Book cover of The Handmaid’s Tale

By Madison Teuscher

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian-style cautionary tale set in a radically theocratic America. The Christian fundamentalist regime, called “Gilead,” has divided women based on fertility and obedience. Handmaids are fertile women who serve as surrogate wombs for the Commanders and their aging wives. All women are completely stripped of their rights—everything from reading to purchasing power—and are sorted into classes to divide and control them. The Wives—women married to the powerful Commanders—are relegated to spending their days knitting, gardening, and waiting for their Handmaid to give birth to a child. Handmaids are completely powerless, and everywhere they go, there are Eyes—the military division of the Gilead regime—watching and waiting to kill them for any misbehavior.

One reviewer on The Verge called the story, “1984 for feminists… but a lot scarier.” This theocratic society has based its revolution on a Bible passage in the book of Genesis about Jacob’s wife, Rachel, allowing her handmaid to conceive Jacob’s child on her behalf. This passage is recited during the monthly ceremony in which the Commander attempts to impregnate the Handmaid, all under the Wife’s watchful eye. If a Handmaid cannot reproduce, she is sent to labor internment camps with the Unwomen—old and infertile women who are no longer valuable to the society. Handmaids are containers for babies, and nothing more.

Continue reading “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: A Not-so-improbable Dystopian World”

Anna Nicole Smith: Opera’s Next Diva Role

Actress Anna Nicole Smith waving on the red carpet at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards
Anna Nicole Smith at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo credit: Toby Forage, Flickr CC.

Guest post by Madison Teuscher

I was surprised when I learned that Anna Nicole Smith’s story had been turned into an opera. Smith was a celebrity most known for being a Playboy model and marrying a man 60 years older than her—I thought there was no way her story would be suited to the high-brow opera stage. However, I soon discovered that Anna’s story is perfect for opera—it is dramatic, full of conflict and disagreement, and Anna’s eccentric personality makes for a perfect starring diva. While her story may seem frivolous and silly, it actually explores much deeper topics relating to women, madness, and relationships with men of power.

The opera, titled Anna Nicole, was written in 2011 by Mark-Anthony Turnage, and the libretto (the words of the opera), was written by Richard Thomas. This dramatic tale is both emotionally hard-hitting and over-the-top and gaudy. This is certainly not an opera to bring your grandma to; it is vulgar and crass, but also full of nuance and tenderness. The premiere of the two-act opera garnered a big publicity stir. Some reviews praised it as “brilliant, dangerous, but exhilarating”, but many had harsh criticism for the opera, saying it was “lacking in real tunes and real drama and a piece of terrible garbage”. Why is the story of a stripper, Playboy model, and sex symbol so disconcerting?

Continue reading “Anna Nicole Smith: Opera’s Next Diva Role”

Meet Valeria

The author (on the left) painting a butterfly mural
The author (on the left) painting a mural

By Valeria Ramirez

My name is Valeria, but almost everyone calls me Val. I am a proud Mexican-American, and I am not afraid to show the vibrant personality that my culture has raised me to be. I am loud when I speak my mind, so I know that people are listening to what I say. I am cautious and I choose my words carefully to make a statement. My mother has instilled in me values of strength, persistence, and courage to become a woman who is not afraid to speak up for those who can’t.

I grew up in Caldwell, Idaho, where I spent most of my life trying to find my voice and combating my social anxiety. What I love to dedicate my time to is creating murals and artwork that express my unusual perspective of the world around me. Every year, I go to Oregon with my family just to visit the vivid flowering of Oregon’s forests. I love how nature is unruly, and how easily you can get lost in its beauty. Traveling has always been important in my life, especially when I head to Mexico. Mexico has a culture that cannot be replicated. Hard work is the core value of its residents and strength is shown throughout the cities that I’ve been through. I was exposed to and embraced what my heritage has to offer, thanks to my parents, who always reminded me where I came from.

I am currently studying Political Science and English to achieve my dream of becoming an immigration lawyer. My reason for choosing immigration as my main area of specialty as a lawyer is because of my experience in certain situations around this topic. Many of my family members have been at risk of being deported, and are currently still facing the risk of being deported. I understand the hard work and sacrifice that each of my family members has been through in order to get into the United States. I want to apply this information and compassion to protect others in this situation, to allow illegal immigrants an equal opportunity for success. My father was the one who introduced me to politics and how easily it affects people’s lives. He would always bring his work home, and would bring migrant families over to our house. My father would help these families by organizing their taxes and other paperwork that they needed help with. Just by doing some simple paperwork, many of them were very grateful for the work that my dad did. That is something that I would like to accomplish—to give back to the community that gave me my culture and heritage. Also, I want to represent and fight for minorities when our voices are being drowned. The topics that I am most passionate about are civil rights, women’s rights, environmental issues, immigration, and even though I am no expert in LGBTQA issues, I will do whatever I can to be correct with my information and do my research.

Meet Maddie

Madelyn Starritt pictured standing by Multnomah Falls in Oregon
The author by Multnomah Falls, OR

By Madelyn Starritt

Hello! My name is Madelyn, but I usually go by Maddie. I was born and raised in Sandpoint, ID with my younger brother, parents, and large wonderful family. Moving to Moscow for school was a fun adventure and I’ve grown to love it here, but I do miss the lakes and mountains from back home. I first met my husband in high school, and we have been married for a year and a half now. He is my best friend and always so supportive of my dreams and endeavors. I am incredibly grateful to have such a caring person to spend my life with. It is just us right now, but in the future we plan to get a puppy and eventually have children of our own.

Here is a little bit about me: I love the outdoors and soaking up sunshine! Some of my hobbies include sewing/crafting, spending time with family and friends, and photography. I am an avid user of Pinterest and Netflix, I own far too many blankets, and I love candles. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite movie because I love too many to narrow it down. When I was in middle school, I played the saxophone and tried many sports growing up, but soccer was my favorite. I also love brownies, but do not like chocolate cake.

I am a senior here at the university studying Journalism with a minor in Communication. Before transferring to UI, I earned my associate degree at North Idaho College. I graduate next fall, and am excited and terrified to finish school and start my next adventure. I very much enjoy the media field and am excited to find a career doing what I love.

I am excited to write for this blog because I enjoy writing, photography, and the whole process of creating and publishing content. This opportunity will give me a chance not only to write, but to do so about topics that are important to me. Women’s and gender issues have and always will have an impact on me and those close to me, so I have kept myself informed about them. I have also taken some classes that explore many of the topics around women’s, gender, and diversity issues, which I have found very interesting. I hope to explore and write about more of these topics and issues that tend to get ignored, even though they have a big impact on us all. Often these topics, like race, gender, and women’s issues, are avoided or ignored because they might be uncomfortable to discuss, or taboo. This won’t change if we continue to not talk about these things. I hope writing about these topics will start a conversation, bring light to these issues, and encourage others to discuss them, so we can start to take steps forward to addressing these problems.

Thanks for reading about me! I look forward to this next semester and sharing my thoughts with you!


Meet Lauren

The author posing by a river
The author photographed by a river

By Lauren Orr

I’ve always thought of myself as a very outspoken kind of person, especially when it comes to what I believe is right or wrong. When I think something isn’t right, or if I believe there is an injustice happening, I immediately want to speak up about it. I am not afraid to speak for the truth, nor held back in fear of what people think of me. I don’t particularly care if I rub people the wrong way or if people don’t like me for what I believe, or for how I dress, etc. I know a lot people can’t say the same, so I like to think that in times where people aren’t capable of speaking up because of that fear, I can do it for them. So what really interested me in writing for this blog is that it gives me a platform to write about topics that people seem to ignore or sweep under the rug because they’re hard to talk about or because they’re scared of what other people will say to them (or about them).

I have always considered myself to be a feminist, even in elementary school. I have an older brother who is barely a year older than me, so we basically grew up together as twins. Because of this, we have always had similar friends, and I hated that because I was a girl, his friends didn’t really see me as tough and I didn’t like that they just assumed that I wouldn’t be interested in the same things as they were, when in fact I was (especially because I was so close to my brother). Yeah, I liked to play with Barbies, but I also wanted to build Bionicles and Legos and play Star Wars video games. I didn’t like that no-one thought that I should be interested in “boy” things. And on top of that, growing up, I was always given the “girl” chores by my parents, like doing the dishes and cleaning the house, while my brother learned how to change the oil in the car and was asked to mow the yard.

My whole life growing up, it was always the subtle sexism that I bucked against. One example that comes to mind was that when I told people that my mom worked in a hospital, they always just assumed she was an aide or a nurse, when in actuality, she is an incredibly talented doctor. It was as if everyone just assumed there was no way that she could be in a top position because she was a woman. And they always acted completely surprised when I corrected them, the whole eyebrows raised, amazed expression, like it was totally weird that there were such things as women doctors. And then there was, of course, the whole situation of boys bullying me, pulling my hair, and being complete idiots towards me, and when I complained, being told it was just their way of expressing their feelings. But when I responded in an aggressive manner, or told them to cut it out, I was told to “calm down” or called crazy.

And now that I’m in college, there’s what I call the “rape and cover-up” problem. In the past two years of my college career, I have personally known three women to be sexually assaulted while on campus, and numerous other cases where women have felt threatened, uncomfortable, and a few where they feared they had been drugged at parties. Over the past couple of years, this has been become a more recognized problem as people are starting to examine violence against women and rape. But despite this, there are still numerous cases where universities have covered up the problem, justice systems have blamed the victim, and people like Brock Turner have been pitied and excused for their behavior. This is a national and world problem that can only be changed by people speaking up and by changing stereotypes and beliefs that are so built into our culture that sometimes people don’t even realize that they’re acting on them.

My goal is to shed light on as many of these issues as I can, to hopefully help people realize that change is necessary, and that there is a problem. I want sexual violence to end, for women and men, and for victims to feel that they have received the justice they deserve, and for them to feel comfortable telling their stories with no shame, because they are not in the wrong. Of course, this is not the only injustice that needs to be confronted, there are more than just sexism, and feminism must hit every issue for there to be equality and justice. As a people, we need to take a look at our society and at the world we’re living in and decide to make a change for the better.

Meet Kali

Photo of Kali Nelson
Photo of the author

By Kali Nelson

Most of my life has been uneventful. My life has also been easy, to be honest. I have faced no obstacle other than the fact I am a woman. I have been set up to do well, I’m White, middle class, and I have my parents. Sure, I’ve had tragedies but nothing too terrible that would cause my life to become an uphill climb. I am, in all honesty, a boring person. I do well in school, I have a good family that supports most of what I do.  I first learned about Feminism from the internet and it is from there that I became the political liberal that I am today.

I spent the first sixteen years of my life in southern Idaho and about three years ago, my dad moved my younger siblings and me to Washington. I enjoy knitting, crocheting, reading, learning new things, and playing Quidditch. Yes, I play the sport from the Harry Potter books. Which is funny, because I don’t even like sports that much. I did swim some in high school and I did manage the track team for my school, but I didn’t compete. I believe that I spend too much time on Netflix watching crime shows and documentaries.

I am studying Journalism and Environmental Science so that one day, I could be an Environmental Journalist. The environment has always played a big part in my life and I blame my dad for that. It’s because of him that I can name at least one tree name in Latin (in case you were curious which one, Pinus Ponderosa is the Latin name of the Ponderosa Pine.) One of my best friends is my dog, Prince. He is a Grand Pyrenees and we like to say that he adopted us because he showed up one day to help watch our sheep and never left. At one time, I also had a pet goat named Billie. She was bottle fed and one time she got hungry and got through the fence and walked herself to the house, crying the whole time.

I am invested in women’s issues and it’s not just because I am a woman. It is because I believe that everyone deserves an equal chance to do whatever it is that they want.  While I don’t have much experience in topics such as gender and LGBTQ  issues, I will try to learn all that I can and write about it as accurately as I can. I will ask for your help, if I should get something wrong, please tell me. I’m still learning and nobody is perfect.