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The Birth of the Birth Control Pill

September 3 2020 | Written by Madi Hanaka, Graphics by Sissi Chen

Sprinkling crocodile excrement on the vulva, drinking liquid lead and mercury, inserting silphium soaked cotton balls into the vagina: these are some of the methods women were rumoured to have used in ancient times to prevent pregnancy.

Thanks to modern medicine, family planning today doesn’t typically involve any large reptiles or metallic chemical elements. Individuals who menstruate now have a few more options in terms of birth control: the patch, the shot, and the pill – just to name a few. In this week’s blog post, the Marlow team is taking a look at the history of the birth control pill and how it evolved from one woman’s strange idea to the revolutionary contraceptive medication we know it to be today.

 

1914 – A Brilliant Idea

This trip through the past begins with a woman by the name of Margaret Sanger. Sanger was quite the feminist icon of her time and is known as the “Mother of the birth control pill” as she coined the term. She was a major birth control activist having opened the first ever birth control clinic in 1916, and later became the founder of the American Birth Control League. Beyond her direct involvement in the birth control movement, Sanger was also a leading contributor in the creation of Planned Parenthood.

Margaret Sanger 

1930-1950 – Expanding the Team

Looking for individuals to help with the physical development of a birth control pill, Sanger brought Gregory Pincus into the narrative. At the time, Pincus was a well-known name in the world of experimental biology. Knowing his background, Sanger approached him requesting that he conduct hormonal contraceptive research. With the help of a small grant, Pincus agreed and began to experiment – but not until he brought on another expert to the team. John Rock – an experienced gynaecologist and infertility expert – joined Pincus to begin developing a hormonal oral contraceptive.

Gregory Pincus and John Rock

1953 – A Costly Pursuit

Experimental research is expensive and the birth control pioneers were running out of funds to continue product development. This is where Katharine McCormick comes to the rescue. 75-year-old McCormick was a committed activist for women’s rights at the time and had just come into possession of her husband’s estate, worth $15 million after his death. Eager to contribute to the birth control movement she so passionately believed in, McCormick donated $40,000 to Pincus’ research. This donation essentially single-handedly funded the development of the first ever birth control pill.

 

Katharine McCormick

1954-1956 – The Pill takes a Trip Overseas

With ample experimental research under their belts, it was finally time to test out the pill they had developed. After some consideration, the team decided that Puerto Rico was the best place to conduct clinical trials. There were a number of factors that drove Pincus and Rock to this decision, a few being:

  • Puerto Rico had no laws against contraception at the time

  • It was close to the US making it easier to go back and forth during trials

  • Many Puerto Rican women were semi-illiterate/illiterate meaning they would be able to test if the drug would be able to be used internationally

  • Women in this area were eager to have access to a reversible form of birth control

During these trials, some women expressed that they experienced side effects – dizziness, nausea, and blood clots – but ultimately the pill was deemed 100% effective and ready to hit the market.

1960 – The Birth of the Birth Control Pill

In 1960, the pill was officially approved and was sold under the name “Envoid.” In the United States, only women who were married were able to access the pill. Canada, on the other hand, only permitted prescriptions of the pill for therapeutic reasons; birth control pills were NOT to be used as a method of contraception.

1969 – The Pill Becomes Legal

Until 1969, the pill was still considered to be incredibly taboo. Religious groups in Canada demanded that it be banned, and others believed that if single women could prevent pregnancy it would lead to a rise in promiscuity. One doctor in Montreal even argued that taking the pill would make women unfeminine, causing them to lose interest in caring for their children and husbands. After years of back and forth, the Trudeau Sr. government officially legalized the pill, and women were finally able to be in full control of their contraception, a huge step for the feminist movement!

Today – Concerns of Accessibility and the Burden of Contraception

Today, the birth control pill (among condoms, the patch and the ring) is one of the most commonly used forms of contraception in Canada. Access to birth control has seen significant improvements over time, coupled with a reduction in their perceived taboo nature. However, this is not the case for all Canadians. While birth control pills are typically easily accessible for womxn living in urban communities, this is not the reality for those in remote areas, especially indigenous womxn.

In recent years, many women have expressed feeling burdened with having to carry the responsibility of birth control. Not only is it solely up to the individual with a uterus to willfully take care of the expense of the pill, they are also expected to deal with the uncomfortable side effects. There is a potential solution to this problem: the release of a male birth control pill at some point in the future. In response to this proposition, a 2017 study noted that some women expressed lacking trust in a male partner to use birth control effectively. While this is a valid concern, a male birth control pill could be a step in the right direction to lessen the burden of responsibility for womxn.

Male Birth Control

We have come a long way since the early 1900s in terms of the pill’s development and level of accessibility. However, there are still improvements that can be made. To start, accessibility for all Canadians should be of utmost priority. While it has become much easier over time to get birth control pills in Canada, this should be the case for all individuals who desire contraception. Sharing the responsibility of birth control is also a topic that continues to become less taboo, and the hope is that, with time and development, new forms of contraception will emerge that can support this idea. We have many activists, doctors and researchers to thank for having access to the pill as we know it, and through education and conversation we can continue making strides for improved accessibility and a wider range of birth control options!

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