Saturday, January 10, 2009

Anti-Feminism and the Birth Control Pill

Interestingly enough, even in the Pill's earliest days, it was known to have poisonous effects on the female body. But, during the initial trials in the 1950s, researchers John Rock and Gregory Pincus were so excited about its effectiveness they didn't stop to think about whether or not they were harming women (emphasis mine):

Dr. Edris Rice-Wray, a faculty member of the Puerto Rico Medical School and medical director of the Puerto Rico Family Planning Association, was in charge of the trials. After a year of tests, Dr. Rice-Wray reported good news to Pincus. The Pill was 100% effective when taken properly. She also informed him that 17% of the women in the study complained of nausea, dizziness, headaches, stomach pain and vomiting. So serious and sustained were the reactions that Rice-Wray told Pincus that a 10-milligram dose of Enovid caused "too many side reactions to be generally acceptable."

Rock and Pincus quickly dismissed Rice-Wray's conclusions. Their patients in Boston had experienced far fewer negative reactions, and they believed many of the complaints were psychosomatic. The men also felt that problems such as bloating and nausea were minor compared to the contraceptive benefits of the drug. Although three women died while participating in the trials, no investigation was conducted to see if the Pill had caused the young women's deaths. Confident in the safety of the Pill, Pincus and Rock took no action to assess the root cause of the side effects.


In later years, Pincus's team would be accused of deceit, colonialism and the exploitation of poor women of color. The women had only been told that they were taking a drug that prevented pregnancy, not that this was a clinical trial, that the Pill was experimental or that there was a chance of potentially dangerous side effects. Pincus and Rock, however, believed they were following the appropriate ethical standards of the time. In the 1950s, research involving human subjects was much less regulated than it is today. Informed consent standards were minimal and only the most basic toxicity tests were required for human trials.


In other words, they decided the pill was safe and the women were just hysterical little things and the side effects were all in their heads.

There are few things more frustrating than having a doctor dismiss symptoms that you know are real by conveniently filing you away as hysterical woman. This has only happened to me personally on one occasion, but that does not make it any less infuriating.

Also interesting here is that a female researcher raised concern about the harmful side-effects, only to be dismissed herself by these two men who apparently believed that not being pregnant is much more important than being healthy.

All good feminists should be outraged by this. So should anyone concerned about racial equality and imperialism, for that matter. We are told that the pill is supposed to be liberating for women, but it was (no pun intended) conceived through the exploitation of women. Women who were not even fully informed about the fact that they were test subjects! So much for choices.

No comments: