The Dark History of Birth Control That You Haven't Heard


The pill. Freedom in a tablet. The cause célèbre of the women's rights movement. Particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision in 2014 and the uncertain future of the Affordable Care Act, no other issue, perhaps barring campus sexual assault, has dominated the contemporary feminist agenda as much as birth control.

Despite this focus, the history of this relative freedom is something about which many advocates seem ignorant. More women (27.5%, according to recent data from the Guttmacher Institute) rely on the pill than any other type of contraception, yet public discourse suggests that most, on the pill or not, have no idea about its past anchored in eugenics, sexism and racism. 

The irony of the pill is that it was tested on women, specifically women of color — many of whom were forced to undergo sterilization — before later being marketed predominately to white women in America as a symbol of independence.


"Controlling gender and race": Contrary to some popular celebratory writings, such as Jonathan Eig's recent The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, the pill's story should not necessarily be one of hero-worship.

"The pill has functioned as a technique not only for controlling reproduction but also for producing and controlling gender and race," scholar Beatriz Preciado writes in her book about gender in the age of pharmacology, Testo Junkie. Indeed, Dr. Gregory Pincus and Dr. John Rock — two of Eig's "crusaders," funded by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger — effectively sterilized hundreds of women, from non-consenting psychiatric patients at the Worcester State Hospital to destitute Puerto Rican women living in the housing projects of Rio Piedras, by testing variations of the pill on them.

Ricardo Arduengo/AP

"Guinea pigs": There were a handful of reasons why Puerto Rico became "the ideal setting for pill trials, which were the largest series of clinical tests ever performed," Preciado writes. As PBS reports, government "officials supported birth control as a form of population control in the hopes that it would stem Puerto Rico's endemic poverty." In 1937, the passage of Law 136 legally sanctioned sterilization of Puerto Rican women for such purposes. What's more, the pill trials that later began in Puerto Rico in the 1950s also expanded to other "pseudo-colonial locations" like Haiti and Mexico, Iris Ofelia López points out in her book Matters of Choice: Puerto Rican Women's Struggle for Reproductive Freedom.

The real kicker? Women of color continued to be used as "guinea pigs" because the FDA, Preciado writes, "felt it threw doubt on the femininity of American women by suppressing their periods altogether."

As a result "one-third of ever-married women aged 20-49 had been sterilized" in Puerto Rico by 1965, with "two-fifths of them before the age of 25," according to an article by sociology professor Harriet B. Presser. 


"Black genocide": Sanger has been canonized as the founder of Planned Parenthood, but she also advocated for the creation of the pill because she believed in eugenics as an effective form of birth control. (To be fair, some contend that attention to Sanger's championing of eugenics is perhaps exaggerated, and that eugenics was par for the course for those in the early 20th century concerned with population control. Then again, Sanger is on record as having given at least one speech to a KKK group in New Jersey.) 

"Some African-American leaders were especially critical of the pill," Megan Gibson writes in her concise history of birth control for Time, "claiming that it was being peddled in their community for the purpose of a 'black genocide.'" The eugenics objective of the pill was thus arguably targeted at all non-white individuals who posed a threat to the (white) face of America. 

Hulton Archive/Getty

Remembering our history: This history, though deeply troubling, seemed to be forgotten the moment the pill was marketed to women living in the continental U.S. Ads for the pill promoted the product by touting women's liberation — already hot topic of discussion in the early 1960s, and which largely enabled the Sexual Revolution of that decade, as Nancy L. Cohen has pointed out at AlterNet. The pill remains statistically the most popular form of birth control for women to date. "Within five years [of the pill's legalization in 1960], 6 million American women" were on it, Cohen notes. By 2012, that number had jumped to 10.6 million.

History in general isn't pretty — and it's no different for the pill. But by being cognizant of the pill's past, advocates for reproductive justice and for women's rights in general can form a more nuanced, and more ideologically diverse, politics for our collective future.