The Puerto Rico Pill Trials

In many ways, the 1960s represented a period of revolutionary change. It’s the decade that welcomed the nation’s youngest president, was the height of the civil rights movement, and was when the Beatles rose to fame. One of the key events that helped set the tone of liberation for this time was the release of Enovid, the first birth control pill. It was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on May 9, 1960. It was initially touted as something that gave women more autonomy by granting them more reproductive freedom. Unfortunately, this was at the cost of women whose own choices were carelessly stripped away. Early tests of the drug were given to poverty-ridden women in Puerto Rico who we’re never informed that they were part of a clinical trial, only being told that the pill would help prevent pregnancy.

Why Puerto Rico?

Preliminary tests had originally been conducted in Boston in 1954 and 1955, however, later experiments were moved to Puerto Rico for large-scale human trials. Lax birth-control laws, as well as a stationary population, made this a perfect location for researchers John Rock and Gregory Pincus.

Side Effects Ignored

A year of testing showed some promising results. When taken properly, the pill was found to be effective. However, reports of severe side effects, such as dizziness and vomiting were reported by 17% of women in the study. These complaints were ignored and dismissed by researchers who believed them to be overblown. Three women later died during the study. To this day their deaths have not been investigated to check if it was linked to the trials.

Birth Control Today

The dosage of the pill has since been lowered making it safe for public consumption. This was largely to the credit of feminists, who in 1970 questioned the safety of oral contraceptives in front of Congress, which resulted in a reformulation. There now exists a wide variety of birth control for women to choose from, however, options still remain limited for men.

While the pill trials helped open the door for birth control research, it is marked by a dark history that revolves around the exploitation of women of color.

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