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How Creators of the First Birth Control Pill Lied to Patients About Testing


"It's one of the great bluffs in scientific history."

"They absolutely could've been imprisoned for some of the work they were doing," Jonathan Eig, the author of a new book, told NRP about the early history of the birth control pill and the people who created it.

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Eig's book "The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution" details, in part, how the creators of the pill lied to patients and the public.

"We know it simply as 'the pill,' yet its genesis was anything but simple," the book's description on its publisher's website reads.

The main players in the book are feminist Margaret Sanger, the wealthy Katharine McCormick, the axed Harvard scientist Gregory Pincus and Catholic gynecologist John Rock.

According to NPR's interview with Eig, Pincus and Rock conducted tests on women without their knowledge:

There's a lot of lying in this process of creating the first oral contraceptive. That's what they have to do. You can really have a wonderful ethical discussion and debate about whether it was worth it, whether they were doing things that were beyond the bounds. The laws and the ethics of science were very different in the 1950s than they are today — you didn't have to give informed consent, you didn't have to have anybody sign forms giving away their rights, telling them about what these experiments are for. So in a way, we do have women being treated like lab animals so that we may find a form of birth control that frees them. There's a great irony there.

After testing the hormones that would allow for contraception on about 60 women for six months to a year, Eig told NPR Pincus took his research to a conference where it was picked up by the media and the rest is history.

"It's one of the great bluffs in scientific history," Eig said.

Pincus went forward with the information against his partner's wishes and knowing full well that the drug hadn't been tested enough.

"But Pincus does it anyway. He realizes that they've got some momentum and they need to keep it going, this whole thing could fall apart if too much opposition is raised," Eig continued to NPR.

Then, when it came to getting the birth control pill approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960, Eig said it came with another lie. Instead of marketing the pill as a contraceptive, Pincus and G.D. Searle, the pharmaceutical company that would manufacture it, said it was for "menstrual disorders."

"Almost any woman can go into her doctor and say, 'I've got an irregular cycle. I'd like to have this new pill.' And that's exactly what happens," Eig told NPR. "The pill has a label on it that says, 'Warning: This pill will likely prevent pregnancy.' And it's the greatest advertisement they could ever have — because this is what women want."

Listen to Eig's interview on NPR.

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