Celebrating Mexico’s Contributions to the Birth Control Pill

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month. We’re celebrating by shining the spotlight on Mexico’s role in developing the birth control pill, one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.


Humanity cannot fully unlock its potential until we release the bonds of oppression from all marginalized groups.


Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses in traditional medicine — and it would change history forever when scientists figured out how to wrest valuable chemical compounds from it, a discovery that led directly to the development of the birth control pill.

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University ArchivesIn the 1940s, hormones held an untapped potential for research, but there was no cost-effective method of producing large quantities of them — including progesterone, the Pill’s essential ingredient. An American chemist named Russell Marker set out to find a way to synthesize progesterone in abundance, hypothesizing that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be a good source for starting material. After some research, he set his sights on wild-growing yams that were found only in Mexico.

Marker’s hunch brought him south of the U.S. border, where locals helped him find and gather these yams, enabling him to develop a method for synthesizing large batches of progesterone — more than had ever been in one place. When pharmaceutical companies would not invest in further research in Mexico, Marker relocated to Mexico City and put his money where his mouth was. In January 1944, he co-founded a lab named Syntex — a portmanteau of “synthesis” and “Mexico” — devoted to finagling hormones from wild Mexican yams. That yam was called barbasco by the indigenous population, and it was the industry’s choice for the raw material in hormone synthesis. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Curious Case of Chancroid

Haemophilus ducreyi arrange themselves in parallel rows, which researchers have called “railroad tracks,” “schools of fish,” and “fingerprints.” Image: Mike Miller, CDC

Earlier this year, I asked a room full of scientists and medical professionals to raise their hands if they’d ever heard of chancroid. Everyone sat there, motionless, confused by the odd syllables I had uttered — shan kroyd. If you’ve never heard of chancroid, you’re not alone.

Chancroid is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) brought to you by Haemophilus ducreyi, a type of bacteria that can pass through microscopic tears in the skin during sexual contact. When one partner is infected, there is a 1 in 3 chance the other will become infected. An infection can cause painful sores and swollen lymph nodes, most often in the genital region. About half of people with chancroid infections will experience “buboes,” or swollen lymph glands that might rupture. Before it could be cured with antibiotics, a persistent infection could cause permanent skin damage.


Humanity can make chancroid the first STD to go extinct.


One reason you probably haven’t heard of chancroid is that, in the developed world at least, it has mostly disappeared. In fact, researchers believe chancroid can be completely wiped off the planet — which would make it the first STD ever to be forced into extinction. How amazing would that be?

Chancroid has been hopping from loin to loin since at least the days of the ancient Greeks, and was common until the 20th century, when rates began to decline. Thanks to antibiotics, U.S. chancroid rates decreased 80-fold between 1947 and 1997, all but vanishing by the late 1950s. It was virtually unheard of until there was another spike in the 1980s, correlating with the crack epidemic. But, since 1987, cases have been steadily declining. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Something good is emerging from the horror that is Hurricane Harvey — a Texas clinic is offering free abortions to women affected by the storm who may have missed appointments or had their finances severely impacted. Their help will be “financial and logistical” and includes helping women travel to one of their clinics in the state. (Vice)
  • Another piece of good news? Planned Parenthood and the developers of the HPV vaccine will be recipients of one of the nation’s most prestigious prizes in medicine! (NY Times)
  • Betsy DeVos is probably going to ruin any progress currently being made with regard to sexual assault on school campuses. (NPR)
  • Count me as one of the black women who think it’s time for the monument of J. Marion Sims in New York to come down. He is often flatteringly referred to as the “father of modern gynecology,” but he was actually a sadistic monster who performed genital surgeries on black women (whom he purchased as slaves) without anesthesia. (Essence)
  • Anti-choice lawmakers’ attacks on abortion clinics have been sadly very effective. Fifty-six independent abortion clinics have closed over the past two years, and 145 have shut down since 2012. (Rewire)
  • Kentucky could definitely be a casualty of this trend. They could soon be the first state in the country with no abortion clinic. (Reuters)
  • Birth control is good for many things: preventing babies, regulating periods, preventing ovarian cysts, managing endometriosis … and now we learn oral contraceptives are also tied to lower rheumatoid arthritis risk! (NY Times)
  • A Texas judge temporarily blocked a law that would have banned dilation and extraction abortions in the state. (The Cut)
  • Awful news: A 10-year-old Indian rape victim gave birth after a court denied her request for an abortion. (WaPo)
  • An “activist” Ohio Supreme Court judge spoke at a pro-life event and now refuses to recuse herself from a case that could close Toledo’s only abortion clinic. (Jezebel)
  • Anti-Abortion Activists Are Using Down Syndrome Parents to Argue Against Women’s Rights (Double X)
  • More black women are using PrEP as a way to protect themselves from HIV. (Real Health Mag)

For the Safety of Students: Five Questions for Mary Koss

Mary P. Koss, Ph.D.

With close to 300 peer-reviewed publications and a number of academic awards to her name, it’s hard to believe that University of Arizona Regents’ Professor Mary P. Koss once had to fight her way into the doctoral program in psychology at the University of Minnesota. Her test scores put her head and shoulders above other applicants, but it took a tense meeting with the department head — in which she let a bit of profanity slip out — to finally get accepted into their graduate school. Clinical psychology was a very male-dominated field in the early 1980s, when she was starting her career, and that was all too clear when a colleague shared his idea for a study that would explore male undergraduates’ attitudes toward rape — by having models pose in varying sizes of padded bras and be rated for their desirability and culpability if raped.


The term date rape was first used in the news media 35 years ago this month.


From that conversation, though, came the seed of an idea that would soon set Dr. Koss apart from her peers. At that time, Dr. Koss was at Kent State in Ohio, still years before she joined the University of Arizona. She made a name for herself studying campus sexual assault by developing a survey that revolutionized efforts to gauge respondents’ experiences of sexual aggression and victimization, revealing a higher prevalence than previously thought. Her initial study was publicized 35 years ago this month, in Ms. Magazine’s September 1982 issue, in an article that also marked the first time a national news publication used the term date rape. Both Dr. Koss’ research and the introduction of that term to the national conversation were game-changers in many ways.

At the time the article was published, most rape-prevention programs on college campuses were relatively new and narrowly focused on the danger posed by strangers — the assailants waiting in alleyways, rather than the familiar faces in classrooms or dorms. Dr. Koss’ research, as well as the stories writer Karen Barrett reported from Stanford University and the University of Connecticut for the Ms. article, revealed that many cases of rape, especially those committed by the victims’ peers and acquaintances, were often ignored, denied, or misunderstood as something other than rape. The concept of date rape helped many people recognize rape — their own or others’ — that had been perpetrated by people known to the victims.

Greater awareness and understanding of the problem of campus sexual assault soon followed, but the 35 years since then have seen both progress and setbacks. In fact, as the anniversary of that historic Ms. article approached, news began coming from the Department of Education that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos vowed to revisit Obama-era policies that addressed campus sexual assault. A series of information-gathering meetings included a group that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, seeks “to roll back services for victims of domestic abuse and penalties for their tormentors.” Continue reading

No, the Morning-After Pill Is Not the Abortion Pill

The other week, I was talking to a family member about the threats to contraception access in this country, “thanks” to our new president and his fanatical administration. He thought it was ridiculous that abortion opponents also fight tooth and nail to put obstacles in front of birth control — after all, reliable contraception prevents unintended pregnancies, which itself prevents untold abortions. It seems like a win-win for everyone, regardless of where their opinion on abortion falls.


The morning-after pill prevents pregnancy. The abortion pill ends pregnancy.


Then he said, “Of course, I understand them not wanting tax dollars going toward the morning-after pill, since that causes abortion.”

I had to stop him right there: “Nope.” A bit self-conscious of appearing to be a persnickety know-it-all, I summarized the vast differences between the morning-after pill and the abortion pill — differences that many people, even full supporters of reproductive rights, don’t understand. Opponents of abortion and contraception exploit this misunderstanding, pretending these two pills are one and the same, hoping to elicit “compromise” from “reasonable” people. Compromises that harm real people with real lives and real families. Just as women’s health opponents have been so successful at chipping away at abortion access, so too do they hope to erode access to contraception.

The morning-after pill and the abortion pill are completely different medications, used for different purposes and made up of different ingredients. Let’s look at a quick rundown of the two. Continue reading

For Women’s Equality Day, A Call to Use Your Right to Vote

On August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and on August 26, 1920, it was certified: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

It had taken 72 years: In 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott convened the first women’s rights convention in U.S. history at Seneca Falls, this resolution was passed: “Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”


People in power would not be trying so hard to keep us from voting if our votes weren’t powerful. We must not give up that power.


Of 12 resolutions, it was the only one that was not passed unanimously. Although leaders such as Sojourner Truth, Mary McClintock, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass supported a resolution demanding women’s right to vote, many other attendees thought such a resolution might be a bridge too far. But by 1920, after women had marched, rallied, and faced abuse and arrest, several states had already adopted women’s suffrage.

In 1971, the newly elected Rep. Bella Abzug proposed observing August 26 as Women’s Equality Day to commemorate women’s suffrage, and a joint resolution of Congress made it so. But getting the right to vote cannot be considered a victory if we do not exercise that right. In the 2016 election, only 58 percent of registered voters actually cast a ballot. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, she trailed President Obama’s 2008 votes by 3.4 million. Continue reading

All Politics Is Local

The following guest post comes to us via Kelley Dupps, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.

Voting is about civic engagement and civic responsibility, an ideal showcased in city elections happening now across the state. Specifically, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona (PPAA) have been working on the city council races in Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, educating our supporters in those cities about their candidates and how they stand on the issues central to PPAA’s mission.

State legislators, school board members, and county governments are vital to our local communities’ thriving. Local ordinances are the front lines of how laws are administered and enforced, along with providing constituents access to community resources. Currently, city elections are happening and it’s important to get folks out to vote. Here’s an overview of our August primary races.

In Phoenix, four city council members are up for reelection, with three out of four of these seats being uncontested (which means the incumbent automatically wins). So Jim Waring (District 2), Laura Pastor (District 4), and Kate Gallego (District 8) have a clear path to certain victory on August 29 – Election Day! Although in uncontested races, incumbents Laura Pastor and Kate Gallego are endorsed by PPAA. Laura and Kate have long been supporters of Planned Parenthood and have served with integrity and grace on the Phoenix City Council.

In District 6, the incumbent, Sal DiCiccio, is facing a challenger. Early voting started on August 2 and Kevin Patterson is working hard to get every vote he can. As the only contested seat this cycle, the focus of August has been on this race. Kevin is a PPAA-endorsed candidate and has had volunteer support from a great group of PPAA supporters! The dedication of Planned Parenthood volunteers to go door to door for a city council race in 110 degree heat is INSPIRING! Led by PPAA volunteer Kate Fischer, a team of dedicated volunteers has talked with hundreds of voters about Election Day. When phone calls weren’t working, Kate knew she had to take it to the streets. It’s been shown that face-to-face conversations with voters leave a lasting impression and are key to getting that vote. We’re looking forward to celebrating with Team Patterson!

In Tucson, there’s a gluttony of riches in Ward 3, where PPAA endorsed each of these candidates: Paul Durham, Felicia Chew, and Tom Tronsdal. All three progressive candidates have an array of issues they’re passionate about; trusting women to make their own decisions and not taking away health care for millions of people are two of those issues. Having elected officials who understand the role Planned Parenthood plays in keeping communities healthy is vital to Planned Parenthood’s survival. (Candidates in Ward 5 and Ward 6 did not initiate any interest in PPAA’s support.)

In Yuma, PPAA has endorsed Karen Watts in the race for six at-large seats on the Yuma City Council. As a nurse practitioner, Karen understands the needs in the community and can bring resources to under-served communities. In addition, there are currently zero women serving on the Yuma City Council. Zero out of six. It’s time for Yuma to reflect their constituents by electing a more representative council.


Make sure to vote by Election Day: August 29! Click on the cities above for city-specific election information!