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

Ovarian Cancer, Endometrial Cancer, and the Pill

The most popular method of birth control in the United States is the Pill, followed by tubal ligation (permanent sterilization, or getting your tubes tied) and condoms. The Pill is a hormonal method of contraception, while sterilization and condoms are nonhormonal. The distinction between hormonal and nonhormonal methods of birth control are simply that the former contain synthetic versions of human hormones, while the latter do not.


By suppressing ovulation and thinning the uterine lining, the Pill can reduce risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.


Glands in our bodies, called endocrine glands, produce hormones; additionally, testes and ovaries — which are parts of the human reproductive system — manufacture hormones. Human hormones are powerful chemicals, which do all sorts of jobs, from triggering puberty to helping us extract energy from the foods we eat. So it’s not a huge stretch to wonder if exposure to the hormones present in certain birth control methods — such as the Pill, in addition to the patch, the ring, the shot, the implant, and some types of IUDs — might have unintended effects on the body. Because hormones can play a role in cancer — either in protecting against it or aiding in its development — researchers are very interested to know if the Pill might increase or decrease risk for various types of cancer.

It’s actually a bit tricky to investigate the possible associations between the Pill and various types of cancer. First of all, there are dozens of types of birth control pills, all with different versions of synthetic hormones, at different dosages, and in different proportions to one another. Furthermore, the types of oral contraceptives on the market change over time — today’s birth control pill is not your mother’s birth control pill. Studying “the Pill” as a single entity could obscure differences between brands. Secondly, most cancers tend to develop later in life, many years after someone may have taken oral contraceptives. Researchers need to be careful to control for all the variables that might increase or decrease cancer risk. Continue reading

Lucky Girl

The following guest post comes to us from Dr. Monica J. Casper, a sociologist, women’s health advocate, and creative writer who lives in Tucson, Arizona. Monica served as a member of the Planned Parenthood Arizona, Inc., board from 2012 to 2013. You can learn more about her work at www.monicajcasper.com.

ChicagoI want to tell you a love story.

A cautionary note: This is not the kind of tale you’re used to (or maybe it is?). There is no sweeping soundtrack, no Hollywood superstars falling blissfully in love onscreen, their whiter-than-white teeth dazzling a rapt audience. In this love story, there are no flowers, no sappy cards, no fairy tale endings with double rainbows and confetti.

This is not a romance.

But it is a story about people who love each other and the unexpected life choices we make. It is a memoir fragment about how some of us learn to map our uncertain futures in the warm clutch of parental benevolence. And maybe it is a ghost story, as well. The kind that haunts you, but also challenges you to imagine anew what you believe to be true and to reconsider who you believe you are, or will become.

***

The scene is Chicago, 1986, late July. It is hot, sticky, and intolerable, not even a whisper of cooling lake breeze. This is a typical sweltering summer day in my hometown.


Our whole lives unfurl before us, lives whose shape and direction we have not yet begun to fully imagine.


I fidget impatiently on the stoop of my parents’ basement apartment on the city’s North Side. They have recently sold our house in Wisconsin and moved back to the city to be closer to their work and my grandmother. Our house in the country now belongs to another family, farm people who have migrated off the land to live in town, and we are again urban dwellers. I have urgent news for my mom, who should be home any minute. I crack my knuckles and stretch my arms above my head.

What is taking her so long?

I stand up, needing to move. Concrete blisters my bare feet and sweat pools in my armpits as I pace nervously. Cars zip by on Fullerton Avenue and I am reminded of childhood, playing Kick the Can and Stranger Danger in the city’s gritty, familiar streets and alleyways. I am 19 now, not so many years older than when I patrolled the neighborhood with my sassy friends wearing bell-bottoms and halter-tops, owning the world. Continue reading

Will St. John’s Wort Affect Birth Control?

Herbal remedies are very popular around the world. Many people prefer them to pharmaceuticals because they believe herbs can elicit positive results without serious side effects. However, plants produce a wide variety of chemicals at varying concentrations, and might have a number of effects on your body, both good and bad. Furthermore, since herbal supplements are not evaluated by the FDA for safety or effectiveness, consumers often don’t have ready access to evidence about herbal products. We can’t even be sure that they contain the ingredients that are listed on the label!


St. John’s wort might decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills, and might be unsafe during pregnancy.


One popular herb is St. John’s wort, or Hypericum perforatum. While the scientific evidence is mixed at best, many people believe that St. John’s wort can be used as an antidepressant. However, people often treat themselves with herbal supplements without guidance from a medical doctor or pharmacist — and without knowing whether or not these herbs are safe to use with any medications they might be taking.

Over the millennia, plants have evolved all sorts of powerful chemicals, such as toxins, to defend themselves against insects and other predators. For this reason, we can’t assume that plants only contain inert chemicals that won’t affect us or interact with the chemicals in other drugs and supplements we use. St. John’s wort, in fact, contains chemicals that interfere with other medications. It has been banned in France, and other countries require or are considering warning labels on St. John’s wort products so consumers can be aware of possible drug interactions. Continue reading

Birth Control Helped Me Plan My Future

condom and handI just graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree, and as a young man I’m ready for the next stage in my life. I’m ready to move out for the first time; I’m ready to start my career; I’m ready to take risks and seize every opportunity I can.

I’m not ready for a kid, however, and I certainly wasn’t ready for the past four years.


Sex education is about making choices that will protect you — and your partners — your whole life.


I’ve been in a couple of serious relationships during my college years, and I practiced safe sex consistently. I wanted to throw myself into my work and not into raising a child. Even though my partners were on birth control, I always used condoms because you can never be too safe.

Birth control isn’t only a concern for women, it’s a concern for us guys too. The way I saw it was if I didn’t want to have a child in the immediate future, then it was my responsibility to do what I could to make sure that didn’t happen. I didn’t even have to worry about the price of condoms either, because the Planned Parenthood health center near my school offered them for free.

I’m thankful I had easy access to birth control methods, because I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done without it. If you aren’t ready to have a child, then don’t risk it by placing the burden for birth control entirely on your partner’s shoulders. Take matters into your own hands by finding a contraceptive method that works for you, so you and your partner can share that responsibility. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • scientist face maskThe GOP debates were last night. Just an FYI: Every single one of those dingbats has deplorable, antiquated views on women’s reproductive rights and health. (Bustle)
  • The foolery surrounding unfounded allegations that Planned Parenthood has been illegally selling fetal tissue has reached ASININE LOWS, people. (NYT)
  • And it’s helped three state governments reach their ultimate goal of defunding us and further chipping away at women’s reproductive rights. Alabama is the latest. (CNN)
  • Speaking of Ass Backward Alabama, these clowns tried to snatch the parental rights of a pregnant prison inmate to stop her from getting an abortion! What in the hell! (Guardian)
  • With regard to fetal tissue, several organizations agreed to speak with The New York Times about their involvement in obtaining fetal tissue for the purpose of medical research on numerous degenerative diseases, such as leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, and others. (NYT)
  • Scientific and medical research is already beginning to suffer as a result of this fetal tissue non-scandal. Colorado State University officials have suspended the school from acquiring fetal tissue from entities linked to Planned Parenthood until “Congressional investigations are concluded.” (RH Reality Check)
  • Thank you, Salon, for covering the facts of this debacle in a reasonable manner. And exposing the fact that Planned Parenthood has prevented possibly 3 million abortions in 2013 and 2014 by providing affordable or free birth control to those in need. (Salon)
  • Ebony has a magnificent piece on what you absolutely must know about Planned Parenthood and black women. (Ebony)
  • Warren Buffett has funded a birth control revolution on the down low?!? #WhoKnew (Bloomberg)
  • The Economist has quite the chilling piece on how “exceptionally deadly” childbirth is in the United States. Gee, almost seems like women should have a choice about whether or not they want to risk their lives giving birth to a child rather than having it forced upon them, right? (The Economist)
  • The birth control pill has prevented how many instances of cancer in the last decade?! (Time)
  • In case it slipped your mind, our senator, John McCain, is still The Worst. (Phoenix New Times)

When Contraception Was a Crime: Griswold v. Connecticut

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, both of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate the Supreme Court's decision in favor of birth control access.

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of birth control access.

The right to access birth control was in the crosshairs last year, when the Supreme Court ruled that certain employers had the right to exclude emergency contraception from their employees’ health plans. But the Hobby Lobby case was just one in a long line of contraception-related cases decided by the Supreme Court, and while that outcome was a setback for the reproductive rights movement, history also is filled with decisions that helped advance the cause. One of those victories came 50 years ago this Sunday, on June 7, 1965, when the Supreme Court handed down a decisive win for contraception access in Griswold v. Connecticut.


Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in expanding access to birth control — but it was only a first step.


When the birth control pill came onto the market in 1960, it was a dream come true for anyone wanting to control her own reproduction. But in 30 states it was illegal to advertise contraception, and in two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, it was outright banned. In fact, anyone using birth control in Connecticut was at risk for a fine or imprisonment. These draconian laws didn’t stop people from seeking birth control from their doctors, but it did force them to engage in activities that were technically “criminal.”

Connecticut had been the birthplace, in 1844, of one of history’s most relentless anti-contraceptive crusaders, Anthony Comstock, whose Puritan upbringing spurred a nearly lifelong crusade against what he saw as the devices of immorality. Comstock was the driving force behind federal and state laws that banned birth control, and it’s estimated that he initiated as many as 4,000 arrests, one of the last of which was Bill Sanger, husband of Margaret Sanger, for distributing a pamphlet on family planning. Comstock died on September 21, 1915, months after Sanger’s arrest.

Connecticut’s anti-contraception law predated the birth of oral contraceptives by more than 80 years. It was so broadly worded that more old-fashioned family-planning methods, such as diaphragms and condoms, could also see their users fined or sent to jail. There was also equal punishment for anyone “aiding and abetting” would-be contraceptive users, meaning that doctors, pharmacists, and others could be punished for providing patients with birth control or information about it. Continue reading