“Instrument of Torture”: The Dalkon Shield Disaster

This Dalkon Shield is archived at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University. Photo: Jamie Chung

This Dalkon Shield is archived at Case Western Reserve University. Photo: Jamie Chung

These days, IUDs, or intrauterine devices, have stellar reputations as highly effective contraceptives. Along with implants, IUDs can be more effective than permanent sterilization, and their safety record is fantastic. We also have powerful regulations in place to keep dangerous medical devices off the market, and the FTC can keep manufacturers from making false claims in advertising.

But a previous generation of birth-control users might associate IUDs with dangerous pelvic infections and miscarriages. That’s because a single device, called the Dalkon Shield, almost single-handedly destroyed an entire generation’s trust in IUDs. At the time of its debut, there were dozens of IUDs on the market — but the Dalkon Shield unfairly tainted the reputation of all of them. With no FDA or FTC regulations reining in untested devices or false advertising, women in the late 1960s and early 1970s didn’t enjoy the protections that we take for granted today. And it was actually the Dalkon Shield’s string, which was made with a material and by a method that hasn’t been used in IUDs before or since, that made it dangerous.


Today, IUDs are the most popular form of contraception among physicians wishing to avoid pregnancy.


We’ve known about IUDs for more than a century, and have made them out of ebony, ivory, glass, gold, pewter, wood, wool, and even diamond-studded platinum. These days, IUDs release hormones or spermicidal copper ions, but these older devices were simply objects inserted into the uterus that acted as irritants, possibly enlisting the immune system to kill sperm. They were not as effective as modern-day IUDs.

The Dalkon Shield was invented in 1968, was made primarily of plastic, and had “feet” — four or five on each side — to prevent expulsion. In 1970, after being marketed independently, it was sold to family-owned pharmaceutical giant A.H. Robins Company, of Robitussin fame. It was manufactured in the same factory where ChapStick was produced, and retailed for $4.35.

Dr. Hugh J. Davis, the Dalkon Shield’s primary inventor, claimed that users of his device had a 1.1 percent pregnancy rate — but that number was based on a small, methodologically flawed study conducted over eight months. In fact, the Dalkon Shield had a 5.5 percent failure rate over the course of a year. The fact that the Shield didn’t provide high protection against pregnancy was a huge problem, but its design also dramatically increased risk for pregnancy complications. Of the tens of thousands of users who became pregnant while wearing the Dalkon Shield, 60 percent of them had miscarriages. Continue reading

STD Awareness: HPV and Smoking

cigaretteThursday, November 21, is the Great American Smokeout, a day to abstain from smoking — and, one hopes, to quit for good. “That’s great,” you say, “but what do cigarettes have to do with sexually transmitted diseases?”

Good question!

First, let’s talk about HPV. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is known as the “common cold of STDs” — because pretty much every sexually active person will contract it, even people with very few sex partners. Aside from complete abstinence, the best way to avoid an HPV infection is to be vaccinated with Gardasil, which protects against four common HPV strains — two that cause genital warts, and two that cause certain cancers, such as cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. You can further reduce risk by using condoms and dental dams during all sexual activities, limiting sexual partners, and choosing partners who have had few or no previous partners — however, these risk-reduction methods don’t guarantee that you’ll remain HPV-free.


Harmful chemicals from cigarettes can end up in your cervical mucus!


If you’re sexually active, you could have contracted HPV without ever knowing about it. Most infections are asymptomatic (meaning that you never develop symptoms) and transient (meaning that they go away on their own after a year or two). When symptoms do appear, they can manifest as genital warts, penile skin lesions, cervical abnormalities, and signs of cancer elsewhere on the body. And, sometimes, an HPV infection can become persistent, meaning that it doesn’t go away. Luckily, there are steps you can take to decrease risk of developing HPV symptoms, and to increase your chances of fighting off an HPV infection. And one of those things is to quit smoking! Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 15: Fertility Awareness Education

FAM calendarWelcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl never knew about.


Fertility awareness is not the same as the rhythm method.

Let’s start there.

It’s a common misconception that is, at best, a massive oversimplification that misconstrues the concept and may lead people to dismiss or deride fertility awareness out of hand. In reality, a lot of people could benefit from a more thorough understanding of fertility, as many sexually active couples spend a lot of their lives trying to control it — whether to avoid or achieve pregnancy. Planned Parenthood health centers provide education in fertility awareness-based methods (FAMs) for a variety of purposes.


If fertility awareness is not just the rhythm method, what is fertility awareness?

For someone having menstrual cycles, fertility awareness involves monitoring cycle signs and symptoms — predominantly cervical fluid and basal body temperature, though these are often supported or “cross referenced” by tracking other signs as well — in order to determine when a person is approaching ovulation and/or to confirm when ovulation has already taken place.

How does that even work?

Fertility awareness-based methods rely on a few underlying assumptions about fertility and the likelihood of conception:

  1. For pregnancy to happen, there must be both sperm and an ovum (egg) present.
  2. Ovulation — the release of an egg from the ovary into the fallopian tube — occurs once per menstrual cycle.
  3. Sperm can survive inside someone with a uterus for approximately five to six days. (Note: The actual number a given person or couple will want to use for this assumption can vary a bit depending on whether their main goal is to achieve or avoid pregnancy.)
  4. The ovum itself is viable in the fallopian tube for approximately one to two days. After that, it begins to disintegrate, and fertilization is not possible during that cycle. (Again, different couples may use different assumptions depending on their goals.) Continue reading