The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 5: Clinical Trials

Gregory Pincus, Min-Chueh Chang, and John Rock, three scientists employed by Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick to develop the birth control pill.

Gregory Pincus, Min-Chueh Chang, and John Rock were hired by Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick to develop the birth control pill.

Welcome to the fifth installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick envisioned and bankrolled the development of the birth control pill. Now it had to be tested in large-scale trials.

John Rock, Gregory Pincus, and Min-Chueh Chang had collaborated in the Pill’s development; now it was time to conduct clinical trials. The first study observed 60 women, some of whom were infertility patients while others were nurses. These small trials involved daily temperature readings, vaginal smears, and urine samples, as well as monthly endometrial biopsies. Although the initial results seemed promising, the sample size was small and few of the subjects complied with the protocol.


The approval of the Pill in 1960 marked a turning point in our history.


More test subjects were needed. At this point, historians’ accounts differ. Elaine Tyler May claims that, unable to locate an acceptable pool of volunteers, the researchers tested the Pill on subjects who could not give their consent, such as psychiatric patients. According to Bernard Asbell, however, Rock was scrupulous when it came to informed consent, despite it not being a legal requirement — or even much of a concept at all at this time in history.

Willing participants notwithstanding, conducting such trials in the United States posed a challenge, due to laws against contraception. So the first large-scale clinical trials were conducted in Puerto Rico in 1956. Puerto Rico was densely populated and there was a high demand for alternatives to permanent sterilization, which was widespread on the island due to funding from a wealthy eugenicist named Clarence Gamble, who advocated sterilization for the world’s poor. The clinical trials in Puerto Rico were conducted by Drs. Edris Rice-Wray and Adaline Sattherthwaite; the brand of birth control pill tested was named Enovid. Volunteers were so easy to come by that some clinics had waiting lists. Continue reading

Can Herpes Be Cured Naturally?

Many of us are infected with herpes simplex virus, which can be transmitted sexually to cause genital herpes. Although herpes is incurable, there are antivirals that can help reduce symptoms. But, because not everyone wants to take pharmaceuticals, a lot of us might seek alternatives in an attempt to treat or even cure our herpes infections.


“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective, so be critical.


For centuries, we have treated herpes in many ways — though not necessarily successfully! In the early 1800s, a British treatment involved placing lint between the tip of the penis and the foreskin. It was claimed that this would cause herpes lesions to heal within 14 days — not coincidentally, this is about how long it takes for them to heal on their own, untreated. Later that century, a London surgeon promoted an arsenic-based solution as a cure for recurrent herpes outbreaks. He presented the cases of a couple of patients. One had been suffering from outbreaks for six years, and after a course of this treatment he allegedly never experienced them again. Another patient had been experiencing recurring outbreaks for four years, and after taking this treatment for a year, his outbreaks “became less and finally cleared altogether.”

We now know that, even without treatment, herpes outbreaks generally become less severe over time, and often stop flaring up completely. When outbreaks do occur, they clear on their own, without treatment. This phenomenon is called “regression to the mean,” and many promoters of bogus remedies rely on it for the appearance that their products work. Because we often think that two things that happen at the same time are related, and that one causes the other, we might attribute the clearing of our herpes lesions to whatever “treatment” we were taking, regardless of whether or not it actually benefited us.

The only way we can know if treatments actually work is to compare them with standard medications or placebos (such as identical-looking sugar pills) in well-designed clinical trials. In such studies, patients are assigned to either medication or placebo at random, which is called “randomization” and is like flipping a coin. And, to protect against introducing bias into the study’s outcomes, trials should be “double-blinded,” meaning that neither researchers nor patients know whether the placebo or the medication under study is being administered. The “miracle cures” you hear about usually haven’t been subjected to such scientific rigor — if they have, the results usually aren’t promising. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • What Arizona’s asinine abortion ban means for Roe v. Wade (Salon)
  • Well, this is depressing — in less than a decade, Arizona has gone from a state that abortion-rights groups viewed as friendly to one that’s hailed by abortion foes as a national model in their fight to protect the unborn. (Bloomberg)
  • Teen Cancer Patient Can’t Get Chemo Because She’s Nine Weeks Pregnant — But She Can’t Get an Abortion, Either (Jezebel)
  • The good news: Risky sexual behavior is down among black teens. The bad news: The rates of these sexual risk behaviors are still higher than desired, despite the progress made. (The Grio)
  • South Dakota doctors must warn women seeking abortions of suicide risk associated with the procedure — even though no reputable scientific evidence shows a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and suicide. Like, none. (Star Tribune)
  • House Majority Speaker John Boehner has a message for the GOP: Chill out on all the debt talk and temporarily suspend “Operation Keep Birth Control out of the Hands of Women Because Their Rightful Station in Life Should Be Perpetual Pregnancy” until the election is over. Then we can resume where we left off. (TPM)
  • The United States is one of 23 countries where maternal mortality is on the rise. (Women’s eNews)
  • American teen births at a historic low, but still higher than in the rest of the developed world. If you’re guessing that’s due to our prudish attitudes about talking to teens about sex and empowering them with birth control and knowledge, you’d be correct! (WBEZ)
  • A vaginal ring designed to protect women against HIV infection is undergoing a large, multinational trial. Cross your fingers!!! (Toronto Sun)
  • Careful, ladies! Women who shack up before marriage have more unintended pregnancies. (USA Today)

Expanding Options for Male Contraception

Condoms are the only contraceptive device that does double duty in preventing pregnancy and STD transmission. But will men’s birth-control options expand?

Many have wondered why there is not a male equivalent to the Pill. The short answer to this question is that the release of one egg is easier to prevent than the flow of millions of sperm. The longer answer to that question includes a litany of failures in the search for such technology. Currently, however, there are some interesting developments in male birth control.

The condom, of course, is the only birth-control method to do double duty in reducing risk for both pregnancy and STD transmission, but many heterosexually active males would like more options than the tried-and-true rubber, and their female partners, despite having expanded contraceptive options — including the Pill, the patch, and the IUD — might prefer for the men in their lives to help shoulder the birth-control burden.

One method under investigation is ultrasound, a technology that has been around for quite some time. Though scientists have been aware of its contraceptive potential since at least the 1970s, most studies have been conducted on nonhuman animals (though human trials could be on the horizon). Ultrasound involves the application of high-frequency sound waves to animal tissue, which can absorb the sound waves’ energy as heat. The possibility for ultrasound’s use for contraception operates on the idea that briefly heating the testes, which in mammals are normally kept a few degrees below core body temperature, can halt sperm production, leading to temporary infertility for about six months. Additionally, ultrasound could affect cells’ absorption rates of ions, which itself could create an environment unfavorable to spermatogenesis. Its extremely localized effects on animal tissues make ultrasound an attractive candidate for research.

One small study conducted on five dogs applied ultrasound to the canine testicles three times over a period of a few days. The researchers compared sperm count before the procedure to two weeks after the procedure. After the ultrasound treatments none of the canine sperm samples contained sperm. Side effects included tender testicles that had been reduced in volume. Continue reading