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

birth-control-pillsThe 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

Will St. John’s Wort Affect Birth Control?

st-johns-wortHerbal 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

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • cigaretteSome Republicans are trying to circumvent the Affordable Care Act’s mandate for co-pay-free birth control by pushing for over-the-counter availability of the Pill. Even the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists thinks this is a horrible idea. Its president states, “Unfortunately, instead of improving access, this bill would actually make more women have to pay for their birth control, and for some women, the cost would be prohibitive.” (Care2)
  • Smoking is damaging, hazardous, and deadly enough on its own. Smoking while on the Pill? Not a good idea. If you’re doing this, please stop. (The Root)
  • Arizona congressional tool Trent Franks says all Democrats who refuse to enact legislation to force women to give birth against their will are doomed to have regrets in their golden years. Insert world’s biggest eye roll here. (Right Wing Watch)
  • Students at one Seattle high school can get IUDs inserted for free! (Grist)
  • A harsh 12-week abortion ban in Arkansas has been blocked by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals! Considering 12 weeks is well before a fetus is viable outside the womb, it would have been the strictest in the country. (Think Progress)
  • Are “hookup apps” like Tinder and Grindr behind an increase in sexually transmitted infections? (Time)
  • Race-baiting abortion opponents continue to be disingenuous, tone deaf, ignorant, and just plain The Worst. (RH Reality Check)
  • California is cracking the whip on the lying liars at “crisis pregnancy centers” who intentionally deceive women about abortion. Now if only we could get some federal legislation. (HuffPo)
  • Forced vaginal exams on students? Excuse me??? What the hell kind of shenanigans are going on at Valencia College in Florida? (CNN)
  • Five states worked on abortion restrictions over Memorial Day weekend and no one seemed to notice. (Fusion)
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is so embarrassingly stupid I can’t even take it. He referred to mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions (some of which are transvaginal) “a cool thing” and said, “We just knew if we signed that law (requiring ultrasounds), if we provided the information, that more people if they saw that unborn child would make a decision to protect and keep the life of that unborn child.” What? Uh, NO. All available evidence shows that these ultrasounds do nothing to change women’s minds when they do not wish to continue a pregnancy. Women aren’t fools who need to physically see something to realize its significance. You can show them all the fetuses in the universe — if they’re confident in their choice not to give birth, it won’t make a difference. Stop forcing images upon women because you think it’s “cool.” It isn’t. (Talking Points Memo)

What Do We Know About Herbal Remedies and Menstrual Cramps? (Spoiler Alert: Not Much.)

herbalWhen I was entering adulthood and suffering from severe menstrual cramps, I suffered without relief for far too long. And I am certainly not alone in this experience. The most common gynecological disorder is dysmenorrhea — painful menstrual cramps — which strikes an estimated 90 percent of reproductive-age females. Furthermore, around 40 percent of American women use some form of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. “CAM” is a catchall for approaches to health care that fall outside of the mainstream. Given the popularity of CAM and the ubiquity of dysmenorrhea, it was no surprise that I experienced painful cramps, nor was it shocking that I tried a few herbal remedies, which are a type of CAM.


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


During my second year of college, at the age of 19, a friend recommended a couple of herbal remedies to add to my cramp-fighting arsenal. I tried them, but it was difficult to know if they really worked. My pain varied so wildly cycle to cycle that I had no way of knowing if I was just having a “good month” when I initially tried these products. Although I thought they worked at first, after I had accumulated more menstrual cycles under my belt, I started to wonder if my cramps were really any less painful. On average, I still seemed to be missing just as much school and work as before — but I wasn’t sure.

The problem was that I never collected any before-and-after data — I didn’t spend years ranking the severity and duration of my cramps, or keeping track of the hours spent in bed away from school, work, or other obligations. Furthermore, my initial sense of optimism could have colored my perceptions. Since we can be tricked by our own expectations and biases, it is important to have access to quality evidence — gathered in large, methodologically powerful studies.

Raspberry leaf tea was the first herbal remedy I tried. It tasted OK, and the ritualistic nature of drinking a hot beverage from a steaming mug was soothing. But is there any actual evidence that raspberry leaf can help relieve the pain of dysmenorrhea? Although it’s been used therapeutically since at least the 1500s, the only human studies I can find for any gynecological condition examine its use during pregnancy or labor — not for treating menstrual cramps. The only claims for raspberry leaf’s efficacy in treating cramps come from biased sources, like the manufacturers themselves. It seems the tea I drank during my late teen years had word of mouth and marketing going for it, but not much else. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951A man to whom we owe tremendous gratitude, Carl Djerassi, one of the creators of THE birth control pill, passed away last week. (NYT)
  • Missouri wants to pass legislation forcing women about to undergo an abortion to watch a video warning them of alleged “abortion risks,” “including, but not limited to, infection, hemorrhage, cervical tear or uterine perforation, harm to subsequent pregnancies or the ability to carry a subsequent child to term, and possible adverse psychological effects.” Hmm, know what else carries those same risks annnnnd a higher risk of death? Carrying a pregnancy to term and delivering a baby. I’m guessing the video won’t promote that science, though! (Think Progress)
  • With the majority of pregnancies in the state being unintended (58 percent), the second-highest poverty rate in the United States, and one of the highest STD rates in the country, Louisiana needs Planned Parenthood. However, anti-abortion zealots in the state are fighting the opening of a new Planned Parenthood health center instead of starting a grassroots campaign to cure the issues causing the need. #Logic (Cosmopolitan)
  • Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan has come over from the Dark Side and is now pro-choice. So nice to have you — now please help effect change in your rabidly anti-abortion state, sir. (USA Today)
  • Michigan Rep. Brandon Dillon is on our side too now. Is there something in the water out there in the Midwest, and can we import it to Arizona, like, yesterday? (MLive)
  • Sugary drinks, obesity, and family distress are all cited as reasons for early puberty in young girls. (NYT)
  • The House (Republicans, of coooooourse) voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act again. ’Cause, ya know, the 56th time’s the charm. (NPR)
  • Grab your surgical and/or gas masks, fellow Arizonans. Hundreds of schools in our state are skirting the vaccination mandates at great peril to us all. (AZ Central)
  • Anti-abortion creeps and anti-vaccination creeps: birds of a stupid feather. (RH Reality Check)
  • AARP & Astroglide: The over-70 set is still actively sexing each other up! Good for them! (HuffPo)
  • From crisis pregnancy centers to clinic protesters, we’re quite used to abortion foes telling filthy lies to justify their agendas. Which is why it’s hard to be surprised that Texas got faux “experts” to lie and use discredited science to close half of the abortion clinics in the state. (Slate)

Let’s Talk Contraception: How Effective Is My Birth Control?

contraception 02According to the Guttmacher Institute, 62 percent of women of child-bearing age (roughly 15 to 44 years of age) currently use a contraceptive method. Most contraceptive users are married and on average would like to have two children. This means that a woman might be using a contraceptive method for more than 30 years.

Studies have calculated that if a sexually active woman is not using any contraceptive method, over the course of a year she has an 85 percent chance of becoming pregnant. Using contraceptives greatly decreases this chance, but there are still some possibilities that her contraceptive method could fail to prevent pregnancy.


To maximize your contraception’s effectiveness, use it as correctly and consistently as possible.


When choosing a contraceptive method, you might want to use the safest and most reliable method available. How likely is it that your choice could fail? With the many types of birth control at your disposal, how do you know which is most effective? And why, with even the most effective contraception around, do women still have unintended pregnancies?

If we rank birth control methods according to most effective to the least effective, how do they compare? How is effectiveness measured?  Continue reading