Puerto Rican Women and the Pill

Updated: Feb 9


PC: americanhistory.si.edu

What Happened?

Birth control pills are the number one form of contraceptive use in the United States.* However, many of us don’t know that Puerto Rican women in the 1950s were one of the first women to take Enovid, the first birth control pills in the world. In order to get approval from the FDA and release it to the mass public, Gregory Pincus and John Rock, creators of the pill, had to do a large-scale human trial. Unknown to them, Puerto Rican women participated in these clinical trials. They simply thought that they were taking a pill that would help them not get pregnant, they did not know that they were being tested on. These women took Enovid which “contained much higher doses of hormones than modern-day birth control pills, and caused significant side effects.”** Many experienced bloating, pain, blood clots, nausea, and for three unfortunate women, death. However, none of the complaints these women made were ever taken seriously, they were easily dismissed, and no autopsy/ investigations were conducted in order to see if the women's cause of death were due to the pill. ***


Why Puerto Rico?

There is no definitive answer to why Puerto Rico was chosen as the site for this trial. However, many predictions can be made as to why Pincus and Rock chose Puerto Rican women:

Puerto Rican Industrialization

PC: arcgis.com

Industrialization had created more poverty as farmworkers and agricultural roles in society were diminished by companies moving to Puerto Rico for cheap labor and tax cuts (which were encouraged by the US government). Because of the increase in poverty, politicians sought ways to fix this problem. Programs such as Operation Bootstrap sought to displace Puerto Ricans from their homeland into the US, and population control could have been enough motivation to control a marginalized group.


Ties in the Eugenics Movement

This is an example of propaganda used during this movement.

The rise in the belief of this movement, which aimed to prevent socially undesirable people from procreating, had already been in effect for many years before these trials. Eugenicists advocated compulsory sterilization to improve society by eliminating its “socially inadequate” members. Margaret Sanger, who was the most known activist for birth control, opened the first clinic that would later become Planned Parenthood and worked alongside Pincus and Rock, advocated for eugenics as well. “Sanger argued that birth control could help wipe out ‘the greatest present menace to civilization’—people living in extreme poverty and those with mental illnesses and physical disabilities".** Puerto Rico was seen as being overpopulated by people living in poverty and many believed that an effective solution would be to target the reproductive rights of women who couldn’t have known any better.

While the pill plays a very important role in many women’s daily routine and their form of birth control, learning the history of simply inventions like this highlights the institutionalized racism that is still very prevalent today. It also exhibits parts of history that are never talked about but are key to explaining current policies and methods in the medical and political fields.

* Contraceptive Use in the United States. (2018, July 26). Retrieved from

https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/contraceptive-use-united-states.

** Blakemore, Erin. “The First Birth Control Pill Used Puerto Rican Women as Guinea Pigs.”

History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 May 2018, Retrieved from

https://www.history.com/news/birth-control-pill-history-puerto-rico-enovid.

*** The Puerto Rico Pill Trials. (n.d.). Retrieved from

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-puerto-rico-pill-trials/.


#eugenicsmovement #birthcontrol #Industrialization #history #sterilization

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