Why I’m Not Celebrating the Pill


I’ve mentioned before that hippie immigrant Puerto Rican parents raised me in the US. One of the messages that was transmitted to me as a young Puerto Rican woman growing up was that the birth control pill kills Puerto Rican women. And it did.

Excuse me if I do not partake in all of the celebration of The 50th Anniversary of The Pill because from my perspective it is still very much a reminder of the exploitation and violation of human rights among Puerto Ricans (and Haitians, and working class women in general) that continues today. Ignoring this reality is easy. Yet, it is a part of my, our history that I can’t simply forget or overlook. If I choose to ignore this history I also choose to ignore the history of activism by members of my community that has helped to create change at an institutional level. Ignoring this reality and history also perpetuates the ideas that historically oppressed communities are not important in the work we do today.

There are some things I’m not ready to ignore or forge and many of those are the power of language. The adjectives used to describe members of my community are horrifying. I don’t care if it was how people spoke “in that time,” they were and remain inappropriate. To describe our homeland as “slums,” “jungles,” and our community as “undesirable,” “genetically inferior,” and “ignorant” is defendable?  The ideology “that the poor, uneducated, women of Puerto Rico could follow the Pill regimen, then women anywhere in the world could too” is not condescending to you? Don’t be fooled. There was almost nothing that was “female controlled” or “empowering” about being a part of the trial for many participants, especially after they realized they were taking a medication that they did not know was not approved.

I remember reading the book Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill over a decade ago when I was in graduate school. The conversation we had as a group about the book shocked me. While I was sickened by the overt ethnocentrism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, and racism, other classmates were mostly intrigued by what the history was in the US. It was an extremely painful book for me to discuss with a group of 99 percent White people who viewed the history of my community as less than and Othered as fascinating. When I realized a yam in Mexico was a part of the early production of the pill and how the US obtained it, the inclusion of animal products that included pork and how some communities do not consume this product for various reasons, I was floored. Some classmates rolled their eyes at me as if I was making something out of nothing. To this day I’m surprised those people are now working within my community. I hope they have learned something over these ten years about the ways their thought processes isolated the people in the community they now try to provide services to. Engaging in these conversations continue to hurt.

Often, when I bring up this topic, I have people who say to me “but that was the ‘norm’ back then.” Just because it was/is the “norm” does not automatically make it “right.” Others have said to me “Look at how many people and families the pill as helped.” As if the lives of the women who were injured, died, or experienced some major side effects during the trials makes that ok. Who is thanking them? Who is remembering them? Then there are the “We need more of a biomedical model and not just a social one.” I don’t disagree, I just think that a biomedical model can also recognize how the field is constructed and given value by a society that gives it value (and money). I also think a biomedical model can be one that does not completely ignore a community response. Just because it has more money behind it does not make it better than other models. 

On anniversaries such as these, I ask that we all take a moment and think about the people who have been directly impacted negatively during trials, especially when historically discussions are not comprehensive and exclude us. Also think about how pharmaceutical companies are still engaging in some questionable actions and continue to purchase land in Puerto Rico, which does bring jobs to the island, yet those jobs are not always permanent.

All these talks about Puerto Rico and our status, do people really think that big money corporations want to lose the ability to work in a “foreign” country with a completely different approach to taxes? Think about it and consider doing some research on your own.

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  • soclosetolife

    Just on a side note. Your paragraph about Sexual Chemistry is a bit confusing. It feels like some of the article was cut out that would have tied all the points together.

     

    Re: The actual article

    As a person who possesses white privilege my first reaction is to say “But WHY can’t we celebrate the good parts of the pill while acknowledging the bad parts as well.” I am trying to control that part of my brain and see things from your POV. I guess all I can say in the mean time is that I am trying.

     

    Out of curiosity is there a history of this underside of the pill that you would recommend? I have never heard many of the things to which you refer.

  • harry834

    “I am trying to control that part of my brain and see things from your POV. I guess all I can say in the mean time is that I am trying.”

    control of one’s mind is a path towards enlightenment. good efforts, soclose

  • terenovela

    thanks bianca for your right on commentary. my mother was one of the puerto rican women who was given anti nausea medicine for pregnant women in the 60s which led to my sister’s birth defect.  A great resource is La Operacion/The Operation documentary (http://www.uwosh.edu/filmandhistory/documentary/women/operacion.php)

    which traces the history of the sterilization movement.

  • terenovela

    thanks bianca for your right on commentary. my mother was one of the puerto rican women who was given anti nausea medicine for pregnant women in the 60s which led to my sister’s birth defect.  A great resource is La Operacion/The Operation documentary (http://www.uwosh.edu/filmandhistory/documentary/women/operacion.php)

    which traces the history of the sterilization movement.

  • miranda-spencer

    I never knew about the history of the trials in Puerto Rico, and read the link to “the American Experience” blurb; it’s quite appalling. I’m glad we have the pill today but we can make no good excuses for what happened then.

     

    It reminds me of the recent book about the Black woman with cancer whose cell line was used in research to make a number of scientific discoveries without her or her family’s informed consent.

     

    We can’t say the end justifies the means, and need to keep telling the full history so we can prevent the negative aspects from happening again.

  • crowepps

    It was inexcusable that research on the pill’s side effects was done by using ‘disposable’ poor women on the assumption that they were better off not having kids in the first place, and it would be equally inexcusable if the women had been poor White women in Appalachia, but I don’t see why the unethical, even criminal decisions of the researchers should stigmitize the Pill itself.  Black people don’t sneer at penicillin shots because of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.  Instead they rightfully sneer at unethical medical researchers.

  • pcsassy03

    Every drug that is out on the market has been first tested in a third world country.

  • forreal52

    This seems to be a rather poorly written article in that it meanders.Yes, many scientific breakthroughs in history were achieved by less than stellar means. I don’t think Puerto Rico was selected to receive the brunt of racism, however. While I myself would never take an oral contraceptive, it obviously was an immense help to huge numbers of people.

  • marysia

    Puerto Rico *was* targeted. When the US occupied it, it squeezed many farmers out of their lands. Some had to leave for places like NYC, some remained living on smaller and smaller living areas. The US government then decided that there was an “overpopulation” problem with Puerto Ricans–never mind its own large role in squeezing them out of their livelihoods.

     

    The US government turned the island into an experimental lab for eugenics. Lots of Puerto Rican women were forcibly sterilized as well as made “guinea pigs” for hormonal contraception.  I don’t think this would have ever happened on an island like, say, Nantucket, or Martha’s Vineyard.

     

    Bianca is saying something really critical that has been put down and silenced too long and too much.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you Bianca for being so bold and saying what many of us have refrained to.  As a scientist and someone who supports organisations like planned parenthood for the safety they provide girls and women it has been hard to say anything when Planned Parenthood is currently forcing the celebration of the pill down everyones throat. 

    In the United States the pill represents the symbol of modern feminism.  White American women are often too quick to judge and comment on the entrappment of African, Latin and Islamic women by their men and cultures.  The paradox of it is many White American women are trapped by other systematic hinderences but they may not be as overt.

    Additionally we think in Western countries that what’s not good for White women can be dumped on other women.  The early pill implant that goes in your arm was experimented on female subject and found to cause blood clots other complications with some women ending up seiously hospitalized.  A whole batch was produced, when it was found to have problems it was shipped off to India to be used as birth control. 

     

    Thank you for this it was well needed. 

  • toounfazed

    As a Native American I understand your viewpoint and feelings about the pill.  I had the good fortune to be part of a family that assimilated early, before reservations and exploitations, while maintaining a deep connection to our traditions.  The difference between Native Americans of the eastern woodlands and Canada and the Native Americans of Mexico is of the timeframe of colonial invasion.  In Mexico and Puerto Rico, the influence of Spanish Catholicism seems to have engendered a victim mentality–the easier to control and exploit the populations.  I cringe when I see a cross or a rosary, knowing full well the real cross born by those Native Americans who adopted the lie of paulianity.

    My point is that all Native Americans, whether influenced by the Spanish, English, or French, should understand their traditional roots.  We have a 10,000 year history of natural remedies and a prescription for healthful living.  The single minded researchers come here to extract a tiny portion of those remedies to create bullets that hone in on one target while missing an entire forest of remedies that work together.  When they focus on one target to the exclusion of all else, they miss key elements.  How many hundreds of years will they continue to find all the missing elements from breast milk just to make a third-class substitute (formula)?  They simply don’t understand nature.  They don’t get it.

    If the women who were exploited by the original birth control pill researchers had a firm and unwavering understanding of nature, then the research would have been unnecessary.  Native American women have always had the knowledge needed to prevent pregnancy, end pregnancy, or to promote pregnancy and parturition in a healthy and safe manner.  Victims who turn their backs on their own history and information are going to receive bad outcomes.

    It’s time that Native American women of all cultures band together to spread the ancient knowledge and learn to work with nature again.  Nausea during pregnancy is not a disease to be cured, it is a warning to improve the diet.  Stop looking to the stupid white man for your health needs.  Especially, stop looking to the evil and ignorant white man for your spiritual needs.  The evil of christinsanity and catholicism is the real enemy.

     

  • crowepps

    Certainly poor women (and men) in Puerto Rico was targeted, as were poor Blacks in the South, as were Native Americans, as were the mentally ill and prisoners, and other populations that were marginalized and considered expendable. I think it would have happened indeed on Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard IF the population there were powerless poor people. I absolutely agree that nobody would have tried to pull this on middle class whites although the Thalidiomide disaster and the Dalcron Shield mess and a few others make it clear no one is immune to Big Pharma’s obsession with profits instead of health.

     

    I absolutely agree that taking advantage of people by unethically doing medical experimentation on them or testing drugs on them without informed consent is grossly criminal. I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with that.

     

    I am not trying to silence Bianca – I’m saying it doesn’t make sense to me to demonize one specific medication as the culprit when the entire paradigm of ‘this is for their own good’ is what causes the problem, both in the past and now today.

     

    When new medications are being tested, or experimental operations are being done, people should be given complete and full information and then be allowed to make their own free and voluntary choices about whether or not they want to participate without coercion. I believe the same thing is true about choosing to use or not use any particular type of birth control that HAS been tested and approved.

     

    Those decisions should not be made for others by people who make condescending decisions about what ‘the poor’ or ‘the foolish’ or ‘the victims’ or ‘the immoral’ should do, and in my opinion that includes all the choices: not getting pregnant, getting pregnant, whether or not to continue pregnancy, how to manage delivery at the end of the pregnancy, and choosing whether or not to parent. Taking any of those decisions out of the hands of the person most intimately involved in them because someone else is ‘more fit’ to make the decision is a continuation of the eugenic attitude: ‘your superiors get to choose what is best for society’.

  • dadumdumdada

    While I fully realise that there were negative consequences to “the pill,” such as it allowing women to be more easily used by sexually predatory males, and I am aware of the imperalistic history of the U.S. involving Puerto Rico, I still think that the author is being over-sensitive.

    Why? Because some of the insulting terms that people have used in a “condescending” fashion to describe Puerto Rico are still being used, in the U.S. press, to describe my hometown of Detroit. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but Puerto Rico is hardly alone in being slighted.

    There have been advertisements, calling for drug testing participants, in the Detroit media as well. Exploitation isn’t limited to the Third World (this should be obvious).

    I personally have never had a sexual partner who was on “the pill,” so the recent media stories haven’t meant much to me. Then again, I’m not female, so it really didn’t factor into my self-determination. On that basis, I’m not about to condemn it out-of-hand. It just seems to me that the author should have been more aware of the nuances of the politics involved, rather than sensing that her people, and her people alone, were victimized by U.S. corporations.

  • crowepps

    It has been my observation that U.S. Corporations are perfectly willing to victimize anyone at all whenever there’s a chance they can get away with it and make a buck by doing so.

  • marysia

    it’s people of color who have jurisdiction over whether or not they are being “overly sensitive…”

  • crowepps

    Is everybody else here then ‘the oppressor’?

  • radicalhousewife

    I thought this was a very powerful essay that shares a part of history that has been shuffled under the rug for “the greater good.”  I’m surprised that comments here would challenge the author’s motives for writing it–is she opposed to contraception? is she just being sensitive?  So what?  I consider myself a well-educated feminist, and even I didn’t know about what happened to the women of Puerto Rico in the 1950s. This should be a part of our shared women’s history, but it’s not. 

    I thank the author for bringing this issue to my attention.  In my view, she has every right to be angry about a celebration of the Pill that does not acknowledge the role of racism in its development.

  • jaz

    Why are you so sensitive? I don’t see anywhere in Bianca’s post where she names you and all white people as oppressors. She is giving a history lesson here. Why is that so difficult to swallow? If you took a step away from your ego, you can see in this post that Bianca is expressing why SHE does not celebrate the Pill’s 50th anniversary because in creating the Pill and getting it approved for sales in the US, they tested it to unwilling and unknowing women in Puerto Rico. Those are the facts. Those were women in her family, community, ancestry. Therefore, knowing the history, she can’t celebrate it. I didn’t see anywhere in this essay where she condemns the availability of the Pill, says that it should not be available to women, thinks it should be taken off the market, etc. 

    If you look at the other comments, there are white women on here who didn’t know this happened, and they are appalled yet appreciate learning about this. They are not offended, instead they are open.

  • crowepps

    I don’t see anywhere in Bianca’s post where she names you and all white people as oppressors.

    I don’t either, instead that was the implication of YOUR comment.  Her post was pretty clear that her opinion was her own and was based on information passed down in her family.

     

    I didn’t say she wasn’t entitled to her own opinion.  Actually, I wasn’t even the one who asked if she might be ‘too sensitive’.  I just don’t think the basis of her being entitled to her own opinion is that she’s a ‘woman of color’ or that her being a ‘woman of color’ means all the comments on her post have to uniformly lauditory, because to me that attitude seems kind of — I don’t know — patronizing?

     

    Most of the posts on here have questions and comments on them, some of them a heck of a lot harsher than these.  I pay Bianca the compliment of assuming she’s just as capable of defending her opinion as the authors of those other articles and that her being a ‘woman of color’ isn’t an indicator that she needs someone to ride to her rescue and defend her on that basis.

     

    Attempting to set aside my ego and oversensitivity just for a second, your statement “Therefore, knowing the history, she can’t celebrate it” conveys your positive reaction to her article very well, and in my opinion does so more effectively than what was probably an offhand remark that came across to me as ‘because she’s a woman of color, people who aren’t ‘of color’ can’t empathize with her and shouldn’t comment.’

  • jameskoss

    Why condemn the product?  Better to understand the moral economics and immoral attitudes of the experimenter.  Big Pharmacy doesn’t care about the experimented on-just what they can learn so they can earn.

    For example:  HIV drug research was done in Romania.  Why?  The former dictator ordered all anemic children (so many mothers were malnourished) to get blood transfusions.  High HIV rates were produced.  Big Pharma saw the opportunity.

    They offered “free” treatment to see how long the effects lasted.  Their recipe worked well, BUT at 18 years of age they ceased to provide free drugs to the “cured.”  

     

    This was a death sentence.  Did the corporations care?  Obviously not.  Only by rigorous national reaction did they succumb and continue to provide the drugs.

     

    Many HIV positive people now benefit from the experiment, at a great profit.

     

    The lesson:  Not what is done but why?  Miners risking their lives mining coal for company profit is no less nor more mis-treated than those experimented on.

     

    The lesson:  control those who don’t care.  Don’t turn collective backs on what can be done but how!

     

    J. Koss, MD 

  • biancalaureano

    I appreciate the comments as I’ve written several posts here and have received almost none (which is telling in my opinion, especially about the topics and communities I’ve discussed), so I’m glad there is some sort of conversation.

     

    I’ve said what I meant and said what I believe, provided resources for people to find more information about the topic on their own (and if you’ve read my other various posts there are other citations that connect to this topic there as well). This is a position I’ve not heard shared over this time of “celebration” and believe it is an important and often ignored part of our history. I’ve spent my entire life defending my existence, my work, my community, my history, being called names, told I don’t write well, but I know what is important to me and what is important to share; and I believe this narrative is important at this time regardless of how uncomfortable it may make some people.

     

    I recognize that reading articles in spaces such as these that discuss  colonial legacies that remain for many under-resourced communities are not just specific to communities of Color. And for people who are working with communities that have histories like these, not being aware of them is one way that we as service providers are not helping our clients.

    Imagine how your organization could benefit from understanding this colonial legacy how could your organization alter some of the work and services provided to be more successful and supportive of clients? in what ways could you improve the ways that your clients build trust and honesty with their providers? in what capacities has your organization reached out to understand how testimonios such as these influence and impact the clients you work with? is there ever a thought that ‘perhaps our organization/project was not effective because we lack this knowledge and are thus not prepared to work with this population?’

     

    And to be clear I identify as a radical woman of Color, captial “C” because it’s a proper noun and not an adjective.

  • ahunt

    Bianca, I too was unaware of the extent of the perfidity of Big Pharm in the chemical BC testing phase.

     

    Reconciling my own highly positive experience with chemical BC in the 70s and 80s with what I now know will take some time.

     

    Frankly…learning that the great physical freedom I enjoyed was partailly a product of racism and classism is beyond disturbing.

     

    Yet I would not now be w/o chemical BC…on behalf of my daughters and grandaughters.

     

    What would you have us do?

     

     

  • jaz

    I think it’s good for people to question and learn each other by having varied opinions but I also believe that there is a humble way to ask questions. Maybe there’s a loss in context here however asking “Is everybody else here then ‘the oppressor’?” doesn’t seem to be the most effective way to move the discussion forward. 

  • colleen

    “Is everybody else here then ‘the oppressor’?” doesn’t seem to be the most effective way to move the discussion forward.

    about over sensitivity and effective contraception being a vehicle which allows sexually predatory men to take advantage of women aren’t either.

    The thing I notice about this discussion is that several people have pointed out the obvious. Are we to condemn effective products like penicillin and oral contraceptives because global corporations including pharmaceutical companies have in the past and continue in the present continue to operate as if the poor and vulnerable were disposable subjects for clinical trials? It seems to me that responding to that rather than trying to condemn effective contraception itself would move the discussion foward.

    I’ll tell you what though. ‘Feminists for Life’ still aren’t feminists, NFP still has a typical failure rate of 25% and global overpopulation is as real an issue as global climate change.

  • crowepps

    And yet neither does “it’s people of color who have jurisdiction over whether or not they are being “overly sensitive…”

  • crowepps

    This is a position I’ve not heard shared over this time of “celebration” and believe it is an important and often ignored part of our history.

    I agree, and you make excellent points about why service providers in this area need to be aware of it.  In my opinion, your ability to write is just fine, and your WILLINGNESS to put yourself out there and post your writing in a forum where the comments can be negative at times is terrific!

  • marysia

    “you’re being overly sensitive” is a very common, and frequently destructive reaction when people from an oppressed/stigmatized group voice things that others find discomfiting.

    whether it’s men shaken up by news from the lives of women, or able bodied people by the truths of persons with disabilities, or white people by truths from people of color.

    this “oversensitivity” claim can create, escalate, and appear to justify defensiveness and silencing and distancing on the part of majority-group members faster than anything.

    and it can trump the right of people who bear truths that unsettle others to decide *for themselves* what is problematic in their lives and histories.

    i am glad that many people hear have not resorted to this claim. but when and where it does arise, it needs to be addressed directly.

    i really think it’s far, far more of a stumbling block to truly reciprocal respect and understanding than any straightforwardness on my personal part.

  • colleen

    “you’re being overly sensitive” is a very common, and frequently destructive reaction when people from an oppressed/stigmatized group voice things that others find discomfiting.

    This is news? and if so, to who?

  • marysia

    i am explaining my rationale.

    i can’t say whether or not this is news to anyone here; that’s something people can figure out for themselves. it’s news to some people and not to others and i have no way of knowing beforehand which is which. but i do get suspicious when someone says “overly sensitive!”

    it’s certainly not news to me, in case yoiu were wondering.