In the mid-20th century, researchers Gregory Pincus and John Rock, both “devout” Catholics, conducted the first successful human trials of an oral contraceptive.
The federal Comstock Act (1873) prohibited sending “obscene, lewd or lascivious,” “immoral,” or “indecent” information or anything about contraception or abortion via the mail. In 1960, 31 states regulated “contraception” as an obscenity; 24 states banned the distribution of contraceptive supplies.
Throughout the history of medicine, thousands of drugs have been developed, but only one has been influential enough to earn the title of simply, the pill.
It would be another seven years (07 June 1965) before the US Supreme Court ruled in Griswald v Connecticut (7-2) that the Constitution protected “the right of marital privacy against state restrictions on contraception.”
While the Court explained that the Constitution does not explicitly protect a general right to privacy, the various guarantees within the Bill of Rights create penumbras, or zones, that establish a right to privacy. Together, the First, Third, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments create the right to privacy in marital relations. The Connecticut statute conflicted with the exercise of this right and was therefore held null and void.
In particular, the Ninth Amendment makes it clear that the Constitution does not “enumerate” every right held by citizens; failure to list a right does not mean it does not exist.
In 1972, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Court found (6-1) that of unmarried people could also possess contraception. The decision reversed Massachusetts law that prohibiting distributing contraceptives to unmarried people.
“If the right of privacy means anything, wrote Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. for the majority, “it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”
Developing the pill
The journey from laboratory to a commercially produced birth control pill was relatively short, and its human studies would be unethical today. In 1941, Russell Marker devised a method to make progesterone affordable. In 1945, Harvard endocrinologist Fuller Albright begins research into “birth control by hormone therapy.”
By 1951, the Catholic Church “sanction[ed] the use of the rhythm method as a natural form of birth control. Previously, the only option approved by Rome was abstinence.”
Katharine Dexter McCormick, who had married into the “International Harvester fortune,” provided financing. Margaret Sanger “founded the birth control movement and became an outspoken and life-long advocate for women’s reproductive rights.”
By 1952, Pincus shows “that progesterone works as an anti-ovulent in rabbits and rats.”
In 1952, Rock and Pincus begin human trials in Massachustts “with 50 women, under the guise of a fertility study.”
Pincus persuades Rock to administer the progesterone for only 21 days, followed by a 7-day break to allow for menstruation. They know the Pill will be controversial and want oral progesterone to be seen as a “natural ” process, not something that interferes with the normal menstrual cycle.
Not one of the 50 women in the experiment ovulates while on the drug. Pincus and Rock are positive that they have found the perfect oral birth control pill.
A woman’s right to manage reproduction is still an issue in 2022.