Puerto Rico and the Advent of the Pill

Last night I had been watching an episode on Modern Marvels, a program that I watch quite often. This one was called High Tech Sex and dealt with the advances in birth control, sexual stimulation, etc. ,etc.

As usual the show was interesting since it dealt with the scientific approach to a problem. All was going along fine until the narrator said that the pill had been tested in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Automatically I became suspicious. If the pill was being made in the U.S. why then was it being tested in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately I had been having trouble with my IP so was unable to connect with the Net and begin researching this matter at that moment. However, this morning all was well with the IP connection and I began my search.

I went to the Google Search engine and typed in, “  Medical test birth control pill San Juan, P.R. “  and immediately a page sprang up and there at the top was the start of my quest:
“American Experience The Pill Timeline
… first large scale clinical trials for the Pill in San Juan, Puerto Rico. …. Surveys show that birth control has disappeared from the list of medical …
www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/timeline/timeline2.html – 35k ”


This page dealt exactly with what I had heard on the program and I immediately began going through it very carefully. The show did not elaborate on the Pincus story. His part was only mentioned in a couple of lines. The site I encountered really went into tons of details. The reader can go to the site ( immediately above or at the bottom ) for the many pages that are there. Here I have written a short summary and a comment or two.
I have always felt and known that Puerto Ricans are looked upon as second, if not third class citizens and looked down on. This article gives a good representation of this very fact.

Dr. Gregory Goodwin Pincus. He can be said to be the creator of the Pill, but the extremes he went to can only be viewed as exploitation in the extreme.

Because anti-birth control laws in the U.S. at the time ( 1950’s ) made it impossible to conduct large scale human testing, both Pincus and his colleague, Harvard obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. John Rock decide on Puerto Rico as their proving ground.

In 1955 Pincus visited the island and discovered that it was the perfect location for human testing. There were no anti-birth control laws on the island. There was an extensive network of birth control clinics on the island.

The first thought that came to mind was that the administrators of the clinics had to have either suspected something or were in on the fact that this was to be an experiment. Data had to be collected and you can’t do that without knowing what you have to look for. The second thing that struck me was that none of the subjects were told that the pill they were using was experimental, they were just told that it would prevent pregnancy.

The trials began in Rio Piedras but quickly spread to other locations. Now bear in mind that the subjects were all poor working women. Three young women died during these experiments and no investigations were conducted to determine cause of death.

The article goes on to discuss the continued evolution of the pill. Pincus’ team would later be accused of  deceit, colonialism and exploitation of poor women of color, however, the harm was already done.

This presents a very good example of the sort of thing that Puerto Ricans must be watchful for. There are laws that prohibit the dispensing of experimental medicines without the consent or knowledge of the patient and these are the things that all should be aware of. Bear in mind as well that the U.S. is not the only country to have dealings with the island, there are many foreign interest at work on the island and even though this particular incident took place in the mid fifties one can never tell if it will repeat itself in the future.

For the reader who wants to delve into the entire article regarding the Pill and Dr. Pincus click Here.


3 Responses to “Puerto Rico and the Advent of the Pill”

  1. Helen Says:

    Hi there, just stumbled across your article while researching a paper on the development of hormonal contraception. I’m afraid I don’t think this statement is correct: “none of the subjects were told that the pill they were using was experimental, they were just told that it would prevent pregnancy”. While the subjects were indeed told that the pill would prevent pregnancy, they also had to visit the clinics multiple times a day for urine testing – this was one of the project’s biggest problems, as many women dropped out due to the demands this placed on their time. I cannot find any concrete evidence of what precisely the women were told, but it seems to me that this would be a fairly clear indicator of experimentation. Why else would the women think they had to commit to this? Anyway, just thought I would flag this point up, but I don’t think it confounds your argument that the women were exploited. Good article 🙂

  2. Alfred Says:

    @Helen, I am Puerto Rican and have read many articles about this controversy. My grandmother was one of the thousands of women that used the pills. Women in Puerto Rico never were told that was an experiment and never signed any waiver. They were only told that “the pill” will help them to avoid having babies that they could not afford. It is sad to say, but many women back then were not educated and not often asked questions.

  3. Ana Maria Mendez Ritchie Says:

    @ Helen. Why is there such an inherent need to defend any wrong doing by the USA, we can’t seem to accept the fact that for the willful urge “GREED” provides an economic echelon and/or investors, this same group is willing to put at risk ANYONE who is easily deceived by their limited and forthcoming truth of the issue at hand. I was born in P.R. in 1955 and know of my family bringing up this issue. “Experimental” Drug was never advertised, and easy to convince impoverished women to allow for the possibility of bettering their lives by becoming part of the work force, that even today is held with such esteem by our women. But judging by the platform of the GOP today as far as women’s rights are concerned about their reproductive system, this study in P.R. was all for naught. I seem to remember Hilary Clinton apologizing about a similar issue; an experiment, in the 1940′s, the deliberate act of inoculating prisoners, soldiers and mental patients with syphilis, without their knowledge or permission. Another cruel acts of USA power. I am sure there are more examples, like AGENT ORANGE, bio warfare, FRACKING, etc… etc…. keep thinking of MORE excuses to justify the means because we can continue to act in ignorance as long as we are permitted to. I am glad that the alternative was an eventual product that worked. Other wise how long would it have taken the USA to apologize for the blatant disregard of impoverished and uneducated (2nd class citizens) of the USA as it continues to happen time and time again. Just for the record the syphilis experiment was not in the USA either.

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