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The Pill and the Eugenics Movement

A pill box with the title Femodene next to the strip of pills in there foil containers.
A box of Femodene Contraceptive Pill. Image courtesy of the Dorman Museum.

Femodene is the brand name for the contraceptive pill Gestodene. Mainly used to prevent pregnancy the active ingredient is hormones which mirror the effects of pregnancy, tricking the body into not ovulating. Gestodene was first created in 1975 and sold as Femodene in 1987 and it can still be bought today.

Before the pill was invented women had no real control to prevent unwanted pregnancies, although other contraceptives had been around for centuries, but they were not always effective, or safe and relied on men to take the responsibility.

The contraceptive pill was a revolution in women’s lives during the 1960s. It was one of the defining inventions of the Century giving women ultimate control of their bodies. Originally the contraceptive pill was introduced through the National Health Service (NHS) for married women only in 1961 until 1967, when it was legally allowed to be given to unmarried women for medical reasons. A minister report at the time stated that ‘a woman has, I suppose, precisely the same rights under the NHS whether she is married or ‘living in sin.’

The introduction of the contraceptive pill led to the so called ‘sexual revolution’ and  ‘women’s liberation’ movements leading many to become concerned about the moral impact this could have on young people and girls in particular. By 1974 further reorganisation of the NHS finally made the pill and family planning services open to everyone, regardless of marital status or medical need, rather it was available by choice.

The pill was invented in 1950s America and since its introduction, there have been many concerns about the link between the pill and its side effects. To begin with, the number of hormones in the pill were extremely high containing 10,000 micrograms of progestin and 150 micrograms of estrogen.

Today those numbers are significantly lower, with only 50 – 150 micrograms of progestin and 20 – 50 micrograms of estrogen. The first clinical trials of the pill took place in Puerto Rico where women faced horrific side effects and some even died.

Many of the leading figures in the development of the contraceptive pill were also leading figures in the eugenics movement, who believed that “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.”

The Puerto Rican women’s concerns were brushed off as female hysteria and the pill was rolled out globally. The authorities concluded that the number of women dying worldwide from the pill’s side effects were still lower than those dying during pregnancy and labour, so it was considered fine. However, some countries like Norway banned the pill in 1967.

In the 1980s and 1990s, further research confirmed that there was a 125% increase in breast cancer for women who took the pill regularly for more than 4 years. As levels of women using the pill plummeted during this time due to the research the hormone levels in the pill were finally lowered drastically and monitored to reduce the risk of side effects.