Before the 1960s conceptualization and legalization of birth control in the U.S., a large-scale human trial was carried out in a public housing project in Puerto Rico a decade before. The contraceptive pill was tested on nearly 1,500 women for several years.
The trials were conducted by biologist Gregory Pincus and pharmacist John Rock, who were backed by birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Before these large-scale trials, the drug had only been tested on rats and rabbits as well as a small group of women at Rock’s medical practice in Massachusetts.
“The controversy over the field trials began almost the minute the first woman swallowed a pill,” Margaret Marsh, co-author of The Fertility Doctor: John Rock and the Reproductive Revolution, told the Washington Post. “Within weeks of the trial’s start, El Imparcial, a popular newspaper, accused the project’s sponsors of conducting a ‘neomalthusian campaign,’ and local doctors told their patients that the pill was dangerous.”
The women participating in the trial were not made aware of the possible side-effects or potential risks of the pill. They were simply handed the pills free of charge. “They may have been poor, but they certainly had aspirations for their families,” Marsh added.
At the time, according to the doctors’ reports, three healthy women died but no autopsies were conducted. “In some ways, it was exploitative – you’re giving this drug that you don’t really know for sure what its effects are going to be,” Marsh pointed out. “On the other hand, the people involved in developing it really believed it was safe,” she told the Washington Post.
Many have compared the Puerto Rico human trials to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which the government conducted research on 600 African American men in Alabama for 40 years.