Nevertheless, She Persisted: a History of the Pill

By: Natanya Russek

For as long as people have been having sex, women have been inventing methods to prevent pregnancy. Resourceful – but typically ineffective – methods of preventing pregnancy throughout history included herbal remedies, makeshift condoms, and behavioral methods like withdrawal. Many women were left with no other choice except sterilization, often with hysterectomy, to prevent pregnancy (The Racist and Sexist History of Keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret, Vice, 2012).

In the 1950s, the earliest clinical trials on hormonal contraceptives began (History of Birth Control in the United States, Congressional Digest, 2012). Enrollment was forced primarily upon women living in poverty in Puerto Rico. The design of the studies was unquestionably unethical. Participating women, many of whom had low literacy, were not told what the pill was for and were not warned of possible side effects.

Dr. Edris Rice-Wray, the only female physician involved, tried to bring attention to the 17% of enrolled women who were experiencing side effects ranging from weight gain to life-threatening complications like blood clots. Her concerns were dismissed by her colleagues. It wouldn’t be until two decades later that women would be provided a list of possible risks in a pamphlet with their prescription, thanks to advocacy by Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin (The Birth Control Pill: A History, Planned Parenthood).

This high rate of side effects led many women to drop out of early studies. It was again Dr. Rice-Wray who came up with the ethical idea of telling women what the pill was supposed to do that women were willing – and eager – to volunteer to try the new medications (The Racist and Sexist History of Keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret, Vice, 2012). As rumor spread that a pill could empower women with the ability to control if and when they wanted to get pregnant, more women were willing to participate.

Officially, the FDA did not approve the pill until 1957, and even then resistance to women controlling their own fertility was so strong that the pill could only be prescribed officially for irregular periods. In 1965, the US Supreme Court ruled that married people could be permitted to use the pill and other contraceptives; in 1972 that right was extended to single women.

Today, students on college campuses have many options when it comes to birth control and reproductive health care. Here at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, the Norris Health Center ( offers many resources and services for students. Off campus, Planned Parenthood ( offers confidential, non-biased, and non-judgmental medical services for reproductive health and family planning. Planned Parenthood has five locations here in Milwaukee:

Birth control options from condoms to IUDs are covered by most insurance plans as mandated by the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) with exceptions with respect to religious freedoms. If your insurance plan does not cover these services, many students may also be eligible for Badgercare’s Family Planning Only Services which guarantee access to contraception and women’s health screening visits. Planned Parenthood can also help get your birth control delivered to your door 4 times a year.

According to Planned Parenthood, almost 90% of women will use hormonal contraception in their lives, for many reasons like controlling menstrual cramps, treating endometriosis, and family planning. Though I am glad to say we have come a long way in our journey for comprehensive contraceptive options and accessible reproductive health care, there is still progress to be made.

Despite strong evidence for the positive health and economic impacts of reproductive health care, accessing preventive care, including birth control, can be costly and out of reach for many women, especially those with low incomes and people of color (US Dept. of Health & Human Services). Continuous threats to the Title X program, which funds family planning and women’s health screening and serves more than 3.5 million low-income women through Planned Parenthood and Medicaid, are a direct threat to the wellbeing and autonomy of women (National Women’s Law Center).

All women regardless of age, race, or ability to pay deserve access to affordable, effective, and accessible contraceptive choices and comprehensive contraceptive counseling. For many women in the United States there are still far too many barriers to accessing care. This Women’s History Month, we must continue to stand up to defend our rights, and we must use our voices to work towards reproductive justice for all women to access the care we deserve.


Natanya Russek is a second year medical student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is now living here in Milwaukee to complete her clinical training through the Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health (TRIUMPH) Program.