Margaret Sanger, who among other things founded Planned Parenthood, met Gregory Goodwin Pincus in 1950. Pincus was an acknowledged expert in mammalian reproduction. Ms. Sanger asked him to pursue the creation of an oral medication that in the words of an angry judge who once sentenced her would allow women, “the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception”. This request was not without risk to Pincus. 

In 1917, Sanger was imprisoned for distributing family planning information. At least 30 states had criminal restrictions against selling or distributing contraceptive devices and some even made it illegal to counsel married couples on family planning and birth control. Pincus had his laboratory in Massachusetts, and at the time of the request fulfilling it may have been a felony. 

At the time of the request, Sanger sought a pill that would impede contraception without other forms of intervention. She wanted something safe, inexpensive and unobtrusive. Pincus believed he could deliver and did. 

Pincus determined to use progesterone, a natural hormone that intercedes in the female reproductive cycle when a woman becomes pregnant. He believed that if this hormone was introduced prior to a woman becoming pregnant that it would keep her from becoming so. The ‘pill’ went through much animal testing and resulted in his conclusion to seek a synthetic version of progesterone. Several trials and combining progesterone with estrogen resulted in the very first oral contraceptive that was safe and effective for women. 

The fear of side effects by regulators delayed widespread use, but doctors who prescribed the ‘pill’ did not report any safety concerns. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court in Griswald v. Connecticut eviscerated state laws against the dissemination of contraception and both Sanger and Pincus saw the success of the fruits of their labor before they passed on. 

Written by Attorney Heather Moseman.

Excerpted from ABA Journal, May 2019 an article by Allen Pusey

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