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Advances in Fertility and its Environmental Impact

An estate perspective we are constantly looking at is children and parentage in the context of estate claims-this discussion is really interesting in many respects, but particularly on reproduction using female stem cell  advancements. Have a read-not our usual blog material……. enjoy! – Kimberly Whaley

A Brief History of the Birth Control Pill

In June 1960 the FDA approved Enovid, the first oral contraceptive, for sale (Planned Parenthood 4). After years of development, clinical trials, lobbies for legalization, and asserting its necessity, the pill was made available to the public. This was much more than a medical advancement, to many women this meant freedom and independence. Before the invention of oral contraceptives, women were reliant on fitted diaphragms, spermicide jelly, and condoms. Although fitted diaphragms and spermicide jelly were used in tandem, neither were physician recommended and even with their combined efforts, they were unreliable (Carson 831). On the other hand, condoms were used and controlled by men, effectively forcing women to rely on men for measures of birth control. The invention of the birth control pill also allowed for family planning and was instrumental in the involvement of women in the workforce. The rate of unwanted pregnancies decreased significantly, and as a result, women were more likely to seek prenatal care earlier in their pregnancies (Planned Parenthood 9). The birth control pill was initially well-received, but it took a few years for this new oral contraceptive to be both socially and legally accepted. It was not until 1972 that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that unmarried women have an equal right to the use of birth control pills (Planned Parenthood 8). However, in time, the pill became a symbol of empowerment to women. This can be exemplified by a 1975 song sung by Loretta Lynn, called, “The Pill” in which she sings:

“You wined and dined me

When I was your girl

Promised if I’d be your wife

You’d show me the world

But all I’ve seen of this old world

Is a bed and a doctor bill

I’m tearin’ down your brooder house

‘Cause now I’ve got the pill”

While the birth control pill was instrumental to women, it was not without its downfalls. As with many pharmaceuticals, there were fairly serious side-effects to the first oral contraceptive. The first oral contraceptive, Enovid, contained higher hormonal doses than was necessary. This was prone to cause a plethora of side-effects such as heart attack, heart failure, stroke, embolism, and thrombosis among others (Planned Parenthood 4). The ethics of the clinical trials for the first birth control pills have also been called into question. Many feminists at the time, though in agreement with the necessity of the pill, spoke out against the testing methods used to develop it (Carson 831). The clinical trials took place initially in Massachusetts, and later relocated to Puerto Rico. In both locations however, the trials took advantage of minorities, especially those who may not have had the financial stability to pull out of the clinical trials, even when experiencing detrimental and life-threatening side-effects (Carson 831).

The timeline below demonstrates notable milestones in the creation of birth control pills.

Figure 1: Timeline of the birth control pill and its actualization. All information used in this timeline was found in the cited publications. (Planned Parenthood 1-8; Carson 830-831) 

With the birth control pill women were able to regain control over their fertility, and this phenomenon has continued to grow. Now women are able to conceive through in-vitro fertilization and intracytoplasmic sperm injections. It has even been discovered that female sperm (carriers of the X chromosome) can be reproduced using an adult female stem cell, the offspring of which would be female (Dobler). Essentially, since the invention of the birth control pill, women have moved on from no longer relying on men for contraception, to no longer needing men to reproduce. In her article Feminism, Fertility and Art (Assisted Reproductive Technology), Judith Marlen Dobler makes the point that with modern methods of fertilization “the origins of both egg and sperm are of reduced importance”. With advancements in reproduction technology, we are gradually removing ourselves from our traditional biological functions.

Urban Legends and Myths

Before the modern construction of birth control pills, condoms, spermicides, intrauterine devices, cervical caps, and many others, people had many misconceptions about how pregnancy could be prevented. For example, ancient Egyptians used honey, sodium carbonate and crocodile dung to create a thick paste that they would apply to their vaginas before intercourse. Others believed that if women practiced abstinence during periods of menstruation, that they could not become pregnant (Gibson). These methods seem bizarre now, and they certainly were, yet, it is shocking how many contraceptive methods were actually effective.

The Greek myth of Persephone’s abduction provides insight about some of the successful methods of contraception. The story says that Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, was stolen from her, taken to the underworld, and raped by the God of death. While in captivity, Persephone would eat pomegranate seeds in order to prevent pregnancy. Greek women (men were not permitted) used to celebrate Thesmophoria, a festival in honor of Persephone’s reunion with Demeter. Central to this festival were the pine, pomegranate, pennyroyal, and vitex plants, all of which have contraceptive properties (cited in Planned Parenthood 10). Similarly, in India papaya was used as a mode of contraception and was later found to contain progesterone, a hormone that prevents pregnancy (Planned Parenthood 11).

Although we have become significantly more informed on the topic of birth control, there are still many misconceptions that persist in society today. Some people still believe that you cannot get pregnant while on your period. Others practice a method commonly referred to as “pulling out”, wherein the male would extricate himself before completion. It is also true that many believe abstinence during periods of ovulation is an effective method of birth control. However, many people are not aware that sperm can live in a female body for 3-4 days, therefore if someone were to have sex within a 4-day proximity to ovulation, they may still get pregnant (Zalot and Guevin 273).

The Birth Control Pill and the Environment

The birth control pill seems to have solved so many problems, yet, even though it is undeniably convenient, the negative effects it has on the environment are significant. A study conducted by Karen Kidd et al., found that estrogen and estrogen mimics in water samples are affecting the sex stability of various species of fish (8897). Many species of fish are susceptible to sex changes, the most common of which, is the male fish which may be biologically altered to adopt the functions of a female body for parenting purposes. In the study, Kidd et al., observed the effects of estrogen on the fathead minnow in the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario (Kidd et al. 8897).

As a result of these biological changes, they have determined that the presence of estrogen has decreased reproductive success and therefore the population of the fathead minnow among other fish species are dwindling. They found that the feminization of the fathead minnow due to both natural and synthetic estrogens resulted in sex alterations in male fish past the normal breeding season and the presence of intersex males (Kidd et al. 8899-8900). Kidd et al., believe that fathead minnows present at high risk due to their short lifespan, making them susceptible to dwindling populations if just one mating season is thwarted. Kidd et al. believe that it is short-lived fish species that are in most danger of being lost (8899-8900).

In his own article Human and Nonhuman Relationships, Seth Denizen, discusses research done in the United Kingdom after researchers noticed male fish producing egg yolk. The research determined that the reason for this feminization was due to high quantities of estrogen mimics in the water which were traced back to the urine of birth control users (Denizen).

It is interesting that humans, in the pursuit of obtaining control over human reproduction, have halted the reproductive processes of other species. Although the future of many species of freshwater fish in North America depend on us, and the change needed is within our power, it seems not to be our priority, and is therefore likely to be ignored. As with other manmade environmental threats, mankind is reluctant to forfeit personal convenience in favour of the well-being and healthy balance of our planet.

Works Cited

Carson, Andrea. “Feminism, biomedicine and the ‘reproductive destiny’ of women in clinical texts on the birth control pill.” Culture, Health & Sexuality, vol. 20, no. 7, 18 Oct 2017, pp. 830-843. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2017.1384852. Accessed 9 Mar. 2019.

Davis, Heather, et al. “Plastics and (In)Fertility.” Anthropocene Curriculum. Haus der Kulturen der Wel, 2014. https://www.anthropocene-curriculum.org/pages/root/campus-2014/filtering-the-anthropocene/plastic-in-fertility/plastics-in-fertility/. Accessed 7 Mar. 2019.

Gibson, Megan. “The Long, Strange History of Birth Control.” Time, 2 February 2015.  http://time.com/3692001/birth-control-history-djerassi/.  Accessed 11 Mar 2019.

Guevin, Benedict, and Jozef D. Zalot. “Sexual Ethics.” Catholic Ethics in Today’s World. 2008. Anselm Academic, 2011, pp. 254-285. Accessed 3 Mar 2019.

Kidd, Karren, et al. “Collapse of a Fish Population after Exposure to a Synthetic Estrogen.”

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 104, no. 21, 22 May 2007, pp. 8897-8901. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25427770. Accessed 4 Mar. 2019.

Lynn, Loretta. “The Pill.” Back to the Country, Owen Bradley, 1975. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dip54axBnIs.

“The Birth Control Pill: A History.” Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2015. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/1514/3518/7100/Pill_History_FactSheet.pdf. Accessed 5 Mar. 2019.

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