The results of a trial for male birth control, published in the Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, have sparked outrage and frustration. After 20 of 320 men dropped out of the study due to adverse side effects, the trials were discontinued. Altogether, the men participating in the trial reported 1,491 adverse symptoms, including mood disorders and severe acne. The cessation of the trials was not unjustified. The developers were forced to conclude that the risks outweighed the benefits. However, the trial represents a stark contrast with the development of the female birth control pill. It reinforces what the history of the pill tells us: The bodies of women are burdened with more responsibility than the bodies of men. This does not mean that society should demand that men experience the suffering women have. Instead, this moment is an opportunity to remember what women have been through in pursuit of the pill and to call for a future where everyone, regardless of gender, can expect fair treatment from medical research and health care professionals.
A history of the birth control pill must acknowledge the women who—often unknowingly—participated in unethical experiments to test the drug. The fact that these women were not consenting participants points to an unfortunate medical reality for women: Their bodies have historically been misused, devalued, and neglected by a medical field that caters to men.
In an interview with the National Public Radio, Jonathan Eig, author of The Birth of the Pill, claims it’s ironic that medical professionals have “treated [women] like lab animals so that [they] may find a form of birth control that frees them.” But, the fact that the pill’s developers took unethical routes by necessity does not erase the pain of the women who were mistreated as test subjects. In his book, Eig explains that beginning in the 1950s, several female birth control trials were held at the Puerto Rico Medical School. When participants began to drop out due to side effects, the head scientist sought out women who would have no choice but to participate, in order to continue the trials. Puerto Rican medical students were forced to comply under penalty of expulsion. Women in an asylum in Worcester, Massachusetts were used as test subjects because they were unable to say no. Admittedly, the situation was complex: Birth control was heavily regulated and test subjects were hard to find. However, the end does not justify the means when the means is the mistreatment of unconsenting women.
The dismissal of women’s pain still exists today, although it is more subtle: Women have a higher chance of being misdiagnosed when they exhibit symptoms of everything from heart attacks to ADHD. Their complaints are often minimized by healthcare professionals, and, sometimes—as has been documented in one Atlantic article—their pain is ignored. In terms of hormonal birth control, University of Copenhagen professor Øjvind Lidegaard told CNN that doctors have known “for decades” about the side effects of hormonal birth control, including mood disorders. Women, it seems, are expected to live with pain—if their pain is acknowledged at all.
The facilitators of the male birth control study were right to shut it down, as the rate of adverse side effects was higher than that of women who typically use hormonal contraceptives. But, it is impossible not to contrast the sensitivity with which the men in the study were treated with the unethical treatment women have suffered in the development of the pill, and the continued devaluing of their symptoms of well-being today. There is no way to erase the injustices of the past. In order to heal this disparity in the future, society must recognize the history of the pill and the pain that women continually undertake to exercise their reproductive rights. Men can demand continued research on male birth control, thereby lessening the reproductive burden on women. By speaking out about the pain that women have faced in the past, and about the pain that they still face today, we can look forward to a world where healthcare is synonymous with equality.