The history of the progesterone-only contraceptive pill

Where Do Babies Come From?
Weasel Testicles, Anyone?
The Search For A Birth Control Pill
The legacy of the pill
How Hana Made History

In 2021, history was made as progestogen-only contraceptive pills containing desogestrel became available to buy over the counter without a prescription. Hana is one of these pills!

The pill has been available in the UK for almost 60 years and compared to 1961 when you had to prove you were married to access the pill, we’ve come a very long way.

It’s about time that women and people who can get pregnant are free to choose their contraception and to get it on their terms, without having to wait for a doctor’s appointment. You will be asked some questions for your pharmacist to check if your chosen progestogen-only pill is right for you.

To celebrate, we’re taking a deep dive into other significant events in the history of contraception to show just how far we’ve come. From discovering how babies are made to the invention of the pill and the birth of Hana, read on to discover how Hana made history.

Where Do Babies Come From?

For as long as there have been babies, people have been trying to not have babies. The problem was: our ancestors didn’t know how babies were made.

People realised pretty quickly that penetrative intercourse (aka P in V sex) could lead to the person with the V getting pregnant, but it wasn’t until 1875 that they figured out how pregnancy worked.

To get pregnant, someone with a vagina has to be ovulating. Ovulation (aka release of an egg from the ovaries) usually occurs once a month roughly in the middle of the menstrual cycle, although that varies from person to person.

If someone with a penis ejaculates into your vagina around the time that you’re ovulating, the sperm can fuse with the egg to create an embryo which then moves to the uterine wall and can develop into a foetus.

This is all common knowledge now, but how babies are made was the unanswered question that baffled the scientific world for centuries.

Ever been with a guy who lept up straight after sex to stare at his sperm under a microscope? That was the situation Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s wife found herself in when Leeuwenhoek studied his seed and concluded it was made up of ‘tiny little creatures’ which ‘moved like eels’1.

This sparked a ‘spermist’ vs ‘ovarist’ debate, where spermists argued the eel-like creatures in sperm were the babies – little, miniature humans swimming to their new home. Ovarists, on the other hand, thought babies came from the eggs in female ovaries1.

Spermists thought babies came from sperm and ovarists thought they were made in eggs, but for centuries no one put two and two together. It wasn’t until 1875 when German scientist Oscar Hertwig put a sea urchin – a good choice as they are transparent and have a similar reproduction set up to humans- under a microscope, dropped a sperm onto it and watched as the cells merged into a single nucleus. Finally, the origins of life had been discovered.

Weasel Testicles, Anyone?

From the dawn of civilisation people have been trying to enjoy sex without getting pregnant. Some early methods of contraception are familiar. Coitus Interruptus (the withdrawal method) was a popular choice, although people put way too much importance on sperm and to ‘waste your seed’ was seen as a sin in many cultures2.

While it would be many centuries until the birth control pill was created, early societies used natural ingredients to prevent pregnancy. An ancient Greek legend involves the goddess of spring Persephone eating nothing but pomegranate seeds to avoid getting pregnant when she was kidnapped by the God of the underworld. We now know that pomegranate seeds have naturally occuring contraceptive components, so the ancients were onto something2!

Less effective forms of ancient contraception involved wearing weasel testicles around your neck or wearing animal organs as condoms. The famous lover Casanova even encouraged women to use half a lemon as a cervical cap!

The Search For A Birth Control Pill

Condoms, diaphragms, douches and pessaries (a prosthetic device inserted into the vagina which used to be used as a contraceptive containing spermicide) all predate the pill, but they were often unsafe, messy or relied heavily on the man. Women needed something that they could use on their own terms to prevent unplanned pregnancy – and in the 1950s, they finally got it.

Long standing contraceptive advocate and originator of the term ‘birth control’ Margaret Sanger met Goodwin Pincus at a dinner party and together they decided to start searching for a hormonal contraceptive which women and people with uteruses could take to prevent pregnancy.

Pincus was trying to rebuild his image after the scientific community rejected him for being a Frankenstein style scientist – and bragging about it to the press. Sanger had spent years working as a nurse and had met women desperate to stop having children for the sake of their health and their existing family. She wanted women to be able to enjoy sex without fear of pregnancy – and to put them back in control of their fertility.

It is important to note that Sanger was a eugenicist.* Her motives may have been in empowering women to be able to enjoy sex without the fear of pregnancy leering over them, it may have been in stopping people she deemed unfit from having children, or it was likely a combination of the two.

*Eugenics is the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable.

Together with catholic doctor John Rock and heiress and scientist Katherine McCormick, who funded most of the research, work began on creating a contraceptive pill.

As it was illegal to conduct large birth control trials in the US, the first pill was tested on women in Puerto Rico where there weren’t such laws. The women were not informed this was an experimental trial or of possible side effects, making this an incredibly unethical study.

The early pill contained a much larger dose of hormones than it does today and almost 20% of the women in the Puetro Rican trials complained of headaches, nausea, dizziness and weight gain. Despite how unethical this study was, only one woman became pregnant and the trial was deemed a success5.

In 1957 the first birth control pill containing oestrogen and progestogen was made available in the U.S.A. Named Enovid, the pill was initially marketed for ‘gynecological disorders’ until 1960 when it was approved for contraceptive use.

Enovid came with a big label saying “warning: prevents pregnancy” so people still got the message. A year after it’s launch, 400,000 women in the United States were taking it — which increased to 1.2 million by 19627.

A year later, Enovid was available in the U.K for married women. Non married women were only allowed to obtain the pill legally in 1967 in the U.K – but there are stories of women getting around this by using a fake wedding ring.

The legacy of the pill

The birth control pill isn’t called one of the seven wonders of the modern world for nothing.6 Giving women the option to control their fertility meant that they could choose when, and if, they had children. This revolutionised women’s possibilities. It gave them the option to work for longer, pursue different careers, and to marry for love – not necessity.

“The pill gave women more autonomy. It gave them control over their reproductive health. If they were married and their husband didn’t want to use condoms, for example, or refused to use condoms, this gave them a level of control over their fertility that they wouldn’t have otherwise had,” says Dr Anne Hanley*, a historian specialising in sexual and medical health.

How Hana Made History

Things have changed for the better since the days of weasel testicles and lemon diaphragms. Better access to contraception and more (if still not perfect) acceptance of female agency and sexuality means that women and people with uteruses are by and large no longer defined or controlled by their reproduction. We can choose if we have kids at all, how many we have and when we have them. A lot of that is thanks to the pill.

In 2021, Hana – a progestogen only pill available to buy over the counter without prescription – launched in the U.K. Suitable for many women and people with uteruses, Hana can help prevent pregnancy by consistently inhibiting ovulation and thickening the cervical mucus.

It’s been sixty years since the pill was first invented and now women and people with uteruses can finally access it without a doctors appointment. Whether you’re too busy or cannot get a doctors appointment, or if you simply want to decide which pill you take, you just need to answer some questions so your pharmacist can help you decide if Hana is right for you. We trust that you know what you want. It’s 2021 and it’s about time! Want to find out more about Hana? Read this next.

The health care providers quoted in this article do not endorse any products or brands.