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Orlando Sentinel

Women Who Took Part In `The Pill' Tests Still Wonder What They Gained

Ray Quintanilla, Sentinel Columnist

April 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- My mother, who died a few years ago, once told me this about her life as a migrant farm laborer in the U.S. Midwest during the 1950s: Sometimes "help" can be the worst thing.

That's what was most in my mind recently upon meeting several Puerto Rican women who had taken part in one of the first -- and longest-lasting -- clinical trials for the world's first birth-control pill.

The island of Puerto Rico was a much different place during the mid-1950s, when the clinical trials began. Families were larger, unemployment was higher and the level of desperation was greater. As much as anything, those facts opened the door for the arrival of doctors in Humacao, and kept them there until 1964.

These women accepted "the pill" in good faith. And who could blame them? Times were so difficult, the island's government was relocating thousands of Puerto Ricans across the mainland United States in search of gainful employment.

For some mothers, another baby may have pushed them deeper into poverty.

Back to my mom for a second. In her case, help came in the form of a small sharecropping farm, where she and my father grew cotton and other crops at the request of an affluent Missouri landowner.

At the end of the day, however, my mom, who was functionally illiterate, would sit depressed because all their profits went into renting the land, paying to use the landowner's machines and purchasing next year's seed.

They had never been in so much debt. So they returned to migrant farm life, only this time with a burgeoning young family.

When the experiments in Humacao were over, hardly anyone noticed.

Though it has been hailed as one of the societal turning points of the 20th century, when the pill marked its 40-year anniversary the women of Puerto Rico remained just a footnote in history.

But without them, there might not have been a pill in the first place. Or a "sexual revolution'' -- a movement that began once women gained more control over their procreation.

Without the pill, there might not have been miniskirts or Playboy magazine.

Maybe no push for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Think about it. No "Respect" by Aretha Franklin. No international bestseller Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown.

It's clear, life for all of us would be much different.

A woman named Irma Cruz phoned the other day from Central Florida after reading my report on the pill and Puerto Rican women. She told me doctors had explained that the pill was good for families because it would keep women from having children they couldn't afford to feed.

There was no word about testing a new birth-control pill, said Cruz, 76, who was a participant in pill experiments on the island.

After years of waiting for life on the island to improve, Cruz said she moved to Florida in the 1960s to escape the troubled economic times.

Upon arrival, Cruz discovered the pill wasn't about helping to uplift struggling families. Rather, she noted, the pill was about some women testing the limits of their sexual freedom.

In the 15 minutes we spoke, she reminded me of my mother. Short on words. Long on advice. And overflowing with poignant questions.

Did doctors arrive in Puerto Rico to simply take advantage of uneducated women? Why Puerto Rico's women?

Her questions may never be answered. But it was this question she posed that continues to trouble me: Did Puerto Rico's women end up better off?

Mineke Schipper is the author of "Never Marry a Woman With Big Feet: Women in Proverbs From Around the World," forthcoming from Yale University Press.

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