Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Planned Parenthood Arizona is fighting for DACA! (Buzzfeed)
  • In case you hadn’t heard, Republicans are trying for the umpteenth time to repeal the ACA. Nevertheless, they stupidly persisted. (WaPo)
  • In line with pretty much all other Republican-sponsored legislation, the consequences for women would be grave. (Jezebel)
  • Black women are 3.5 times more likely to die from being pregnant than white women. THIS is why being pro-choice ultimately translates into being “pro-life.” (Tonic)
  • The Arizona Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed the equal rights of same-sex parents! (Slate)
  • In other Arizona news: Two of our worst politicians, Mark Brnovich and Michele Reagan, are, as the Phoenix New Times puts it, on “Emily’s Sh*t List” for being woefully sucktacular on the issue of women’s health-care rights. (Phoenix New Times)
  • Abortion access has gotten easier in Missouri thanks to Planned Parenthood and, uh … other sources. (Double X)
  • One of my personal heroes, Dr. Willie Parker, gave a great interview to The Atlantic to discuss his Christian faith, teen moms, and what’s next for abortion access. (The Atlantic)
  • More than 1 in 5 women in Mexico is married before she turns 18. Unsurprisingly, teen pregnancy is usually a precursor. (Teen Vogue)

Celebrating Mexico’s Contributions to the Birth Control Pill

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month. We’re celebrating by shining the spotlight on Mexico’s role in developing the birth control pill, one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.


Humanity cannot fully unlock its potential until we release the bonds of oppression from all marginalized groups.


Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses in traditional medicine — and it would change history forever when scientists figured out how to wrest valuable chemical compounds from it, a discovery that led directly to the development of the birth control pill.

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University ArchivesIn the 1940s, hormones held an untapped potential for research, but there was no cost-effective method of producing large quantities of them — including progesterone, the Pill’s essential ingredient. An American chemist named Russell Marker set out to find a way to synthesize progesterone in abundance, hypothesizing that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be a good source for starting material. After some research, he set his sights on wild-growing yams that were found only in Mexico.

Marker’s hunch brought him south of the U.S. border, where locals helped him find and gather these yams, enabling him to develop a method for synthesizing large batches of progesterone — more than had ever been in one place. When pharmaceutical companies would not invest in further research in Mexico, Marker relocated to Mexico City and put his money where his mouth was. In January 1944, he co-founded a lab named Syntex — a portmanteau of “synthesis” and “Mexico” — devoted to finagling hormones from wild Mexican yams. That yam was called barbasco by the indigenous population, and it was the industry’s choice for the raw material in hormone synthesis. Continue reading

After Charlottesville: The Role of Gender-Based Hatred in White Nationalism

Memorial at the site of Heather Heyer’s death. Photo courtesy of Tristan Williams Photography, Charlottesville.

Like many people, I spent the weekend of August 12 and 13 glued to the news coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists had descended with torches and swastikas for a Unite the Right rally, prompted by the community’s moves to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. At home I watched photos and articles fill my Facebook feed. At the recreation center where I work out, I watched network news on the wall-mounted TV.


The synergy between race- and gender-based hatred has deep roots in the United States.


Hostility toward racial diversity was the driving force behind the rally — and it showed in the racial makeup of the crowds of people chanting Nazi slogans like “Sieg heil” and “blood and soil” — but I also noticed a serious lack of gender diversity as photos and videos circulated. Women were few and far between. However much I kept seeing it, though, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I grew up half Asian in a very white community, so seeing the dynamics of race has always come easily to me — and they were taking obvious form in Charlottesville. Having grown up cis-male, though, I don’t always catch the dynamics of gender on the first pass.

Then Monday came, and I was reminded, once again, of how gender played out at the Unite the Right rally. I read news that a white nationalist website, the Daily Stormer, was losing its domain host due to comments it published about the violence in Charlottesville. Continue reading

One Simple Kit

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

Last week, I texted a friend of mine and told her: I have a hard choice before me. When she asked what that was, I smiled as I replied: I must choose between replenishing the MAC mascara that I just ran out of and buying the new Harry Potter book. We both laughed. But really, even as a single mom who falls beneath the poverty level, this was my choice of the day.

I have known hard times. I have lived in my car with my two dogs and I have had to volunteer my time cleaning my son’s school to ensure that he gets an education because I couldn’t afford the monthly tuition. I have taken hits by the ones I love, both physical and metaphorical, and I have had my innocence stolen from me by a boy I hardly knew.


One simple kit is combating poverty, hunger, and gender inequality.


Yet somewhere across a sea, a young girl sits in her room, blood gushing from her for reasons unbeknownst to her. Fear brings tears to her eyes as she struggles to understand why God has cursed her. That is what her mother has taught her. That if such a thing occurs, it is a curse from her creator for being a filthy creature. A girl her age tells her that she has contracted a disease, something she couldn’t remember the three letters to reference, but she knew was deadly.

In a rural region in southern Malawi, a girl who has had her first period may be expected to undergo a “sexual cleansing” ritual, in which she is made to have unprotected sex with a man called a hyena — a risky proposition in a country in which nearly 1 in 10 adults has HIV. Her choice to deny such an offer could result in her entire family being stricken ill or even dead — at least that is what she is told. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 6: Los Campesinos

Welcome to the final installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In earlier installments, we learned how chemists were able to extract a chemical from a wild yam called barbasco and convert it into progesterone, the active ingredient in the Pill.

In 1960, the FDA approved oral contraceptives for marketing. At this time, more than 2 million Americans were already using the Pill — and more than 100,000 Mexican campesinos (a Spanish word for peasants) were harvesting barbasco, the wild yam necessary for its production. By 1974, 125,000 Mexicans were collecting and selling barbasco. Every week, during the barbasco trade’s peak, an excess of 10 tons of the plant were removed from tropical Mexico.


Until the barbasco supply started to dwindle in the 1970s, Mexico enjoyed prominence as the world’s supplier of progesterone.


Though they were paid subsistence-level wages for their labors (half a peso per kilo of dried root), and the work itself was dangerous and backbreaking, they were putting Mexico on the map in the scientific community. After establishing a hormone synthesis industry in Mexico, the European stranglehold on hormones was loosened and the price of progesterone plummeted from $80 per gram to less than a dollar per gram. By 1954, Syntex, a Mexican laboratory, was the largest producer of steroids in the world, having usurped Europe’s monopoly.

Scientists depended on the campesinos’ knowledge of soil conditions and growth cycles, as well as their ability to differentiate between different species of yams. The campesinos relied on their knowledge of weather patterns, differences in root coloration, and size variations to determine when they could dig up roots with the highest concentrations of sapogenin, the chemical that was converted into progesterone in the laboratory. Over the decades, the campesinos slowly gained an education in organic chemistry. Continue reading

Mary Peace Douglas: “A Tender Heart and a Real Fighter”

The struggle for reproductive rights in Arizona has a history that stretches back to Margaret Sanger’s involvement with Clinica Para Las Madres, Planned Parenthood’s 1930s precursor in Tucson. Sanger and the other founders of Tucson’s first family planning clinic were brave activists with fierce convictions, and over the decades, the movement saw an influx of fighters whose work was defined by their passion and dedication.

Mary Peace Douglas, who became an active participant in Southern Arizona’s civil life when she moved to the Sonoita Valley more than 65 years ago, was one of those fighters. In the years that she worked for Planned Parenthood’s Tucson affiliate, Mary Peace Douglas made a name for herself as an advocate for reproductive freedom who had a remarkable resolve and spirit that breathed life into the movement.


In addition to the family and friends who remember her fondly, Mary Peace Douglas leaves behind a legacy of having changed Arizona for the better.


Originally from the East Coast, Mary Peace was born to a mother who had also been active with Planned Parenthood during the organization’s early years — meaning that she was involved with Planned Parenthood “from age zero,” as her colleague and cousin Dorothy Sturges puts it. After receiving a high school and junior college education in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Mary Peace moved out west to Southern Arizona, where she made her mark on the struggle for family planning in the region.

Earlier this year, on February 1, Mary Peace passed away at the age of 87. During her life she was a pioneering fighter for reproductive rights and helped build Planned Parenthood Arizona into what it is today. Beginning in the late 1960s, she served a long tenure on Planned Parenthood Center of Tucson’s board of directors, and later was hired to work in development, where she quickly proved she could be an effective fundraiser. Additionally, she spent time serving on the national board of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 3: From Injection to Ingestion

Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951

Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951

Welcome to the third installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, we learned about the iconoclastic chemist Russell Marker, who figured out how to synthesize large quantities of progesterone — the birth control pill’s active ingredient — from a yam called barbasco that grew wild in Mexico.

In 1949, Russell Marker dropped out of science — “I considered all chemists to be crooks,” he bitterly opined — and a scientist named Carl Djerassi was hired to head the lab at Syntex, the hormone-synthesizing laboratory in Mexico that Marker had co-founded in 1944. Within a few years, Syntex was a major player on the synthetic-hormone scene in Europe and the Americas.


After Luis Miramontes’ successful experiments, all of the elements for Sanger’s “magic pill” were in place.


Although progesterone could be manufactured in large quantities at this time, it could only be given intravenously. Progesterone was being used therapeutically to prevent miscarriage and treat excessively heavy menstrual periods. The lack of alternatives to injections represented a problem for these people — a daily pill would be easier and more convenient than frequent injections. In 1950, Syntex set their sights on the development of a synthetic form of progesterone that was more effective in smaller doses and could be administered orally rather than by intravenous injections. Such a development would be necessary before Margaret Sanger’s dream of a “magic pill” could come true. Continue reading