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

Bros and Cons: A Glimpse into a Dystopic Present

Must admit, upon first viewing the Saturday Night Live sketch about The Handmaid’s Tale, I found it appalling. OK, so I’m old, but I can’t believe how those guys got it on so easily with women. Sounds like one big party, with “epic blowouts” where people of both sexes hung out and had fun together naturally. In my time, you really had to work at meeting women, making the rounds of smoke-filled flesh palaces or joining some social club to feign shared interest, only to be shot down most of the time.

But what really got me was the utter cluelessness and insensitivity of the guys toward a member of the “girl squad” who just had her eye cut out for not playing by the rules. In their world of the not-too-distant American future — a dystopian society based on religion — women have lost all rights, including control of their own bodies, existing only to be impregnated like cattle by their owner-husbands. The hard-partying boys feign concern, offering lame suggestions and offers to help. But you know they won’t, for they don’t see a problem. Instead, they blame the woman, asking why she doesn’t just leave the guy if he’s so cruel to her, completely ignoring the fact that she can’t.

Thankfully, The Handmaids Tale is pure fantasy. It could never happen here. America is nothing like that. Unlike in Margaret Atwood’s book, women today hold down jobs and spend their own money. They can marry or not marry whomever they choose and have complete control of their bodies. Religion doesn’t tell us what to do. And don’t forget, women can vote now. Continue reading

Abortion: What’s Faith Got to Do with It?

sunsetPlenty, actually. Whenever I hear a politician claiming he or she is a person of faith, I cringe. All too often it’s followed by the words: “I believe in the sanctity of all life, which is why I’m against abortions and will work to defund Planned Parenthood.”

In one sense, faith is a belief in a supreme being or in a particular religion. Not all religions are opposed to abortion, however. A 2013 Pew Research article reveals a wide range of opinions.

Traditional Judaism, for example, approves abortion as “a means of safeguarding the life and well-being of a mother.” Most of the branches openly support a woman’s right to safe and accessible abortions.


Let’s build bridges across our beliefs, instead of building ideological walls between one another.


Though Buddhism has no official position on abortion, many Buddhists hold the belief that human life begins at conception and that, therefore, abortion is morally wrong. However, in Japan, with a large Buddhist population, abortions are common.

Traditional Hinduism condemns abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk. It follows the general value system “that the correct course of action in any given situation is the one that causes the least harm to those involved.”

Although Islamic scholars disagree over exactly when life begins or when abortion is acceptable, most view terminating a pregnancy after four months — “the point at which, in Islam, a fetus is thought to become a living soul” — as not permissible. Many also believe that, prior to four months, abortions should only be permitted in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger. Continue reading

Population, Environment, and Growing Up Catholic

religionsMy Planned Parenthood story started almost 50 years ago, in the late ’60s, while I was attending college. They were heady times, full of excitement and confusion from all the competing movements and ideas blowing in the wind.

More specifically, it started on July 25, 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued his Humanae Vitae encyclical, which, among other things, rejected most forms of contraception as “artificial.” This rigid, unyielding interpretation of Catholic doctrine was for me the final straw that sent me on the secular journey I travel today.


Planning for parenthood — isn’t that what all future parents should be doing?


Raised in a strict Catholic family, I had always taken my faith seriously, despite the fact that my mother insisted I was going straight to hell whenever she caught me masturbating. For her, sex was a simple equation: Any sex, even thinking about it, outside marriage was a sin. I received no help from my dad, who kept his views largely to himself. Like most Catholic boys, I spent much of my early years inventing new ways to describe the “m” word in the confessional. High school dating became a constant battleground between God and the evil lust stirring within me. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I fully realized how much this warped view of sexuality had stunted my emotional growth as a child and teenager, delaying my appreciation of a fuller, richer view of human sexuality.

While battling lust, I was also searching for meaning. At one point, I actually contemplated a religious vocation, based upon my own personal version of Pascal’s Wager. If the God of my Catholic faith really existed, then to risk an eternity in heaven for the brief pleasures of a mortal life would be folly. Why not go for the sure thing and become a monk? The idea of a simple monastic life fully given to God was one I devoutly wished to believe in — I also liked the robe. It would make choosing what to do with my life so much easier. For years, I sought an answer, taking courses in philosophy and comparative religion, and going on retreat with a Franciscan friend. After much study and reflection, however, I found all the arguments used to support Catholicism, and other religions as well, unconvincing. They required that I renounce my rational side and take a leap of faith to embrace their extraordinary claims. It was a deliberate and personally painful process, but in the end I came to reject religion. Having gone through this struggle, I think I better understand not only myself, but the powerful appeal that religion still holds for many people. Continue reading

Book Club: Pro – Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Pro PollittPro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt, prize-winning author, poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation, is a book for people who are in the “muddled middle” of the abortion debate. YOU are a member of this group — more than half of Americans — if you do not want to ban abortion, exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either.

Pollitt argues that “muddlers” are clinging to an illogical and ultimately untenable position and need to sit down and examine their reasoning carefully. She does so in a witty, engaging manner, taking us through 218 pages in the following six chapters:

RECLAIMING ABORTION. Pollitt states her case:

“Abortion. We need to talk about it. I know, sometimes it seems as if we talk of little else, so perhaps I should say we need to talk about it differently. Not as something we all agree is a bad thing about which we shake our heads sadly and then debate its precise degree of badness, preening ourselves on our judiciousness and moral seriousness as we argue about this or that restriction on this or that kind of woman. We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal, event in the reproductive lives of women … We need to see abortion as an urgent practical decision that is just as moral as the decision to have a child — indeed, sometimes more moral.”

WHAT DO AMERICANS THINK ABOUT ABORTION? Polls are one thing; voting, another. Voters in even the most conservative states reject extreme abortion restrictions, despite polls predicting passage. Continue reading

Supreme Court Rules Against Women in Hobby Lobby and Buffer Zone Cases

Five out of six male Supreme Court justices voted in favor of Hobby Lobby's right to deny full contraceptive benefits. Their opinion does not represent the entire male population. Photo: NARAL

Five out of six male Supreme Court justices voted in favor of Hobby Lobby’s right to deny full contraceptive benefits. Their opinion does not represent the entire male population. Photo: NARAL

On the morning of June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court (or should I say the men of the Supreme Court) ruled in favor of two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, who argued that they should not have to provide insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control, as required by the Affordable Care Act, because of the business owners’ personal religious beliefs.

The court stated that when corporations are “closely held” and it can be shown that the owners operate the business consistently with certain religious beliefs, then these corporations can be exempted from federal laws that burden those religious beliefs.


Emergency contraception and IUDs work primarily by preventing fertilization, and won’t interfere with existing pregnancies.


The “beliefs” in question held by these two corporations concern two forms of birth control — emergency contraception and IUDs (intrauterine devices). But their “beliefs,” that emergency contraception and IUDs are abortifacients, aren’t rooted in actual science.

Here are the details.

Hobby Lobby believes that “life begins at conception.” They define “conception” as the time at which a sperm and egg combine to create a zygote.

The medical community, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), defines conception as the point at which a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. According to ACOG, the term “conception” properly means implantation. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Hobby Lobby SCOTUSThe fight over medication-induced abortions continues here in Arizona. (NYT)
  • Sure, the birth control pill is great for keeping your womb empty, but did you know it also makes sex hotter? #WinWin (Slate XX)
  • Birth control without a co-pay looks pretty much doomed thanks to the chumps at Hobby Lobby. (Slate)
  • Things will only get harder on the access front for birth control if Hobby Lobby wins this case. Best of luck even talking to your doctor about birth control if you have insurance. (Think Progress)
  • Jon Stewart’s rant about Hobby Lobby’s (referred to here as “Jesus Christ Superstore”) shenanigans is epic. (The Wire)
  • The one question that confounds so many of us in the midst of this “religious liberty” Hobby Lobby debacle is this: WHY THE HELL ARE WE STILL ARGUING ABOUT BIRTH CONTROL IN 2014??? (CNN)
  • Teenagers are positively brimming with sexual responsibility these days! (RH Reality Check)
  • The asinine law (requiring admitting privileges at local hospitals) that caused 16 abortion providers to close in Texas has been upheld by a federal appeals court. (Time)
  • An “abortion doula” speaks on the range of emotions involved in helping women terminate pregnancies. Very powerful, moving article. (The Atlantic)
  • Are we ever going to make male birth control happen? (Bustle)