What is “The Pill”?
“The pill” was a contraceptive molecule that played a major role in shaping contemporary society, found in 1960. The active ingredient in “the pill” is norethindrone, which was the first oral contraception. Most affiliate the molecule with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the women’s liberation movement, the rise of feminism, the increased percentage of women in the workplace, and the breakdown of the family.
Early History of The Pill
Women tried many ways to prevent conception, though none worked except by means of making them too ill to conceive. Some of the remedies included: brewed teas of parsley and mint, of leaves or bark of hawthorn, ivy, willow, wallflower, myrtle, or poplar. Mixtures containing spiders’ eggs or snake were also suggested. Mercury poisoning might have been effective if it did not kill the woman first. In ancient Greece and parts of Europe in the 1800s, solutions of different copper salts were drunk. A unique method from the Middle Ages required a woman to spit three times into the mouth of a frog, and somehow the woman would become sterile, not the frog.
The Chemistry of The Pill
Norethindrone is one of a group of compounds known as steroids. All compounds that are classified as steroids have the same basic molecular pattern, a series of four rings fused in the same way. Three of the rings have six carbon atoms, each and the fourth has five. The first sex hormone ever isolated was the female sex hormone estrone, obtained in 1929 from urine of a pregnant woman. Estrone is a metabolized variation of the principal and more potent female sex hormone, estradiol. Structurally, the male hormone testosterone and the female hormone estradiol are very similar. If you have on less CH3, an OH instead of a double-bonded O, and a few more C=C bonds, then at puberty instead of growing facial and body hair and a deeper voice, you will grow breasts and wider hips and start menstruating. Progesterone, the main pregnancy hormone, is more like the male sex hormones than the estrogens. In progesterone a CH3CO group replaces the OH of testosterone. Progesterone signals the lining of the uterus to prepare for the implantation of a fertilized egg. A pregnant woman does not conceive again during her pregnancy because a continuous supply of progesterone suppresses further ovulation. This is the biological basis of chemical contraception: an outside source of progesterone, or a progresteronelike substance, is able to suppress ovulation. Progesterone has to be injected; its effectiveness is very much reduced when taken orally because it reacts with stomach acids or other digestive chemicals. The chemists involved had no idea that they would eventually produce a molecule that would promote social change, give women control over their lives, and alter traditional gender roles. Russell Marker, an American chemist whose woek was crucial to the development of the pill, was no exception; the goal was to find an affordable route to produce another steroid molecule–cortisone. Marker knew that steroid-containing compounds existed in a number of plants including: foxglove, lily of the valley, sarsaparilla, and oleander. The quantity of these compounds found in plants were much greater than in animals. To obtain the steroid ring system from sarsasapogenin, it was necessary to remove the side grouping of a CH3 molecule. The process he developed produced the basic four-ring steroid system that, with only a few more steps, gave pure synthetic progesterone, chemically identical to that produced in the female body. Marker’s next challenge was to find a plant that contained more of the starting material than sarsaparillas. He extracted a very similar sapogenin to the sarsapogenin from the sarsaparilla plant. The only difference was an extra double bond found in diosgenin, a sapogenin from the wild yam. By this time, Marker had discovered other species of Dioscorea that were even richer in the steroid-containing diosgenin molecule. The cost of synthetic progesterone steadily decreased. Carl Djerassi showed how cortisone could be produced at a much lower cost from a plant source like diosgenin. Once he made the cortisone, Djerassi synthesized both estrone and esradiol from diosgenin. His next project was to make an artificial profestin, a compound that would have progesteronelike properties but could be taken orally. Progesterone was being used to treat women who had a history of miscarriage. It had to be injected in fairly large doses. Djerassi found that the removal of a CH3 group increased potency in the pill, and his team and him patented it in November of 1951. It was named norethindrone, the nor indicating a missing CH3 group. Norethindrone was designed as a hormone treatment to support pregnancy or to relieve menstrual irregularity, especially where severe blood was lost.
The Mothers of The Pill
Margaret Sanger, the founder of International Planned Parenthood, was a believer in a women’s right to control her own body and fertility. Sanger challenged Dr. Pincus to produce a safe, cheap, reliable “perfect contraceptive” that could be “swallowed like an aspirin.” Pincus and his colleagues at the Worcester Foundation first verified that progesterone did inhibit ovulation. His rationale for using progesterone to treat infertility assumed that blocking fertility inhibiting ovulation for a few months would promote a “rebound effect” once the progesterone injections stopped. Pincus began contracting drug companies to find out if any of the artificial progesterones developed so far might be more potent in smaller doses and also effective orally. There were two synthetic progestins that fit the requirements. The Chicago-based pharmaceutical company G. D. Searle had patented a molecule very similar to that synthesized by Djerassi. Their norethynodrel differed from norethindrone only in the position of a double bond. A patent for each compound was granted. Pincus tried both molecules for suppression of ovulation in rabbits. The only side effect was no baby rabbits. They then started testing of norethynodrel, now given the name Enovid. Careful monitoring showed that Enovid was 100 percent effective in preventing ovulation. in 1957, the drug Enovid was given limited approval by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for menstrual irregularities. Yet two years after the FDA’s approval, half a million women were taking it. G. D. Searle. finally applied for the approval as an oral contraceptive and formally obtained it in May 1960. By 1965, nearly four million women were “on the pill,” and twenty years later it waas estimated that as many as 80 million women woldwide were taking advantage of the molecule. This molecule has not gained universal acceptance; issues of morality, fmaily values, possible health problems, long-term effects, and other related concerns are still matters for debate. Norethindrone signaled the beginning of an awareness, not only of fertility and contraception, but of openness and oppotrunity, allowing women to speak out about subjects that had been taboo for centuries. With the option of having babies and raising families, women now govern vountries, fly jet fighters, perform heart surgery, run marathons, become astronauts, direct companies, and sail the world.
Impact on the Modern World
The pill has definitely become more abundant in its use. Many women, even still today, use the pill to prevent pregnancies and regulate menstruating. I think that the pill has impacted the world in a greater way than what some other people would say. As time has gone on, more women have had the strength and audacity to go against tradition. Because of women like them, the world as we know it has so many women leaders and people that young girls can look up to. Authors Le Couteur and Burreson had pretty indifferent opinions of the pill. Saying things like “concerns are still matters for debate.” I think the authors could have been more clear in their opinions, if they had one. Especially if it were anything like my opinion. 🙂