9.2 Scientific Research on Contraception: The “Zoological” Ethos

Summary: Chapter IX.2

Scientific Research On Contraception: Zoological Ethos


Modern contraceptive research was conceived from the beginning as female contraception. Male contraception, although in recent years it has received considerable attention, has remained secondary.

A consequence of such an approach was the development, among researchers of female contraception, of a mentality that could be described as ‘zoological’, in which the experimental woman-subject is reduced to the status of a laboratory animal. It was not a new phenomenon, since the idea of ​​women as reproductive animals was, in part, a legacy of the 19th century. The ideology of the overpopulation of the planet contributed to this approach, due to the researchers’ depreciation of the individual and his particular reproductive conduct; they chose instead to study the anonymous mass and the collective reproductive potential, also influenced by Darwinian evolutionism and the materialist view of biology.

Pincus had been a disciple of Jacques Loeb, for whom all biological processes (including reproduction) could be reduced to physics and chemistry, so that later he could be ‘re-engineered’ and controlled. The influence that such a zoological view imposed on the scientists who designed the corresponding clinical trials was significant.


I. The Relegation Of Women, As The Subject Of Experimentation, To The Status of A Human Guinea Pig

The simplest manifestation of the phenomenon appears in the biomedical language that contains expressions such as: “Some observations have also been made on women and monkeys after ovariectomy.” It is stated that there are no differences between the female and the female animal in the reproductive processes. This identification could be interpreted ‘aseptically’, but, depending on the context, can also be degrading for women. The phenomenon has been captured in the image of the human guinea pig.

The expression guinea pig had been used long before the 1950s, to designate various types of experimental subjects. However, it was in contraceptive research that the condition of women as experimental animals reached notoriety, in the hands of Katharine McCormick and her expression, “a cage of ovulating women.”

In a letter to Margaret Sanger (1955), McCormick complained about the slowness with which Pincus was conducting clinical trials with oral contraceptives, in contrast to the speed with which he had performed the experiments on animals. Filled with impatience, McCormick asked Pincus, “How could we get a cage of ovulating women to experiment?” The expression remained unpublished until, in 1978, it was cited by Reed. In 1983, Ramírez de Arellano and Seipp took the simile of the ovulant women’s cage to underline the social laboratory character that Puerto Rico had acquired after hosting the first large-scale clinical trial of hormonal contraception. In 1994, Oudshoorn uses the expression as a metaphor for the stability of the island population of Puerto Rico and a guarantee that women would not easily withdraw from the project. For Preciado it was a symbol of the connection between incarceration and the demands of scientific precision. At its most literal value, the figure of the female ovulatory cage has become commonplace, and has been cited “on almost every occasion that someone has written about the development of the pill.”

In 1998, Marks criticized any approach that assumed “that women could be reduced to their reproductive physiology and be seen as mere ‘ovulating females’.” In his opinion, such a reductive vision was not a casual and isolated element, but the foundation on which the researchers designed the first clinical trials of the pill. Subsequently, Marks claimed that McCormick had admitted that women could be treated as mere animals, since he considered the pill trial in psychiatric patients in the US to be acceptable. Likewise those carried out in Puerto Rico, Haiti and Mexico, where manipulated women were intentionally sought because they “did not consider themselves as human beings endowed with the ability to think and feel.” For his part, Clarke concludes that the human / non-human distinction has become increasingly less relevant to the science and technology of reproduction.

But as Janet Smith points out, the generative process in the human being “has to do directly with the value of the human person and with the importance of the actions that must respect the fullness of his dignity as a human person. I would not condemn a person to the status of being just another animal to justify contraception. ”


II. The Woman’s Body As A Manipulable System Of Hormonal Molecules

The reduction of women to a manipulable hormonal system was not the result of the initiative of an individual or an isolated group; rather it resulted from a mentality that was spreading among the biologists of the late nineteenth century. This has rightly been called “molecular vision of life,” the most radical form of biological reductionism.

One effect of this vision was the promotion of hormones, especially sex hormones, to the status of dominant protagonists of life and sexuality. As Harding says, “it was discursively proclaimed that sex hormones embodied the essence of sex.” Consequently, the female organism went from being ‘reproductive body’ (Pfeffer) to being ‘hormonal body’ (Harding).

In the history of hormonal contraception we find examples of how this “molecular” view was imposed on the vision of the human being. Marsh and Ronner tell us about Pincus’ reaction to the report presented to him by Dr. Rice-Wray about the Rio Piedras trial. Rice-Wray concluded that the pill provided 100% protection against pregnancy, but also caused an excess of collateral reactions. This advised, in his opinion, that it not be recommended for general use. Pincus, as Marsh and Ronner point out, “diagnosed that the reactions in women were psychosomatic” and reacted with joy knowing that “the pill worked, and that was the only thing that mattered to him.”

For his part, Rock opposed the use of contraceptives of reduced doses of hormones and struggled tenaciously to maintain the Enovid 10, with its high content of steroids and its sequelae of intense, and sometimes unbearable, unwanted side effects. For Rock, enduring the annoying side effects of the high-dose pill was the price that women had to pay for safeguarding the “moral innocence” of the medication, which for him should be exclusively anovulatory.

We can conclude that this tendency to reduce women to a manipulable system of hormonal molecules represents, in a certain sense, a consequence of the loss of the understanding of the human body’s existential unity. Moreover, we conclude that this process of molecularization has nonetheless marked the course of contraceptive research.



Author: Gonzalo Herranz, University of Navarra.  Email: gherranz@unav.es

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