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How we came to take the home pregnancy test for granted

An e.p.t Pregnancy Test stick

Last week, The Atlantic published an online article on the history of the home pregnancy test.

I find articles like this fascinating for a couple of reasons. First, it points out yet again how we take scientific advances that simplify our lives for granted. 

As any woman who became pregnant before the late 1970s will recall, confirming a pregnancy used to require a trip to the doctor rather than a trip to the drugstore.

The article also underscores the struggle that women often have had with certain sectors of the medical community when they demand more control over their reproductive lives.

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first home pregnancy test in 1976 (it came on the market a year later), some doctors expressed dismay that women would have easy access to such “dangerous kits.”

Wheat, worms and ‘piss prophets’

Of course, as Cari Romm notes in her article for The Atlantic, “a long, long time before women peed on sticks, they peed on plenty of other things” to try to determine if they were pregnant.

One of the oldest descriptions of a pregnancy test comes from ancient Egypt, where women who suspected they were pregnant would urinate on wheat and barley seeds: If the wheat grew, they believed, it meant the woman was having a girl; the barley, a boy; if neither plant sprouted, she wasn’t pregnant at all. Avicenna, a 10th-century Persian philosopher, would pour sulfur over women’s urine, believing that the telltale sign was worms springing from the resulting mixture. In 16th-century Europe, specialists known as “piss prophets” would read urine like tea leaves, claiming to know by its appearance alone whether the woman who supplied it was pregnant.

After the Enlightenment, doctors turned to science and microscopes to identify things (like crystalline structures) in a woman’s urine that might indicate she was pregnant. But it wasn’t until the 1920s, when scientists discovered the existence of hormones — specifically, the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which exists in high concentrations in pregnant women — that pregnancy testing became reliable.

‘The rabbit died’

German researchers found that when a pregnant women’s urine was injected into a young female mouse, rat, rabbit or frog, the animal’s ovaries would enlarge and its eggs would begin to shows signs of maturation. The animals had to be dissected to determine these responses — which is how the phrase “the rabbit died” became a euphemism for a positive pregnancy test.

In the 1960s, the animals were replaced with biochemical tests known as immunoassays, which can measure the presence of hCG in urine or blood. It wasn’t until the end of the decade, however, that the first home pregnancy test was created — and not by a scientist, but by a woman freelance designer named Margaret Crane.

While working on a cosmetics account for a pharmaceutical company, Crane toured a lab with lines of test tubes — the company’s immunoassay tests for pregnancy. She thought she could create a simpler version of the test — and she did. The company applied for a patent for the test under her name in 1968.

The immunoassay for pregnancy only became acceptably accurate, however, in 1972, thanks to the work of two National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists, Judith Vaitukaitis and Glenn Braunstein. They tried to encourage NIH lawyers to patent their discovery for the government, but the lawyers demurred. (The story of this missed opportunity can be found on the website of the agency’s Office of NIH History.)

Four years later, in 1976, the first commercial home pregnancy test came on the market, advertised as “a private little revolution that any woman can easily buy at her drugstore.”

Overriding the authority of doctors

“The home pregnancy test … wasn’t just about knowing; it was about taking charge, a sentiment that fit in nicely with the ethos of the time,” writes Romm.

But not everyone wanted women to be in charge.

“In any revolution, even a private little one, something is being overthrown,” says Romm. “In this case, it was the authority of doctors, not all of whom were happy about a changing status quo. Unregulated tests had already been recalled several times before the FDA approved the e.p.t. [the first home-pregnancy test on the market], they pointed out. Tests could be used incorrectly; they could be flat-out wrong; putting them in the hands of the patients, they argued, would harm more than it would help.”

But, of course, the tests ended up empowering, not harming, women. They made it possible for women to determine quickly, inexpensively — and privately — whether or not they were pregnant.

You can read Romm’s article on The Atlantic’s website.

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