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Risky Hormones

This searching historical analysis of the rise and fall of hormone pregnancy tests was part funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. 

Content warning

This article contains references to bleeding and problems experienced during pregnancy

Between the 1950s and 1970s, millions of women were prescribed hormone pregnancy tests (HPTs) to determine whether they were pregnant. The pills ruled out gestation by inducing menstrual-like bleeding – with no bleeding indicating pregnancy.

However, from the late 1960s onwards they began to be linked with spina bifida, inducing miscarriage, stillbirths and a range of other birth defects. The pills were eventually withdrawn after joint legal action was taken against lead manufacturer Schering AG (now Bayer) by British and West German mothers who had given birth to children with malformations after taking HPTs.

Understandably, there remains strong media and political interest in the subject, with Sky News producing a documentary in 2017, the First Do No Harm UK government review in 2020 and now the German federal government launching its own investigation. Further Scientific investigation and litigation has also resumed. 

The ‘Risky Hormones’ project, which is jointly funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – DFG), promises a “subtler more nuanced historical understanding of HPTs”.

Led by Dr Birgit Nemec (Charité, Universitätsmedizin Berlin) and Dr Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (University of Strathclyde), the project will draw from a range of sources, including extensive yet largely unused corporate, state and privately-held archives.

This material will be used to reconstruct a single integrated history of HPTs in the Federal Republic of Germany and the UK, in a global frame. Continuing to work with patient-led groups in Britain and Germany, it will also co-produce historical knowledge with them.

The project aims to inform policy debates during and beyond the lifecycle of the AHRC and DFG grant. It will also seek to better understand international debates over the use and regulation of medicines in pregnancy and the risk of birth defects after the global thalidomide scandal of 1957–61.

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