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How to Have Awkward, but Relevant, Thanksgiving Conversations on Contraception

Posted by Ryan Morgan on November 19, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Are you concerned that your Thanksgiving dinner conversation will be a little too staid? Do you fear that your family gathering will pass with no awkward, memorable moments?

Fear no more! Here are a few conversation starters to help you liven up the tryptophan-fueled fest:

“Hey, Mom—these candied yams are amazing! By the way, did you know that the biology of the Mexican yam inspired the technology behind the Pill?”

First, note the segue “by the way” will help you transition to any topic, any time.

But it’s true—the hormone progesterone was discovered by the 1940s as key to understanding why, once a woman becomes pregnant, her fertility is suspended. While pregnant, a woman’s ovaries secrete estrogen (which tells the pituitary gland to stop producing hormones necessary for ovulation) and progesterone (which inhibits ovulation by suppressing the hormone LH and thickens the cervical mucus making it difficult for sperm to penetrate).

The gap between knowledge and application loomed for some time. Even producing progesterone came with its own challenges, chief among them, cost: progesterone found naturally from animal sources cost up to $1,000 per gram—more than a car at the time!

Enter the Mexican yam. In a project unrelated to developing an oral contraceptive for women, chemist Russell Marker discovered a way to extract progesterone from plant material. His quest to find a plant that would make it realistic to inexpensively mass-produce progesterone unexpectedly took him to Mexico. His work with the wild Mexican yam unwittingly laid the groundwork for the synthetic hormone production which would make the Pill possible.

Thanks, yam.

“Tasty dressing! Are these McCormick spices? Did you know that Katharine McCormick—of no relation to the McCormick spice family—generously funded the chief research for the Pill?”

Katharine McCormick was no spice heiress, but she did come from a prominent Chicago family and married the son of International Harvester Company’s founder. Oh, and she was one of the first two women to earn a degree in science from MIT and co-founded the League of Women Voters. So that’s cool too.

McCormick and Margaret Sanger were the dual engine behind creating a simple, safe, and affordable birth control method for women. Sanger, as you probably already know, was the consummate networker and big thinker when it came to contraceptives and family planning. She had the idea to push for a “magic pill.” She found a scientist brave enough to try for it (Gregory Pincus) and an investor rich enough to bankroll it (McCormick).

Beginning with a $10,000 contribution, ultimately McCormick contributed about $2 million toward the development of the Pill at a time when both the World Health Organization and the National Science Foundation refused to support such research.

Fast forward fifty years and today more than 100 million women worldwide use the Pill.

Thanks, Katherine McCormick.

“Hey cousin/brother/sister—do you know how to prevent pregnancies?”

Ok, DON’T ask this at the Thanksgiving table. But DO have the awkward conversations with young people in your life and make sure they understand what makes for a healthy relationship and how they can protect themselves from unintended pregnancies and STDs.

Here are a couple of resources to help you start those conversations from Advocates for Youth and SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

May your Thanksgiving be filled with yams and awkward conversations!


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