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Controversy surrounded launch of at home pregnancy test exactly 50 years ago today

Controversy surrounded launch of at home pregnancy test exactly 50 years ago today

  • Technology that gave women the ability to ascertain if they were pregnant privately was launched exactly 50 years ago today, 6th November
  • Many doctors at the time opposed testing by non-doctors on the grounds that medical supervision was required, concerns about accuracy and how women may respond to the result on their own – including fears they were “risking their lives”
  • Some pharmacies, including Boots, refused to stock it for several years
  • The inventor of the at home pregnancy test, Margaret Crane, will speak at a BPAS conference on November 8th to mark the occasion
  • The test, now taken for granted, deserves to take its place alongside the contraceptive pill and abortion rights as a milestone in the drive for women’s reproductive health and autonomy
  • It also paved the way for other home tech – from Fitbits to Covid tests
  • But half a century later, similar arguments still persist over whether women can be “trusted” with medical technology, from emergency contraceptive pills to abortion medication at home.

Predictor, Britain’s first at home pregnancy test enabling women to measure levels of the hCG hormone themselves, was launched exactly 50 years ago in November 1971. The technology, which meant women no longer had to rely on doctors, chemists, clinics or laboratories to confirm a pregnancy, represented a major breakthrough in women’s health and ability to find out information about their own bodies in confidence, soon after they missed a period. Previously women may have waited weeks for a test result to come back from a laboratory, and some doctors refused to authorise a test until a woman had missed a second period, if at all.  

The DIY test, which for the first time placed the medical technology of pregnancy testing directly in a woman's hands, was not universally welcomed. The British Medical Association opposed both home and chemist testing, arguing pregnancy diagnosis needed to be performed by doctors or trained professionals, and expressed concerns women may “react to the tests in ways which could severely endanger their health”. Boots did not stock it until later in the 1970s and many independent pharmacies also refused. One pharmacist patronisingly wrote of his concerns about “grave errors occurring by women of sub-normal intelligence or low educational standard due to their inability to understand and follow the instructions”.

Margaret Crane was a New York graphic designer who developed the at home Predictor test that was the market leader in Britain until the mid-1980s. Concerns about moral opposition to putting the technology directly in women’s hands meant it wasn’t launched in the US until 1978 and Crane herself was not credited for her role in its development until many decades later.

Crane will be speaking at Autonomy, Trust & Surveillance: technology in reproductive healthcare - a conference hosted by BPAS, Centre for Reproductive Research and Communication on November 8th. The event will explore the way in which technology is used to both enhance and limit women’s reproductive choices - and how half a century later, similar arguments about women’s ability to understand information or fears they may “misuse” technology are used to restrict access to medications and devices that may give them greater control over their reproductive health and enhance knowledge of their own bodies.

Dr Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, a historian of science, technology and medicine at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and author of the forthcoming book, A Woman’s Right to Know: Pregnancy Testing in Twentieth-Century Britain, which documents the controversy said:

“Today, home pregnancy testing is so completely taken for granted, that it’s surprising to learn it was ever controversial. It’s vital we recover and claim this contested history and the way in which debates over placing a medical technology directly into the hands of women played out. But the implications of Predictor go beyond the history of pregnancy testing or even Femtech. The success of the design helped pave the way for all sorts of self-monitoring devices - from FitBit and Apple Watch to rapid lateral flow tests for Covid-19. Margaret Crane’s pioneering contribution deserves to be widely known and applauded.”

Clare Murphy, Chief Executive of BPAS said:

“We all owe a debt of gratitude to Margaret Crane. The at-home test gave women access to accurate information about their pregnancies without involving anyone else for the first time. Being able to obtain this information early, and in confidence, has improved women’s health – including through referral into abortion services or antenatal care at the earliest gestations.

"It seems bizarre now to think it was controversial, yet similar debates around whether women can be trusted with medical technologies still persist today. We still insist for example that women are supervised when obtaining emergency contraceptive pills, despite the fact these are safe and effective. We have come so far in half a century and yet we still have a long way to go before women are fully in charge of their own reproductive health and choices.”    

ENDS

For more information, and if you would like to attend the conference: please contact the BPAS press office - press@bpas.org or 07881265276

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/autonomy-trust-surveillance-technology-in-reproductive-healthcare-tickets-174211490257 

About BPAS

BPAS is a charity that sees over 100,000 women a year for reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception at clinics across Great Britain. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. BPAS also runs the Centre for Reproductive Research and Communication, which seeks to develop and deliver a research agenda that furthers women’s access to evidence-based reproductive healthcare, driven by an understanding of women’s perspectives and needs. You can find out more here: https://www.bpas.org/get-involved/centre-for-reproductive-research-communication/

Later in 2021, BPAS will launch England's first not-for-profit fertility service, to provide ethical, evidence-based, person-centred care that supports patients. We will provide a safe, high-quality, and accessible service, without profiteering from patients. Our service will give those ineligible for NHS funding an affordable option to access the care they need.