Encyclopedia of Reproductive Technologies

By Annette Burfoot | Go to book overview

seventeen
Diethylstilbestrol
(DES)

ELLEN 'T HOEN

Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, was first fabricated in 1938 by the British biochemist E. C. Dodds. Since the 1940s, DES has been prescribed to millions of pregnant women worldwide to prevent miscarriages. This practice was based on the unverified hypothesis that spontaneous abortion was caused by a lack of progesterone and that DES was able to stimulate the production of progesterone by the body. Since the 1970s many adverse effects for the users of DES and their children have become known. In 1953 a U.S. study by W. E. Dieckmann showed that DES was not effective in the treatment of habitual spontaneous abortion. Nevertheless, the use of DES to treat complications during pregnancy continued as a common practice. The package insert of the Dutch manufacturer Dagra lists fourteen different indications for DES prescription, including morning sickness.

In 1971 the American gynecologist A. L. Herbst established a connection between DES and a rare type of vaginal cancer, clear cell adenocarcinoma, which occurred among daughters of women who had taken DES during pregnancy. That same year the American Food and Drug Administration contraindicated DES for use during pregnancy. By then an estimated 3 million women in the United States alone had used the product. Prescription of DES during pregnancy continued in Europe later than 1971. In the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, DES was used until 1975, in France until 1977, and in Spain until 1981.

-105-

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