Sunday, September 18, 2016

Groove Book Report - The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig. Norton

For nearly half of the 20th century, women were beating a path to Margaret Sanger's door with a plea: “Do tell me the secret, ” they wrote in their impassioned letters, “doctors are men and have not had a baby so they have no pity [sic] for a poor sick mother.” But Sanger concealed no great secrets preventing pregnancy, especially when you didn’t want to. By Sanger’s time, modern medicine had improved upon the crocodile dung ancient Egyptians used as vaginal plugs and the lemon half Casanova recommended as a cervical cap — but not by much. Let's face it men, and the church, and doctors and every God Damn politician this side of the North Pole had an opinion and an attitude on women's sexual health and believed they were the only ones who could determine when a women could or could not get pregnant.  Diaphragms were faulty and ill-used. And condoms depended on men’s will, at a time when a doctor could advise a woman to sleep on her roof to avoid her husband’s advances.  They were wrong.  Thank the Gods. 

The birth of the pill is about the four pioneers of the contraceptive pill, namely Margaret Sanger, a campaigner for women’s rights, Gregory Pincus, a physiologist, Katherine McCormick, a wealthy widow who financed much of the work, and John Rock, a Catholic gynaecologist. What they achieved is remarkable, particularly considering how little money and resource there was for the research.

The star of the book is undoubtedly Pincus. Sacked from Harvard, ostensibly because his work on reproduction was so controversial, he briefly worked at Clark University, US, then set up the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. This privately-funded research institute had a precarious existence until it was taken over by the University of Massachusetts Medical School well after the events recounted in this book. The author treats Pincus as a scientific genius and visionary, though many of his colleagues took a less charitable view.
The book is written in a fast-paced style, without any hint of light or shade. The heroes are stereotypical heroes, flawless dispellers of darkness and brilliant in their pursuit of the truth. Personally, I prefer my history more nuanced than this.


Former Wall Street Journal reporter Eig (Luckiest Man) blends the story of the “only product in American history so powerful that it needed no name” with the lives of the four-larger-than-life characters who dreamed, funded, researched, and tested it. Eig recapitulates much of what’s known about the discovery of oral contraceptives and adds a wealth of unfamiliar material. He frames his story around the brilliant Gregory Pincus, who was let go by Harvard after his controversial work on in-vitro fertilization; charismatic Catholic fertility doctor John Rock, who developed a treatment that blocked ovulation and, with Pincus, began human testing (including on nonconsenting asylum patients); and the two fearless women who paid for and supported their work, rebellious women’s rights crusader and Planned Parenthood pioneer Margaret Sanger and her intellectual heiress, Katharine Dexter McCormick. The twists and turns of producing a birth control pill in the mid-20th century mirrored astonishing changes in the cultural landscapes: Eig notes how, in July 1959, the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and G.D. Searle’s request for FDA approval of Enovid presaged a “tidal wave that would sweep away the nation’s culture of restraint.” Eig’s fascinating narrative of medical innovation paired so perfectly with social revolution befits a remarkable chapter of human history.

The book is nimbly paced and conversational, but its breezy style can trip on the rails of those politics, particularly when it comes to what the pill, and all the forms of effective hormonal contraception that followed it, meant to women’s lives. Shifting social mores are reduced to postage stamps, and though the analysis is infrequent, it jars.
When it comes to delineating contraception’s downsides, Eig doesn’t seem to think he has to prove the offhand and highly arguable claim that in the years that followed, “birth control would also contribute to the spread of divorce, infidelity, single parenthood, abortion and pornography.” He also blithely dismisses as futile Sanger’s hope that “the pill might lift women out of poverty and stop the world’s rapid population growth. In fact, the pill has been far more popular and had greater impact among the affluent than the poor and has been far more widely used in developed countries than developing ones.” 

Contraception hasn’t been a panacea for broader inequality, and it will never be, even if IUDs were available free on demand on every street corner. But no serious accounting of women’s progress over the past decades, however incomplete, can leave out the transformative role controlling their fertility has already had in allowing women to chart their own destinies. That radical transformation also helps account for the enduring fierceness of contraception’s opponents.

It is an old argument to blame social ills on too much freedom for women, or on the tools of it. Eig notes that when Sanger gave an interview to Mike Wallace she was asked, “Could it be that women in the United States have become too independent — that they followed the lead of women like Margaret Sanger by neglecting family life for a career?” The year was 1957.

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