by Jonathan Eig
W. W. Norton, 2014
Review by Christian Perring on Dec 29th 2015
Eig tells the story of how activists and scientists collaborated to develop a pill to stop women conceiving, in a time when contraception was controversial but medical progress made it fairly obvious that it should be biologically possible. The technology combined with and encouraged social change regarding attitudes towards sex and women's role in society. Yet the story is not just about reformers versus conservatives. The motives for supporting increased contraception included the desire to liberate women from the burden of unwanted childbirth, but they also included worries about the higher birthrate about the genetic health of the population and the wrong sorts of people breeding too much. It also turns out the experimentation testing various forms of contraceptive pill was morally problematic in many ways, with a lack of informed consent from many who were involved in trials, and a risk of possibly serious side effects. So The Birth of the Pill is a complex story reflecting many of the larger movements in the twentieth century.
There are four main characters in Eig's telling: Margaret Sanger, Gregory Pincus, John Rock and Katharine McCormick. (Notably, the 2003 American Experience documentary "The Pill" focused on the same four.) Sanger was committed to legalized contraception, and she was behind the creation of Planned Parenthood and birth control clinics. While her life has already been well documented, the other three figures will be less familiar to most readers. Pincus was a doctor forced out of university research because of the controversial nature of his work; he ended up forming his own research institute funded by private money to carry on his project. John Rock was a devout Catholic physician ready to work with Pincus in helping to find test subjects; his contribution was not just scientific, but also in public relations, since his religion made him appear less of a radical. McCormick was a widow of a wealthy man, with a fortune to dispense, and she was very keen for a birth control pill to become widely available. The energy of these four people made this happen.
Jonathan Eig writes with journalistic vigor; the chapters are short and the story moves fast. The mixture of the ideologies of sex, religion, progressivism, feminism, and research struggles makes for plenty to think about, and it is revelatory to remember how deep the opposition to birth control was in those times. Eig does not say much about the effect of the pill to social life in the 1960s once it became available, nor much about the "sexual revolution," but he does spell out the precedents to this age, with different theories of sexual pleasure as necessary for health, and growing frankness about sexual behavior with researchers such as Alfred Kinsey publishing widely read reports. But maybe the most surprising part of the book is in its account of the ways that the pill was tests on women in prisons, asylums, and then in Puerto Rico, as a way of finding enough research subjects to get FDA approval for its use. This will certainly be of interest to those with an interest in medical ethics.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York