BookBrowse Reviews The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig

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The Birth of the Pill

How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution

by Jonathan Eig

The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig X
The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2014, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2014, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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The fascinating story of the four principal players in one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.

It was the perfect storm: a marriage of people and will that created one of the most radical instruments of modern history: the pill. When activist Margaret Sanger committed herself to aiding in the creation of a contraceptive that would be effective and put women in charge of their bodies, she could not have imagined the ripple effects it would bring about. As journalist Jonathan Eig brilliantly chronicles in The Birth Of the Pill, the pill didn't necessarily kick the feminist movement of the '60s into high gear, but it did aid and abet it.

Having grown up in the factory town of Corning, New York, in a family of eleven, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) saw firsthand what multiple pregnancies did to families and especially to women. Long before she decided to channel her efforts into advocating for a method of contraception, Sanger was a birth control activist operating a clinic in New York that dispensed devices such as diaphragms. The clinic evolved into the organization, Planned Parenthood. Desperate for an efficient form of birth control, countless young mothers routinely wrote to Sanger pleading for a way out of the endless cycle of unwanted pregnancies. The scientist whom she turned to was the eccentric genius Gregory Pincus, a researcher who had gained some notoriety in the press as someone capable of tinkering with the natural order of things. In Pincus, Sanger found a willing and capable scientist — who would go to bat for the problem at hand and, in turn, gain from such a brilliant technological breakthrough. But Sanger's meager monetary resources ran dry before sufficient progress was made, and the project needed the backing of someone wealthy like Katherine McCormick, an activist who bankrolled large chunks of the research needed for the pill to see the light of day. Of course even once the product was done, the public needed persuading. What the pill needed was an evangelist in the form of a committed and personable champion. Such a person was none other than a Catholic physician, Tom Rock.

These are the "four crusaders" mentioned in the subtitle, whose hard work brought the pill to fruition. Eig chronicles their relentless drive in a compelling narrative that switches back and forth between the various players. He takes particular care to not idolize these "crusaders." Sanger, in fact, was so committed to the final result that she didn't care much about the means to that end. Early believers in the need for effective contraception were eugenicists who believed that certain segments of women should simply not be allowed to have children. That Sanger was in bed with these same groups for a while is unconscionable, but Eig explains it by saying that "in fighting for [her] principles, she knew and did not mind that things might get messy."

Given the current climate of Big Pharma research, it is hard to believe that much of the funding for the pill was bankrolled independent of any company or the government. G. D. Searle was a large contributor to Pincus' research projects and, later, was the company that brought the pill to market under the drug name, Enovid. When FDA approval was granted to Enovid, it was presented as a product that would treat menstrual disorders. The fact that it prevented ovulation (and therefore pregnancy) was mentioned in fine print as a side effect. But salespeople who hit the road to encourage use of the drug touted its contraceptive efforts first and women signed on in huge numbers. That the pill hadn't been tested for long-term effects didn't faze many.

The Birth Of the Pill succeeds not just in describing the breathtaking race to create such a revolutionary product but it also outlines the many pitfalls and underhandedness the four would engage in along the way. Controversial drug trials, for example, were par for the course. Eig also places the work in context — playing out as it did against the larger canvas of social upheaval of the late '50s and '60s. "As the pain of World War II and the Korean War faded and a wave of prosperity swept across the country, Americans began to push for all kinds of change, pressing the limits of what had previously been possible socially, economically, and morally," Eig writes.

The Birth of the Pill is a revealing and thoroughly researched account of the players who put everything on the line — money, prestige, careers — to create a product they truly believed in. Eig's account is impressive, not just as an insight into a slice of American history, but as a reminder of the path of women's rights across well over half a century. It's a searing testament to how much has been gained since — and just how much things have remained the same.

PBS' American Experience has a wonderful documentary about the pill, which is really worth seeing.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review is from the The Birth of the Pill. It first ran in the October 15, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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