what i'm reading: the birth of the pill by jonathan eig

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig was a fascinating and very readable look at how oral contraceptives -- otherwise known as The Pill -- came to be.

The Pill changed the world. It was the first contraception that was nearly 100% effective, easy to use, did not interrupt or alter sex, and crucially, controlled by the woman who used it. It was also the first option to be both effective and reversible; pre-Pill, the only completely effective birth-control was sterilization. The advent of oral contraceptives, and later, the availability of safe and legal abortion, liberated millions of women from the fear of unwanted pregnancy, and in doing so, lifted millions of children out of poverty, by giving women the ability to limit the size of their families.

Eig tells the story through the lens of four people -- all iconoclasts, all rebels, and none of them saints.

Safe, effective, reversible, female-controlled, non-barrier birth control was the dream and lifelong quest of Margaret Sanger. Sanger had dual motivations. She saw the effects of unlimited conception all around her, in families forced into poverty by the burden of too many children, and above all in women who were physically and mentally exhausted from breeding, women dying from too many births or unsafe abortions. Women from around the world begged Sanger to help them.

The ill effects of too-large families was a prime motivator, but Sanger wanted more than a limit to pregnancy. She wanted women to be able to fulfill their sexual potential, by freeing sex from the fear of unwanted pregnancy, and freeing birth-control from dependence on the male partner. She wanted women to know the liberating powers of joyful, consensual sex. She wanted women to be able to enjoy sex just because they could.

Contraception and sex for pleasure: both goals put Sanger directly in the crosshairs of the government and the Catholic Church. In 1950, when Eig's story begins, it was illegal to distribute birth control, or even to share information about it, in the U.S.

Sanger was arrested more than once, and served jail time for founding the United States' first birth-control clinic, in Brooklyn in 1916. Yet for all her feminism, Sanger is a hero. She found common cause with eugenicists, and favoured sterilization of "undesirable" people, which could mean people with disabilities or brown people -- or whatever else. Eig doesn't shy away from this, or try to sugar-coat it, but he keeps it in perspective. Sanger is a hero with a dark side.

Gregory Pincus held a similar position in the scientific community -- a passionate outsider. A biologist, Pincus had been bounced out of Harvard University for his experiments in in vitro fertilization. He founded his own foundation on a shoestring, going door-to-door in Worcester, Massachusetts for tiny donations.

Pincus was a cowboy scientist, with reckless ethical standards, a flare for public relations, and an ego that wouldn't quit. Eig's portrait of Pincus is amusing and head-shaking by turns.

The third iconoclast in the rebellious quartet was Katharine McCormick, a brilliant woman with a scientific background (she was one of the first women to graduate from MIT), an unshakable feminism, and a ton of money to give away. She spent vast sums on the project, without so much as a formal grant proposal. When Pincus said he needed funds, McCormick opened her checkbook.

McCormick figures in to the one of the book's best anecdotes, which gives a nice taste of Eig's lively writing.
"...Demand [for diaphragms] far exceeded supply. Diaphragms were smuggled into the country from Canada, but still the Bureau [the birth control clinic] couldn't get enough. Katharine proposed bringing in more from Europe and developed a plan for doing it. In May 1923, she sailed across the Atlantic with eight pieces of luggage, including three large trunks. While there, she bought more large trunks, explaining that she intended to purchase many of the "latest fashions" during her trip. She met with diaphragm manufacturers, placed her orders, and had the devices shipped to her chateau. Then she hired local seamstresses to sew the diaphragms into newly purchased clothing, put the clothing on hangers, and packed the exquisite dresses and coats in tissue. Eight large trunks were loaded, sent through customs, and carried aboard the ship as Katharine sailed for home, handing out generous gratuities at every station. Katharine McCormick, aristocrat, smuggler, rebel, arrived at the clinic by taxi trailing a truck containing the most exquisitely packaged diaphragms the works had ever seen -- more than a thousand in all, enough to last the clinic a year.
The fourth pillar in this odd quartet was, to me, the least interesting, but he played a key role that no one else could have filled. John Rock, a gynecologist, was the epitome of the trusted physician -- tall, silver-haired, elegant, formal, charming. He was also a devout Catholic. Rock had deep faith, but he didn't believe the institutional Church was infallible. He believed that a woman’s health was more important than that of her fetus. He believed that sex within a marriage, not necessarily for procreation, was a good and healthy thing. He believed in the potential of science to improve lives, and that, as he put it, "religion is a very poor scientist".

Rock became the public spokesman for The Pill. He wanted to convince ordinary Catholics -- and the Catholic Church -- to embrace birth control. Rock was never able to persuade the Church, but he helped soothe public fears, and he helped The Pill get FDA approval despite massive pressure from the Vatican.

Researching a bit for this post, I noticed several reviewers took exception to Eig's storyline. One thought he glossed over Sanger's involvement in eugenics. The book definitely does not do this, but it's also not a book about Sanger or eugenics. Another writer felt Eig didn't properly expand on the changing social mores that The Pill helped bring about. I thought he made a good case for that, but again, the book isn't about the "sexual revolution" itself. It's about, as the title says, the birth of The Pill.

As that, The Birth of the Pill is an entertaining and very readable account of a hidden history that deserves to be known.


johngoldfine said...

"She found common cause with eugenicists, and favoured sterilization of "undesirable" people, which could mean people with disabilities or brown people -- or whatever else. Eig doesn't shy away from this, or try to sugar-coat it, but he keeps it in perspective. Sanger is a hero with a dark side."

Her work for birth control made her an outlier in her time and a hero to us, but her eugenicism, even her racism, was squarely in line with bien pensant thinking of her day--and, to us, reveals a dark side. But we have the advantage over her of having lived through the 20th Century, a severe corrective to notions of human progress, human perfectability, and human rationality.

laura k said...

I would agree with you if the timeline added up. She got involved with eugenics after WWI. Pincus met Sanger in 1950, and at that time, Sanger still supported forced sterilization for the "feeble minded" and "mental defectives".

She did nothing to act on that belief, but it was part of her worldview.

johngoldfine said...

My in-laws were professors of classics--ivyleague educated, civil rights pioneers, users of birth control, kind, decent, gentle, tolerant people. But they'd grown up in New Jersey in the era of the Kallikaks, and although they knew as adults what pseudo-scientific nonsense that all was, they had to overcome their own prejudices and education. It's hard to change the worldview you were raised with!

One of the qualities that makes a hero, a Margaret Sanger, a Greta Thunberg, is their refusal to back down. They know what they know and nothing will ever shake their belief system. Of course, that strength becomes a weakness when they are unable to deal with changed circumstances (cue classic tragedy and hubris.)

Of course, you're absolutely right about the Sanger timeline.

laura k said...

Absolutely. I see that in my own family, too. My mother is very liberal -- actually left of liberal -- but she clings to certain misguided beliefs she was raised with.

I hope I don't do that.

You're right, the flipside of that moral courage, that single-minded determination, can be an inability to shift course. Or the inability to shift course is another name for determination.
Stubborn vs tenacious.

impudent strumpet said...

I love that story of the diaphragms smuggled in dresses! I'm just imagining all the seamstresses talking among themselves about their eccentric American client!

impudent strumpet said...

The eugenics thing is also related to something I've been thinking about a lot lately...

Some of the things that are most important to me in terms of my own quality of life (not having children, being permitted to die when I want to) are also things that eugenicists want to force upon others.

And I was completely unaware until quite recently that eugenicists are trying to force these things upon others.

And my advocating for the things I want to be available to myself has looked an awful lot like eugenicists advocating for inflicting things on others, and I had no idea.

So yeah, trying to figure out what to do with that

laura k said...

The diaphragm story is probably my favourite part of the book.

laura k said...

Imp, you are advocating for bodily integrity and autonomy. For choice, options. Eugenicists wanted to set the terms for whole categories of people.

I can't see the equivalence. I'd love to hear more.