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Review: Jonathan Eig’s ‘Birth of the Pill’ a deft study of revolution

"The Birth of the Pill" looks at the four iconoclasts who pushed for an effective birth control pill.
“The Birth of the Pill” looks at the four iconoclasts who pushed for an effective birth control pill.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Amgeles Times)

The most transformative technology to affect the lives of women in the 20th century might seem an odd subject for Jonathan Eig, the bestselling author known for his books about the lives of notables such as Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig and Al Capone.

But on second glance, Eig’s three-year journey researching and chronicling the dream, the development and, eventually, the distribution of progesterone-based oral contraception for women makes a sort of perfect sense: As the author ably illustrates in this dynamic, highly engrossing narrative, the personalities on display share with Eig’s previous subjects a stubbornness, scrappiness and high tolerance for risk.

“The Birth of the Pill” is Eig’s suspenseful, sometimes rollicking tale of a highly ambitious, iconoclastic yet single-minded ragtag quartet who, from 1950 to 1957, dreamed, plotted, manipulated, agitated, researched, begged, bluffed, boasted and spent its way toward its goal of creating and popularizing an easily administered and highly efficacious contraceptive for women.

Each of the four — millionaire philanthropist Katharine McCormick, wild-haired scientist Gregory Pincus, cautious Roman Catholic OB-GYN John Rock and unpredictable women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger — had various incentives fueling their keen interest in a hormone-based form of female contraception. But the primary motivation was a desire to separate sex for pleasure from sex for procreation and in the process liberate women from the tyranny of their biology, giving them what Eig describes as “the power to control their own bodies … the chance to become equal partners with men.”

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It might seem difficult to believe now, but less than 100 years ago there was very little that was understood about the female reproductive system, not to mention fertility. Condoms were in use, but they were not exactly foolproof, and men didn’t always like to use them; devices such as diaphragms and IUDs were complicated and could be expensive. This meant that women, American and otherwise, were basically at the mercy of their reproductive systems, beholden to the fact that the act of intercourse could find them mother of a child (sometimes their fourth, fifth or sixth) that they could not necessarily care for, nor want to.

Multiple pregnancies and motherhood did more than just sap women’s energies, empty their family bank accounts or put their health at risk: They all but prevented women from completing (or even beginning) their education, from developing careers, from exploring the possibilities of what they could be beyond parenthood. The pill, portable, affordable, easy to use and extremely effective, changed all that.

Pincus, Sanger and Rock’s appetite for rule-breaking and experimentation ruffled feathers among the scientific, medical and religious communities, but, as Eig makes clear, much of the credit for the development of the pill goes to their wealthy benefactor, McCormick, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own money to fund the research and development of the pill’s deceptively simple but potent combination of progestin, a synthetic version of progesterone that prevents ovulation, and mestranol, synthetic estrogen.

Though Pincus understandably gets more attention in Eig’s tale — he and his colleagues at the Massachusetts-based Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology were, after all, the ones putting in long hours in their laboratories and traveling the world to initiate and conduct tests on human subjects — McCormick feels like the book’s surprising breakout star. Widowed emotionally by the onset of severe mental illness in her wealthy young husband soon after their wedding in 1904, and made rich by his actual death in 1947, McCormick traveled the world and committed her considerable inherited fortune to improving the lives of women, at one point smuggling more than 1,000 then-illegal diaphragms into the United States within the linings of expensive apparel bought in Europe.

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Seven years after Sanger approached Pincus to implore him to attempt to develop an oral, hormone-based contraceptive, the American public was introduced to Enovid, which at first was marketed and sold as a pharmaceutical treatment for menstrual disorders that just happened to have a side effect of preventing pregnancy. (Enovid was approved for contraceptive use in 1960.) Soon, more than half a million American women were taking the pill, the first wave of what Eig, in the subtitle of his book, rightly calls a “revolution.”

But this was not without some cost. The fact is that the pill would not have been possible — at least in the way it was first introduced — without the efforts of four highly educated, well-positioned, incredibly privileged and extremely committed women and men. But it is also a fact that hundreds of women, many unnamed, contributed to its development, and this is where the story takes a darker and unfortunately more undeveloped turn. Eig concedes, almost solemnly, the recruitment and exploitation of hundreds and hundreds of women — most of them marginalized, disadvantaged and desperate, such as patients at a New England insane asylum or residents of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras slum — who were used as human guinea pigs in order to determine the efficacy of an as-yet unproved drug that made them horribly sick with side effects. However, the book does not put their plight in much, if any, larger context of the medical community’s shameful history with regard to women’s health and reproductive systems.

As hard as it is to put down “The Birth of the Pill’s” story of four privileged individuals’ thrilling quest for better living through science, it’s imperative to remember the scores of women lost to history whose flesh and blood helped make it a reality.

Holmes’ most recent book, “The Book of Jezebel,” is based on the site she created in 2007. She is an editor at Fusion.

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The Birth of the Pill
How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution

Jonathan Eig
W.W. Norton & Co.: 388 pp., $27.95


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