MedHum Monday: Reviewing Jonathan Eig’s BIRTH OF THE PILL

DailyDose_darkstrokeWelcome back to the Daily Dose and MedHum Monday! Today we present a review of Jonathan Eig’s latest book, The Birth of the Pill.

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (W. W. Norton, 2014).

Review by: Anna Jane Clutterbuck-Cook, of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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Birth of the Pill

Journalist Jonathan Eig (author of Get Capone and Opening Day) has produced an engaging group portrait of four major players in the development of the birth control pill: activist Margaret Sanger, financier Katharine McCormick, research scientist Gregory Pincus, and ob/gyn John Rock. Drawing on extensive research in both manuscripts and published sources, Eig’s narrative traces the development of the first commercially-produced birth control pill, Enovid, from a 1950 meeting between Margaret Sanger and Gregory Pincus to the FDA approval of Enovid as a hormonal contraceptive in 1960.

Roughly chronological, with background and epilogue material on all four protagonists, The Birth of the Pill implicitly makes the case that scientific and social paradigm shifts — in this instance a reliable, discreet method for women to control where, when, and with whom they got pregnant — are made possible due to the heroic efforts of individuals tirelessly laboring to achieve the impossible. It is an appealing, if somewhat glossy, account of change over time: Who among us doesn’t enjoy a good triumph-over-the-obstacles tale? And Sanger, McCormick, Pincus, and Rock are complex individuals whose life stories provide rich opportunity to explore and explicate the world in which they lived. Eig has taken an admirable stab at assembling a coherent narrative out of the lives and actions four highly individual people who worked together toward a common goal (the creation and adoption of hormonal contraception) despite their differences.

For a reader new to the subject, The Birth of the Pill provides a solid biography-centered account of events, with a selected bibliography to prompt further reading; for the reader who has a strong background in this history, Eig’s narrative will likely provide little new insight. For example, in 2003 the PBS program American Experience aired a documentary, “The Pill,” that traces more or less the same narrative arc, with the same cast of historical figures. (You can watch the full hour-long program free on YouTube; yay public broadcasting!) In addition, a number of historians of women’s and medical history — several of whom serve as talking heads on “The Pill” — have done excellent work on the history of reproductive technologies and rights during this period. I would encourage readers of The Birth of the Pill to supplement their study with — to name a few recent works — Ellen Tyler May’s America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation (2010), and Heather Munro Prescott’s The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States (2011), and Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave by Wendy Kline (2010).

As a reader with some background in the subject, I was particularly struck by the women and other marginal figures who haunt the periphery of Eig’s tale. We are introduced fleetingly to characters such as M.C. Chang, a Chinese biologist whose research was central to the development of hormonal contraception; Lizzie Lipman Pincus, Gregory Pincus’ mercurial wife, and his daughter Laura — an early user of the pill and a field researcher in Puerto Rico; the Puerto Rican women whose participation in early trials provided data necessary for FDA approval on the U.S. mainland; female inmates of the Worcester Asylum, also used as (involuntary) subjects; women and their doctors who used Enovid for “menstrual regulation” knowing full well it prevented ovulation and thus precluded the possibility of conception (in the early years of Enovid’s marketing, suppression of ovulation was listed as a “side effect”).

These stories are not the stories that Eig set out to tell, and perhaps the sources are not there to tell them. However, I found myself troubled by the centering of two white male scientists, and two high-profile white women, to tell the story of an endeavor that relied so heavily on the labor and bodies of the marginalized. I wanted someone to have spent as much time as Eig did imagining conversations between Sanger and Pincus imagining the discussions had between Puerto Rican women and the staff of their birth control clinics. Eig does acknowledge, repeatedly, that the development of the birth control pill represents a failure of medical ethics by today’s standards for research involving human subjects, despite its successful outcome and post facto confirmations of long-term safety. Yet his overall narrative felt like more of a reinscription of heroic lab-coated paternalism than a deep exploration of the costs (some of our) forebears had to pay for the relative freedom today’s fertile couples have to enjoy the pleasures of sexual intimacy without the fear of undesired or mistimed procreation.

Scholars in the fields of women’s history and history of reproductive medicine will likely want to read this new history for the sake of completeness; its biographical narrative may also provide a hook for undergraduates and the interested public reading in this area.

REBOOT | DOSE recommendation: Worth Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna Clutterbuck-Cook is a historian, librarian, and writer who serves as reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society and is currently researching mid twentieth-century Christian understandings of human sexual diversity. She lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts with her wife, two cats, and over one thousand books. You can find her online at thefeministlibrarian.com.

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