As college students in the modern era, it’s hard to imagine life without oral contraceptives. It’s easy to take for granted the teeny-tiny pill that nearly 40 percent of female college students use, according to the American College Health Association — a staggering amount considering the pill wasn’t even developed until the 1960s.
The Birth of the Pill
October 13th, 2014
“The Birth of the Pill” chronicles the multi-decade effort to find a sufficient and effective course of action for an issue that has existed since the beginning of time: unwanted pregnancy. Ripe with the controversies regarding women’s liberation and sexual freedom, author Jonathan Eig paints a fascinating look at the science, drama and controversy behind one of the most revolutionary medical advancements of the 20th century.
“The Birth of the Pill” follows the crusade of four unlikely heroes with, on the surface, no striking similarities besides their shared desire to create a pill that would provide a solution to rising rates of poverty and an answer to the rising feminist movement of the 1960s.
Gregory Pincus, an untamable, wild-haired scientist who was removed from Harvard’s faculty for conducting unapproved in-vitro fertilization experiments, is the central brainpower of the movement, with an unwarranted confidence willing to stop at nothing once there was a goal in mind. Pincus begins research after being approached by the aging yet fiery feminist legend Margaret Sanger, with hopes of creating a contraceptive women can take without their partners knowing or having control over. Pincus dives head first into the project and spends nearly a decade and an incredible amount of money, even by today’s standards. The funds were donated primarily by socialite Katharine McCormick, whose younger years were plagued by a marriage to an unpredictable schizophrenic, whose death allowed McCormick to accumulate a vast family fortune to spend where she deemed worthy: the beginnings of Pincus’ venture, the Enovid project. The fourth player in this tale is the charismatic Catholic doctor from Boston, John Rock, who wrestles with his strong faith and experiences as an OBGYN when he becomes involved with the research. His love of scientific progress prevails, and Rock is used as the face of the research, using his faith to educate other Catholics on benefits of contraception rather than the reasons they’ve been condemned.
Eig really does start from the beginning of the quest for birth control, and highlights the dangers associated with unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. He stresses the problems of the historical restriction of birth control with anecdotes taken from documents of the early to mid 1900s documents: mothers bleeding to death after botched abortions, starvation of older children to feed the new baby a family couldn’t afford to have, painful death during childbirth after one too many babies. These stories aren’t told to disturb the audience, they’re told to give life — and a human rights perspective — to early 1900s feminist movements and to educate pro-life anti-contraceptionists of why birth control has had a positive impact on so many. Women were told (and in many parts of the world, are still told) their health and well-being were less important than the constant influx of new children, and it was time to make a change.
For a novel combining both history and science, “The Birth of the Pill” had ample potential to be more dry than exhilarating. However, Eig’s publishing history, primarily as a former Wall Street Journal reporter and as the author of three other historical non-fictions, has proven beneficial in his ability to tell a story based in hard facts and give it personality. Eig has breathed new life into the four central protagonists of “The Birth of the Pill,” who passed years ago. The narrative has humor, suspense and heart to draw in and educate the 21st century reader, and all these components together create a beautiful narrative about women’s rights and feminism. The book strikes the question of whether or not women’s rights have changed since the creation of birth control. While we’ve advanced technology and medicine for the benefit of women, Eig’s story reminds us of the need to appreciate and carry forth the fiery passion women like Margaret Sanger had for the cause.