Jonathan Eig, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, 2014 

reviewed by Daphna Whitmore

The pill needs no pharmaceutical name to be recognised, its arrival in 1960 changed the world forever. This is the remarkable against-the-odds story of how the pill was developed by four tenacious characters.  

The key figure, Margaret Sanger, as early as 1914 championed sex for pleasure and popularised the term ‘birth control’. Women needed to have control over their own bodies, Sanger insisted.

She opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn 1916, was arrested, harassed, and became even more determined. Sanger saw women were worn out by having eight or nine children by the time they were 30. She dreamed of a new era of sex without fear of pregnancy and one in which women could have a life beyond childrearing.

The problem was condoms were fiddly and cervical caps ineffective. Sanger had an ‘impossible dream’ of a foolproof, inexpensive contraceptive pill.

Her sexual liberation message was very confronting in puritanical America, but the idea of population control was growing popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Large families were living in overcrowded and miserable conditions. Syphilis was prevalent and passed on to children, and the spread of venereal disease was being recognised as a public health issue. US soldiers in Europe during WWI were encouraged to use condoms with sex workers and the idea of making contraception available was gaining ground. Yet laws and attitudes were slow to change.

Sanger was a socialist who believed in the emancipation of the poor, equal rights for women, and for every child to be wanted and cared for. Yet facing enormous obstacles in the campaign for birth control she was willing at times to align with eugenists.

The science of sex had barely been studied. It wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists understood that women ovulated monthly, and the term hormone wasn’t even coined until 1905. In the 1940s Kinsey began the first scientific study of human sexual behavior, followed in the 1950s by Masters and Johnson. At the same time hormones were starting to be understood and synthesized.

Sanger approached scientists to work on a pill but they all turned her down on that grounds that there was little point to pursing it. Even if it were technically possible to produce such a pill, most states in the US had anti-birth control laws. It wasn’t until 1950 that Sanger found a scientist who would join her.

Sanger was 71 when she met Gregory Pincus, a biologist who wanted to make a name for himself. He was pioneering work on in vitro fertilisation as early as the 1930s. In his experiments on rabbits he discovered ovulation could be prevented by giving oestrogen injections. By the time he and Sanger became a team Pincus had concluded since progesterone stopped ovulation in pregnancy it could work as a contraceptive. Pincus began working on developing a contraceptive hormone pill. While Sanger is known as a crusader for contraception Pincus has been largely forgotten by history.

So too Katharine McCormick, a wealthy heiress and science graduate from MIT. She funded the decades of work that it took to develop the pill. The other central character in the making of the pill was a committed Catholic, and highly respected gynaecologist, Dr John Rock. He campaigned to get Catholics to use the pill, arguing that it was an extension of the rhythm method. The Catholic church would not relent but millions of Catholic women simply ignored the official pronouncements of the pope against contraception.

On May 9, 1960 the FDA approved the pill for birth control. Getting the pill to market had been a huge mission which could have been derailed at several points. Eig vividly portrays the pioneers of the pill and the how desperate women in the US were for contraception. In the 1920s in the US around one third of pregnancies ended in illegal and unsafe abortions.

Conditions in New Zealand were similar. A commission of inquiry in 1936 revealed one in five pregnancies in New Zealand ended in abortion. The women were mostly married, with four or more children. Communist Party women launched the first meeting of the birth control group, the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society in Wellington in 1936, which was later renamed the New Zealand Family Planning Association. They gave advice and helped distribute contraception on a voluntary basis. It wasn’t until 1953 that the first Family Planning clinic opened. The pill became available in New Zealand in 1961 but it was restricted to married women until the 1970s.

Half a century later it is easy to be oblivious to what a different world it was before the pill. The four crusaders Sanger, Pincus, McKenzie and Rock were up against a mountain of conservative social forces. Their invention not only made the sexual revolution possible it opened up a world to women that had never before existed.

Further reading:
Abortion rights in New Zealand
Getting abortion out of the Crimes Act
Marxism and women’s liberation today

 

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Comments
  1. […] Given the excitement caused in Ireland, north and south, by The Pill folks might be interested in this new book called The Birth of the Pill, reviewed by a friend of mine here: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/in-review-the-birth-of-the-pill/ […]