By: Nelly Papalambros
“[Elizabeth] Sanger’s crusade had begun when Woodrow Wilson was president and ended with Kennedy. It had begun when a woman devoting herself to anything but motherhood was by definition a radical.” –Jonathan Eig, in The Birth of the Pill
The Birth of the Pill provides a riveting chronicle of the scientific innovation and political controversy surrounding the development of birth control. The existence of oral contraception is often taken for granted; yet, birth control had perhaps the hardest fought campaign in modern history. Jonathan Eig sets the stage leading up to 1950’s America. Eig does an excellent job of narrating just how dire the situation was for many women at the time. World War II brought a taste for newfound independence for most women. With increased job competition, most women had to consider marriage by the age of 20 and ultimately, with no way of preventing it, spiraling into motherhood. Motherhood, though rewarding, was also grueling. Unfortunately, women had very little control over the number of children they had during their lifetime, leading to poverty, poor health, and sometimes death. While altruistic reasons of controlling family size are made clear, Eig is also sure to outline the Cultural Revolution taking place across America. The 1960’s and ‘70’s were fraught with the emergence and appreciation of sexuality.
We often associate the birth control movement with Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. The real story is fascinating and far more complex. Jonathan Eig’s novel revolves around four main characters. Dr. Gregory Pincus, an eccentric scientist obsessed with understanding hormones and fertility in rabbits. Dr. John Rock, a Catholic physician who paves the way for the greater acceptance of the pill, not to mention some questionable human trials in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Eig delves into the lives of the two women who led the birth control movement, and ultimately helped fund Pincus’s experiments – Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick. Sanger, an often-contentious character, is described as having one goal: to free women from the chains of motherhood. Eig brings both women alive, and reveals their very real internal and external struggles, from their personal approach to family life to their fight for women’s right to birth control options.
The Birth of the Pill discusses the interference of moral and ethical regulations that prevented effective and well-funded research for birth control, and how the first oral contraception was only approved by the FDA as a way to regulate women’s menstrual cycles, not prevent pregnancy. The story twists its way through the seemingly endless obstacles of producing the pill. From the contentious fight against the church to the stubborn predominantly male medical world. After reading the book, you will wonder how such a pill ever came to fruition. Eig’s novel paints both a shockingly dark portrait of American history, while simultaneously heralding the scientific innovation and political will of the people.
As a society we have come far, yet we still have further left to go. Having access to birth control continuous to be a contentious debate. While the novel is set in the mid 1900’s, it is ever relevant in our current political climate. If anything, it provides a glimpse of how the wills of the political elite, whether that be the church or a wealthy donor, influences so much of what is around us. However, the novel allows us to pause to consider just how a few feverish individuals were able to set into motion one of the most transformative advances of human kind. After all, among the thousands of pharmaceuticals that exist today, only one is ubiquitously known simply as ‘the pill’.
Cover Photo via Amazon.Com
In-Text Photo via Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons License
About the Author – Nelly Papalambros
Nelly Papalambros is a PhD/MPH student in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. She currently works in the laboratory of Dr. Phyllis Zee studying sleep and circadian rhythms. Nelly is interested in using science to advocate for evidence based health policy.