The Birth of the Pill

I’m a sucker for Terry Gross’ Fresh Air program on National Public Radio.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Gross interview author Jonathan Eig about his new book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. Ordinarily I enjoy Gross’ interviews but seldom do I rush out and purchase the book involved, so I’m not sure exactly why this one grabbed me like it did. But as soon as I got home that night, I logged onto Amazon, made my purchase and for the next several days, watched intently for that coveted Amazon box waiting for me just outside my front door.

Honestly, I’ve been more than a little daunted by the book. Terry Gross failed to mention the hefty volume is well over 300 pages and entails a fair bit of science (not exactly the kind of thing I read for pleasure). Nevertheless, I have waded into this narrative seeking to understand a little more about how it is I arrived at my freedom. And even though I am only about one-third of the way through this detailed account of how four people in their own ways and for their own reasons ended up creating the pill, I already have a much greater appreciation for their work; for the chances they took and the sacrifices they made in order to me to have the opportunity to make my own reproductive decisions.

I vividly remember my first gynecological appointment when I asked my doctor to write a prescription for birth control. My wedding was just around the corner and much like all of the other details related to my upcoming marriage, birth control seemed to be my responsibility. In part, I think, because sex was not something we talked about in my family and also because I still had not realized the extent to which I had been shaped by patriarchal assumptions, including methods of birth control.

But there are other memories related to reproduction that loom in my memory in ways I’m sure are fundamentally different from my husband’s. During the first few years of my marriage, especially when I was in graduate school working toward my Master’s degree, I spent many nights wide awake worried that my random headache or stomach pain was a signal that I was pregnant. I carefully tracked my cycle; any variation was cause for immediate alarm.

Despite being irrational, my fear was real. Real, because I knew that even if by accident I became pregnant, it was my life—my career—that would change and not my husband’s. At least this was what I had internalized. And it fed my fear with a vengeance.

Fortunately, for me, the pill never let me down. However, as I am learning more about its development, it is clear I did not have an appropriate respect for the freedom it provided me.

Jonathan Eig’s narrative carefully spans the collaborative efforts of four intrepid people whose commitments to creating a practical and effective means of birth control resulted in the pill. Margaret Sanger played an integral role as she campaigned for the rights of women knowing that without reproductive autonomy, women would never be equal but instead would always be subject to the repercussions of sex in a way that men aren’t.

But, the pill’s development took more than a visionary, money was needed. Enter Katharine McCormick, whose experience taught her that there are circumstances in life where being able to avoid pregnancy could be beneficial. At the age of 75, McCormick contacted Sanger to see where her fortune would most benefit the National Birth Control movement. I’d say money was never so well spent.

Two others were also key. Gregory Pincus, a renegade scientist who was dismissed by Harvard University for his scientific work with in vitro fertilization, labored for many years in sub-par laboratories and with little financial support. And John Rock, a physician and Catholic whose practice and interactions with women enabled him to see the conflicts between his church’s stance regarding birth control and the real lives of women who suffered the devastating outcomes of male-centric theology, persuaded the general public that birth control was a positive development.

Even as I am still learning more details about these four trailblazers and what each of them accomplished, I continue to be astonished by how directly their work has affected my life. And mostly I feel immense gratitude.

But there is something else, something a little more gnawing that hasn’t quite let go of me. It is this: before the invention of the pill, few people thought seriously about the relationship between women’s rights and their reproductive options. Because so little consideration existed, women’s progress toward equality did not improve.

In our political discourse today, there continue to be echoes from an earlier era of those who call for restricting reproductive choices for women. And yet the relationship between women’s equality and their reproductive options is no less real now than it was in the early twentieth century. If I somehow became pregnant and didn’t discover it until my final trimester (ok; both of these are highly improbable, but give me at least the possibility of such a hypothetical situation), I would want the freedom to make the decision about what to do. And this hypothetical suggestion is much better than what many women actually face when they are raped or have no access to clinics with affordable reproductive care or for women who simply cannot afford a pregnancy let alone a birth.

Not everyone needs to agree about what constitutes a moral choice regarding reproduction: the use of the pill; the morning-after pill; other forms of birth control; or even abortion. But it seems to me disingenuous to suggest to women by our public policies that we fail to see the link between their equality and their full access to reproductive services. Ensuring that women are able to make choices about their bodies, their health, and their procreation is still a fundamental aspect of creating a society in which women are equal to men. And, as long as we fail to provide a real choice, women are not really free.

I’m pretty sure Sanger, McCormick, Pincus, and Rock would agree.