The Pill’s Birth Story: Q&A with Jonathan Eig

photo of the Birth of the Pill

Last week, we highlighted an article in The Atlantic about Jonathan Eig’s new book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. Today, he shares some more intriguing insights from his research with us. 

How did you learn about the connections between Margaret Sanger, Gregory Goodwin Pincus, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick – the “rebel outcasts” featured front and center in your book?
I began with a simple question: how did we get a birth-control pill. I knew Sanger had something to do with it, but that was about all.  So I began reading. Other writers such as Linda Hughes and Elaine Tyler have covered some of this ground. When I read about Pincus, Rock and McCormick, the story became one that fascinated me because none of them were traditional activists, traditional scientists, or traditional anything. They formed this unlikely team of crusaders. I immediately began interviewing the children of Rock and Pincus and dug into the archived papers of Rock (at Harvard) and Pincus (at the Library of Congress). The more I got to know these four characters the more I fell in love with the story.

What motivated you the most with this story—your curiosity, the fascinating, flawed personalities, the fact that birth control is still such a divisive issue, or other reasons?
The personality of the characters motivated me first. But that wouldn’t have been enough if not for the importance of their work. If the same characters had been working to invent Viagra, I would have passed. Everything they do is bigger and more dramatic because of one thing: they’re out to change the world. It’s not often we get a chance to dramatically shape the terms of our own existence. That’s what they were after.

How did the scientists involved justify the troubling ethical lapses surrounding birth control pill research trials? Did any of them express regret later on?
They justified their ethical decisions because they believed they were not doing any harm (or any serious harm, at least) and that the results of their work would be so important. Pincus in particular stated many times that all the side effects and even the blood clots that might have been attributed to the pill were nothing compared to the side effects (including blood clots) associated with unwanted pregnancy. And none of the inventors ever expressed regrets about their decisions, as far as I can tell.

The pill gave women greater freedom—along with more responsibility to bear the burden of dangerous side effects. How could the burden of birth control be shared more evenly between modern men and women?
Talking would be a good start. Men and women need to talk more about birth-control options, including abortion. The pill gave women greater control over their fertility but it also let men drop out of the conversation to a great extent. Beyond talking, I’d like to see men push for more and better contraceptive options of their own. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a pill for men or some other more elegant solution but we’re much more likely to see better options if men ask for them.

Your blog post (Should a Man Write about Feminism?) aimed to pre-empt what you felt would be an inevitable question following your book’s release. What has surprised you the most about the reaction to the book?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised (so far) that critics are not complaining that the book should have been written by a woman or might have been better had it been written by a woman. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised (so far) that I haven’t been attacked from anyone on the far right. But the truth is I tried to write this book devoid of politics. I think the story speaks for itself about the importance of reproductive rights and (so far) it seems to be speaking clearly.

You’ve mentioned that this subject was new territory for you. Has your research on the birth control pill inspired you to tackle other topics related to reproductive health or public health next?
My next book is a biography of Muhammad Ali. And while Ali did have at least nine children, it’s not going to be a story that focuses heavily on issues of reproduction. Beyond that, however, it’s important to note that I never abandon my book subjects.  I expect to be writing and speaking about reproduction and public health for a long time.

—Jonathan Eig,

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