Jonathan Eig on the Sex & Birth Control Revolution


IN OCTOBER a new and surprising book on the beginnings of the birth control pill will be released, right into the middle of the on-going war on contraceptive access. Written by journalist Jonathan Eig, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution is an engaging and entertaining read that brings out previously unknown details of Margaret Sanger and Co. (Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood) and shines light on parts of this seemingly well-worn story that are shocking, intriguing and even kind of strange. I caught up with Jonathan to find out what made him turn away from mobsters and baseball (the topics of his previous books) to concentrate on how the Pill became a household name.

One of the recurrent themes of your book is how attractive and sexually adventurous Margaret Sanger was, despite, perhaps, what we may assume. In the last book I’ve read about Sanger she was referred to as an “old bat.” Why did you see this part of her life as particularly pertinent to the story of ‘The Birth of the Pill’?

Sanger was a sexual creature, and men were enormously attracted to her, especially in her youth. She enjoyed sex, wanted women to be able to enjoy it more freely, and wanted women to gain greater control of their bodies and lives. That’s why I thought it was important to note that she was attractive and comfortable with her sexuality. She was one of the first women in America to make sex part of a social crusade, to say that women had just as much right to pleasure as men. She had other goals—including population control and women’s health—but sex was always a core issue.

Another focus of the book is Sanger and her collaborators’ belief in the need to decrease and control worldwide population numbers to solve the problems of poverty and hunger. At the time this argument had significant political force. Do you believe this argument still has power today?

In 1960, when the birth-control pill was approved by the FDA, the world’s population stood at about 3 billion. Now we’re at 7 billion, and by the end of this century there could well be 10 billion of us. With mortality rates from disease falling, some countries could see populations increase eight-fold, putting an enormous strain on resources, especially in the developing world.

The Pill that Sanger pushed hasn’t done much to slow population growth, in part because it’s too expensive and too difficult to administer in poor, remote locations. That’s one big reason we need better contraceptives. We also need men and women all over the world to recognize that they need to talk about birth control and make decisions together.

Researchers have found over and over again that spousal communication is a great predictor of contraceptive use and smaller family size. When men, governments or religious organizations try to silence discussions, birthrates go up.

Were you at all apprehensive taking on and “explaining” what has come to be a symbol of feminist liberation and empowerment, as a male writer and as such as someone who will never use the Pill?

Yes, I was a little apprehensive, but I’m a journalist and I’ve always followed my curiosity and passion. I’ve tried to write about the subjects that strike me as interesting and important. It’s certainly possible that a woman might have told this story differently and that she might have told it better. But that wasn’t something I could control. No one had written the book I wanted to read on the subject, so I set out to write it.

I would also point out that this is a subject that men ought to be thinking about. It’s a mistake on a whole bunch of levels to assume that only women should worry about birth control.

You describe in the book how early testing and experimentation might have actually resulted in a male pill as much as a female pill. A recent Time magazine cover story referred to testosterone therapy for aging men — what are your thoughts on the increasing popularity of this and would you ever consider it for yourself?

I thought it was very interesting that Pincus, when he first started testing the Pill, thought about developing a pill for men, too. Why did he stop? Because he didn’t think men would tolerate the side effects.

It’s worth noting that he had little concern about the side effects for women—and the side effects were terrible in those early years, when he was experimenting with massive doses of progestins.

Like a lot of men, I’ve taken birth control for granted at times. I’ve assumed that it’s the woman’s responsibility. That’s one of the design flaws with the Pill. It lets men off the hook to a certain extent, which means there isn’t as much discussion between couples as there ought to be.

Like Pincus, a lot of men today don’t mind the side effects, as long as it’s the women suffering them.

How do you feel your book will enter the debates currently raging (for example the Hobby Lobby decision)? How do you hope it might address some of the issues that have arisen? Do you have hopes that it might change minds?

I hope my book will spark a dialogue on birth control that gets beyond the usual entrenched political positions. I hope readers will take a look at what the world was like before the Pill, when fear of pregnancy was an unavoidable part of sex, when many women felt trapped by their bodies: by a seemingly endless series of pregnancies, by their limited career options, and by their limited contraceptive options.

I also hope the book will help people see that while the Pill has had a massive impact—so massive that The Economist called it the most powerful invention of the 20th century—it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Some people still don’t want to give women the right to control their own bodies. And most big pharmaceutical companies are still reluctant to invest in research for better forms of contraception.

It’s something close to a miracle that Sanger and Pincus and their colleagues came up with the birth control pill in the first place. But that doesn’t mean the work is done.

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