“The pill,” when introduced in 1960, revolutionized sex but remains controversial 55 years later. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

The revolution of the pill: controversial to this day

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • January 24, 2015

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig (W. W. Norton & Company, 409 pages, $32.95 in print, $16.05 on Kindle).

It is fitting that one of the key pieces of the most startling social revolution in human history doesn’t actually have a proper name but is instead simply known as “the pill.” No proper name could ever hope to truly match the impact this concoction would have and is having on the world.

Arguably the people who brought the pill into existence either engineered an astonishing piece of biological manipulation, liberating women from the tyranny of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, or made possible a morally questionable and society-altering understanding of human reproduction.

The pill made real a technological control of the processes of life. The consequences have been unfolding ever since May 9, 1960 when the Food and Drug Administration in the United States approved “a pill for birth control.”

The people responsible for creating a relatively cheap, relatively simple means for ensuring women got pregnant only when they wanted to get pregnant knew they were unleashing a social revolution. In fact they intended so.

For the first half of the 20th century the coterie at the forefront of developing simple and straightforward birth control were a motley crew of women’s rights activists, population control zealots, eugenicists, white supremacists and smug middle class individuals keen on making sure that only the proper people — people like themselves — had children. This mess of mixed motivations made for some truly unlikely alliances.

The protagonists ignored moral and political differences in aid of achieving the most basic common denominator in their varied agendas — giving women the power to control when and whether they had children. One small group did succeed.
Jonathan Eig’s The Birth Of The Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched A Revolution is an account of how that success was realized. The four crusaders were Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, the eccentrically brilliant biologist Gregory Pincus, the wealthy feminist bankroller Katharine McCormack and the well respected and very Catholic gynecologist John Rock. It was an unlikely alliance that in the course of less than a decade changed the world.

Eig does a nice job of pointing out that the pill itself wasn’t the only factor leading to what we now understand to be a sexual revolution. There were all kinds of demographic and societal changes underway in the 1950s and ’60s and the pill was just one piece of a shifting dynamic, though a very important piece.

Eig traces the evolution of the scientific investigation into chemical, biological and hormonal concoctions designed as contraceptives but does so with a remarkably uncritical eye. He truly seems to believe that the ends justify the means and if it works then great. His tale largely ends with the mass distribution of the pill, though there are a few vague references to the fact that in the years to follow changes to the process of getting pregnant and giving birth would be even more significant.  

The core of the story is this technological effort to change the female reproductive system. Hormones were the key and in the 1950s, the understanding of how hormones worked and how they could be manipulated was largely guess work, speculation and experimentation.

Normally medical experimentation aims for a cure for a problem. In the case of birth control, the research was being done to find a medicine intended to be consumed by healthy individuals over a long period of time. The pill was the first mass-consumed drug not intended to cure an illness.

This re-ordering of medical research meant experiments where the researchers lied to subjects, downplayed potential side effects, fudged data submitted to drug regulators, went to a Third World site to find clinical trial participants and crossed numerous other ethical lines. While Eig’s account is sympathetic, he seems to understand that if Pincus had taken on inventing the pill today, ethical codes would stop him in his tracks.

Rock is one of the more intriguing actors in the story. Driven to participate by the horrors he witnessed of women ruined by multiple pregnancies without resources to care for the children she already had, he died believing he had found a means of controlling birth that fit with Catholic teaching — a hormonal equivalent of the rhythm method. He was always troubled that the Church didn’t agree but took comfort in the millions of ordinary Catholics who did.

The pill was the first of a string of reproductive innovations: IVF, designer babies, emerging new technologies permitting multiple parents. For 55 years we have struggled with the implications of that first step, for the family and for society, and there is no end to those arguments in sight. In fact all the arguments at the time of the development of the pill still rage today. What’s the connection between reproduction and the family?

Is the world too populated? Should some types of people never be allowed to have children? Should we use the science we possess to ensure that some types of children are never born? Are there limits, should there be limits, to what can be done in the creation of a human being? These are the moral and philosophical questions that were under discussion when the pill was created. As we watch new technologies emerge, it is instructive to reflect on how in the past those questions and the moral stakes they raised were dispensed with.        

(Kavanagh is a Toronto freelance writer and author.)

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