The Birth of the Pill: The Sneaky History of the 20th Century's Most Impactful Invention

thepillThe birth control pill, which put a dent not just in science and medicine, but in the dynamics of human interaction, has a new biography out.

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, by Jonathan Eig, is available now from W.W. Norton & Company. The book tells the thrilling, but often ethically compromised story of birth control rabble rouser Margaret Sanger, suffragette Katharine McCormick, controversial researcher Gregory Pincus, and physician John Rock – as they developed the most impactful invention of the modern age.

NPR has a terrific interview with Eig that does not skirt some of the shadier details of the group’s work:

There’s a lot of lying in this process of creating the first oral contraceptive. That’s what they have to do. You can really have a wonderful ethical discussion and debate about whether it was worth it, whether they were doing things that were beyond the bounds. The laws and the ethics of science were very different in the 1950s than they are today — you didn’t have to give informed consent, you didn’t have to have anybody sign forms giving away their rights, telling them about what these experiments are for. So in a way, we do have women being treated like lab animals so that we may find a form of birth control that frees them. There’s a great irony there.

This is the first pill ever created for healthy women to take every day. There’s never been anything like this and the idea of seeking FDA approval for something women are going to take every day without studying it for years and years and checking out the long-term side effects, this is scary stuff! But Pincus also feels like he’s racing the clock, that if the word gets out about this and the Catholic Church and the federal government realize what they’re doing, the opposition will mount and he’ll have no chance of getting it through.

It’s one of the great bluffs in scientific history. [Pincus] knows that he has the science. He’s not sure that it’s really ready; he hasn’t tested it on nearly enough women. His partner John Rock is saying, “Don’t you dare announce that we’re ready to do this yet. If you do, I’m out.” He’s furious with Pincus. But Pincus does it anyway. He realizes that they’ve got some momentum and they need to keep it going, this whole thing could fall apart if too much opposition is raised.

The lesson here, and it should be taken with more than a heaping grain of salt, is that sometimes universe denting work often requires some corner-cutting; and even some downright unethical behavior.

What do you think? Did the ends justify the means when it came to the creation of the pill? What lessons can we glean from the daring actions of this revolutionary group?


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