The Birth of the Pill tells the story of Hormonal Contraception

“I’m quite comfortable now talking about menstruation,” journalist and author Jonathan Eig tells EW. Eig is the author of New York Times bestseller The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, and he came to Eugene May 25 as the keynote speaker for Planned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon’s annual gala.

He was answering the question of why scientists who invented the pill chose to include a “menstrual cycle” of sorts when the hormones actually meant that women could skip their periods altogether — as many do more than 60 years after the pill’s legalization. 

This question led into one of the points made in his book — how messy the whole process of birthing the pill was. He covered this issue as well during his keynote address at the Eugene Hilton and at length in his book.

The pill was invented by men but made for women, and Eig himself is a male journalist writing about a women’s issue. He says that question, of a man writing about women, is posed to him quite often. “I felt like it was a great story out there,” Eig says. “If a woman had been out there writing it, I would have been happy to read it,” though he acknowledges there are “inherent biases that come with being a man telling a story about women.”

Eig’s other books are about Lou Gherig, Al Capone and Jackie Robinson. He’s working on a biography of Mohammed Ali. “All my books are about rebels, in a way,” he says, “people who take chances and change the world.”

People these days take the pill for granted, he says, “but it’s kind of a miracle it ever got invented in the first place.”

Eig says that “it’s really important for people to understand how messy this whole process was.” The inventors were flying by the seat of their pants, testing the hormones on women in insane asylums, women in third world ghettos, with the ends justifying the means.

 In its application for FDA approval, it was listed as a way to treat menstrual disorders and infertility, and Eig says rather than saying it was tested on 160 women, one of the inventors, Gregory Pincus, decided it sounded better to say it was tested on 1,600 menstrual cycles. 

A devout Roman Catholic, John Rock collaborated with Pincus on developing the pill. Rock was an infertility specialist, and Eig says that is part of the reason the pill for years has had a week of sugar pills giving women periods. Some of the women getting hormone treatment were trying to get pregnant, not prevent pregnancy, and when they were nauseous and bloated, they thought they were having babies. The period days assured them they were not.

It was Margaret Sanger who spurred the search for the “magic pill” that would let women control their own fertility. She teamed up with millionaire Katharine Dexter McCormick, who funded all the research, to make the idea of contraception as easy to take as an aspirin. 

As Eig’s book documents, the unlikely foursome succeeded, and in the 1950s McCormick celebrated the pill’s legality and availability. McCormick, while in her 90s, got a prescription and went to a pharmacy and bought a bottle of pills, Eig says. 

Eig says that Planned Parenthood itself “doesn’t always come off well in the story, but to their credit they recognize the book tells an important story.”

If you missed Eig’s talk, you can still buy the book that documentary filmmaker Ken Burns calls “suspense-filled and beautifully written … an irresistible tale.” The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, W.W. Norton and Company, 2015. $16.95. 

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