Friday, February 12, 2016

World changers to thank and inspect closely

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, struck me as poorly organized, often glib, unserious about serious matters of women's well-being -- and nonetheless interesting. Eig recounts the history of the development and public introduction of oral contraceptives through the lives of four individuals: the sexual freedom and feminist agitator Margaret Sanger; the hormone researcher, Gregory Goodwin Pincus; the fatherly Roman Catholic physician John Rock; and the funder who bankrolled the effort, Katharine McCormick. Certainly these are interesting people, but Eig's choice to tell the story through them erases individuals and aspects of the history that might have made this a more significant book.

Sanger remains the most famous and the most notorious of the Pill's progenitors. Her schtick was flamboyant flaunting of a transgressive program. A white Progressive-era U.S. visiting nurse, she was moved by the sufferings of poor women, many of them Roman Catholic immigrants, who she saw burdened by frequent pregnancies and enormous families. And she found her own middle class marriage and child raising boring. Any discussion of birth control was illegal in the early 20th century, but Sanger propagandized, imported diaphragms by the thousands and even fled the country briefly rather than answer a criminal charge. On her return in the 1920s, she founded the advocacy group that evolved into Planned Parenthood and remained an unflagging evangelist for birth control. Gradually, her movement forced women's hope and ability to limit pregnancies into public discourse.

But none of this agitation produced what she really hoped for: a simple pill that would allow women to decide when or if they wanted to get pregnant. In 1950, she found a scientist to help with her quest:

Margaret Sanger met Gregory Pincus to talk about nothing less than a revolution. No guns or bombs would be involved -- only sex, the more the better. Sex without marriage. Sex without children. Sex redesigned, re-engineered, made safe, made limitless, for the pleasure of women. ...Sanger gazed across a coffee table at Pincus and made her pitch. She was seventy-one years old. She needed this. So did he.

"Do you think it would be possible...?" she asked. ...

"I think so," Pincus said. It would require a good deal of research, he added , but yes, it was possible. ...

"Well," she said, "then start right away."

Pincus was a maverick scientist who felt he'd been denied the fame and respect he deserved. He'd been booted from Harvard in the mid-1930s because newspaper accounts of his experiments with rabbit fertility implied he might want to do similar work with human subjects. Subsequently he set up a poorly funded independent research lab in Worcester, MA. His work on hormone biology did make development of the birth control pill possible. But he carried the same disregard for the effects of his experiments on his women subjects as he had had on his unfortunate rabbits. Somewhat reluctantly, he partnered with Dr. Rock who really was interested in helping infertile women get pregnant, but also hoped a Pill that mimicked nature might pass muster with his own Catholic authorities. And Sanger found Katharine McCormick to pay for it all.

McCormick received a science degree from M.I.T. in 1904, an extraordinary accomplishment at that time. She married soon after, forgoing a medical career -- and not long after that, her husband sank in to schizophrenia. Though Katharine never gave up her feminist convictions, agitating for votes for women and birth control, she devoted the next 43 years to ensuring the care of her husband. He died in 1947, leaving her 35 million dollars. And thereafter, she devoted herself to supporting Pincus' research on the Pill and building a dorm for women at M.I.T.

These four were colorful characters, but I could have wished that Jonathan Eig could have given us a little more about some of the other figures and matters he mentions in passing.
  • I would have liked to read more about Pincus' co-worker M.C. Chang, a Chinese scientist who turned up via studies in Scotland and England, lived in a corner of the laboratory, and seems to have spent years dissecting rabbits for Pincus. Eig says he put up with these conditions because of his Confucianism. Huh?
  • It seems clear that early trials of the Pill in Puerto Rico would never meet current ethical standards for informed consent from human subjects. And the researchers knew they somehow had a good thing going in this exotic locale where they found compliant subjects, women who would stick to the trial and take their pills, despite side effects which caused medical students and mainland women to drop out. Yet Eig never really explores why the Puerto Ricans were so much more cooperative. There seems to have been an intersection of poverty, social and familial conditions, as well as women's self-realization going on there that this book never explores -- just as the scientists seem to have been oblivious to the lives of these women.
  • For feminists who've heard of Sanger nowadays, we've probably heard of her as a racial eugenicist, a privileged advocate for the purity of a white race. Eig takes the view that her eugenics enthusiasm was only in part a true expression of her beliefs:

    [Eugenics in the '20s meant] a biological program that would reduce the size of immigrant and racial groups they deemed less desirable. It was no great surprise that Sanger, who learned about eugenics from Havelock Ellis, would find it attractive. 'More children from the fit, less from the unfit -- that is the chief issue of birth control,' read a 1919 editorial in Sanger's Birth Control Review. She believed that women should be empowered to control and limit their own reproduction. She also argued that the government would not have to resort to welfare for the poor if society used the same efficient reproductive techniques as 'modern stockbreeders' to improve the health of the populace. ... Even after World War II, when the Nazis attempted to eradicate whole races and religions using sterilization and mass murder to accomplish their goals, Sanger held firm.'Parenthood,' she said repeatedly, 'should be considered a privilege, not a right.' ...

    ... Sanger had begun her crusade as an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, but in cozying up to the eugenicists she had effectively converted it, as historian David M. Kennedy wrote, 'from a radical program of social disruption to a conservative program of social control.' ... If she wasn't quite married [to the racial eugenicists] she'd been in bed with them for so long that there was no way to call it off. ...

    How to come to terms with a figure with such repulsive views who nonetheless helped liberate sex for women? Now there's a worthy topic.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

It could be that I'm the last woman on earth who has never taken oral contraceptives or "hormone replacement." The initial reaction of many was suspicion, but that was because we were the kind of women who could successfully control our reproduction with barrier contraceptives, for the most part, and had access to abortion if necessary. I don't think I was aware at that time of how little agency many women had in their sex lives and how they often ended up with more children than they wanted.

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