A new history chronicles the haphazard struggle to invent the birth-control pill
The Birth of the Pill:
How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution
by Jonathan Eig
W. W. Norton & Company
$27.95 List Price
A century ago, a woman who wanted to prevent or terminate a pregnancy had to exercise ingenuity. If she was fortunate, her partner could afford condoms (and was willing to use them), or she could buy a device called a Mizpah pessary, a proto-diaphragm sold under the guise of “womb support.” More commonly, though, women douched with Lysol after sex, or, under more desperate circumstances, swallowed turpentine water, poked themselves with knitting needles, rolled down stairs, or hit their abdomens with a hammer.
Today, better options exist. Because the hormonal birth-control pill so profoundly surpassed what came before, it is easy to think that the problem of contraception is solved. But if Gregory Pincus and John Rock, the scientists who developed the first oral contraceptive, were alive today, they would marvel at our lack of progress. Most birth control now available offers only modifications of a method that is more than fifty years old. Research has been stagnant for decades, and private-sector pharmaceutical companies have all but abandoned the search for better contraceptives. During five decades of rapid technological innovation, the shortcomings of birth control have remained constant: Women who cannot take hormones have few options available to them, men do not have a pill, and the condom remains the only contraceptive that is effective in preventing both pregnancy and infection. Almost half of American women will have an unintended pregnancy before the age of forty-five, and three in ten will have an abortion.
The right wing’s hostility toward women only exacerbates
REGISTERED USERS of bookforum.com and BOOKFORUM SUBSCRIBERS have access to this article, but must be logged in to view it. If you are not a registered user of bookforum.com, please create your free login here. If you are a subscriber, but haven’t activated your online account, please do so here.
SUBSCRIBE NOW for access to our online archives,* and receive the printed magazine for the discounted rate of $18 a year.**