Thursday, December 11, 2014

Q&A with Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig is the author of the new book The Birth of The Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. He also has written Luckiest Man, Opening Day, and Get Capone. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, he lives in Chicago.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about the history of the birth control pill, and how did you choose to focus on those particular four people?

A: There’s a long story behind how I came to this topic, which you can read here if you want the whole deal.

The short answer is that I heard a rabbi say more than a decade ago that he considered the birth-control one of—if not THE—most important inventions of the twentieth century, and after I thought it about a bit, it struck me as strange that I knew nothing of how it was invented.

Upon further reflection, it struck me as even more strange that anyone would invent a pill designed to liberate women when it was men who controlled all of science, business and government in the 1950s and when birth control was essentially illegal.

That got my curiosity going. When I began looking into it, I found these great characters at the heart of the story, all of them outsiders, rebels, dreamers, all of them taking on extraordinary risks to accomplish something that many considered impossible.

Choosing these four particular protagonists—Margaret Sanger, Gregory Pincus, Katharine McCormick, and John Rock—was not particularly difficult. Other people played important roles, but these four stood out. Take away any one of them, and there is no pill.

Also, each of these four truly qualified as crusaders. Each of them understood that they were essentially challenging orthodoxy and trying to unleash forces that would change the world. 

Q: In the book, you write, “Science would do what the law so far had not; it would give women the chance to become equal partners with men. This was the technology Sanger had been seeking all her life.” Do you think Margaret Sanger, who died less than a decade after the pill became available, would have been satisfied with the societal changes sparked by the pill in the decades after her death?

A: Sanger would have been pleased, I think, to see that the pill accomplished so much of what she’d hoped it would. It allowed men and women to enjoy more sex without fear of pregnancy. It gave women opportunities they might never have had. It dramatically reduced maternal and infant deaths. The list goes on and on.

But of course she could not have foreseen all its complicated effects. I think she’d be disappointed that it wasn’t more help in fighting population growth in developing countries. And I think she’d be horrified that it didn’t settle for once and for all the question of whether women should have the freedom and power to control their own bodies and make their own choices about reproduction.

Q: You write of John Rock’s decision to work on the pill, “Was he going to commit to a project that would put him in direct opposition to the Catholic Church, the same church to which he had been devoted since boyhood?” How was Rock able to handle this opposition?

A: Over time, Dr. Rock became increasingly convinced that he was right and the Catholic Church was wrong about birth control. He believed married couples should be encouraged to enjoy sex even when they don’t want children. He believed women should have access to safe and effective contraception and that women should be entitled to have abortions when pregnancy threatened their health.

He also believed that by stating these opinions publicly and attracting support from Catholics he could persuade the Church to change its rules. He was wrong, of course, and it turned out to be one of the great disappointments of his life.

Q: How did this pill become “The Pill,” not needing further identification?

A: As I say in the book, there’s no such thing as The Car or The TV. But The Pill needed no name because it was so special, so different from anything that had come before, and so quickly and stunningly revolutionary in nature. There had never been a medicine for healthy people before. There had never been a method of birth-control so simple and so effective before.

Of course, another reason the name caught on may be that women were unsure how to describe what they wanted or else they were a little embarrassed when they went to see their doctors for the first time, so they refrained using the terms “birth control” and “contraceptive” and instead simply said they were interested in “The Pill.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book is the biography of Muhammad Ali. Although I’m not so comfortable with braggadocio as my subject, I have to say that I think it’s going to be the greatest.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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