Sex: college students are pretty much always thinking, talking about, and (sometimes) doing it. That hasn’t always been the case. Recently journalist Jonathan Eig spoke at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School about his new book, “The Birth of the Pill.” The story of the birth control pill’s invention is riddled with twists, turns, dashing characters, and plenty of sexual activity. FM’s conversation with Eig was less salacious, but no less salty or stimulating.
Q: Reviewers have made much of the lack of apparent links between your past projects and newest book. What made you want to write a book about the Pill?
A: My journalistic history is one of looking for the best stories you can find. You jump around a lot. I went to some baseball books and then to a book about some gangsters then to a book about the people who invented the Pill. It doesn’t seem like such a leap. It’s such a great story. I’m drawn to stories about rebels. All my books have that in common.
Q: For many college students, the Pill is a daily fact of social and medical life. What made its invention such a revolution?
A: In the 1950’s, being a woman meant being a mother. Anyone who dared differently dared being labeled an outcast. The Pill had this amazing, huge, almost instant impact on society. You would not have had so many women in graduate school. It’s completely changed women’s opportunity. They could decide when they wanted to get pregnant. That’s something we take for granted now.
Q: You’re a man writing what many interpret as a feminist history. Has that posed any challenges or even opportunity throughout the tour [or] during the writing process?
A: It’s sad that men don’t talk about birth control more. We’re at least a 50 percent partner in this process. The fact that we just sort of punt and let women have all the responsibility and worry for it is wrong. I think as a man I had some advantages. I didn’t have any baggage or any agenda. I wanted to figure out the story and tell it as best I could. Maybe that objectivity allowed me to see things that others would have missed.
Q: What can socially driven entrepreneurs and inventors learn from these rebels today?
A: The lesson for innovators today is that you have to take risks. You have to think big. But it’s also a lot easier to take those risks when you know you’re doing something that’s good for the universe as opposed to something that’s just going to make money. None of these rebels made any money, and none of them really cared.
Q: Since the invention and first use of the Pill, what’s changed about how people use or think about it?
A: The Pill has done a lot of good, but it hasn’t been improved upon the way many thought it would have been. We need to see more and better birth control options, especially for women in developing countries and poor communities. And for men, too. There’s still a responsibility for inventors to look for better approaches.
Q: Why has there been no Pill for men?
A: Men don’t get pregnant, so they don’t care. They should, but they don’t.
Q: What shapes the evolution of that care and investment in these important decisions?
A: It’s a lot of things. It’s driven in part by sexism, the idea that women should have the responsibility of making babies and men can act as innocent bystanders.
Q: The media in the past few years has made much of that disparity in responsibility. Do the “having it all” narrative and Pill fit together?
A: I think the Pill created opportunities and gave women more choices. I don’t think it created the problem of women wanting to have it all. Men have been wanting it all forever, and nobody criticizes them for it.
Q: Conservative cultural critics sometimes decry the Pill for promoting promiscuity. Has the Pill promoted promiscuity? What does that word even mean in a world with the Pill?
A: Yes. The Pill has contributed to more casual sex and more premarital sex. It was inhibited before by the fear of becoming pregnant, and now there’s more fear in some ways. I think that’s a good thing for the most part. People should enjoy having sex, as long as they’re safe about it. Contraception gives people more tools to be safe.
Q: That could be interpreted as a political or religious stance. How do you see your book in a political and/or religious context?
A: I tried to write the book objectively and to let the story speak for itself. I do have my own prejudices, every writer does, and it would be naïve to pretend that any writer truly is objective and impartial. I think birth control has done far more good than harm to society. I think we need more and easier access to contraception. The efforts of some conservative politicians to brand women as sluts because they want to have sex is completely unfair. Nobody’s getting angry at men for making Viagra ads and promoting promiscuity.
Q: A lot of drug companies have been lobbying for faster review periods. Was the quick approval of the Pill historically contingent? Would it be as easy to approve a Pill-sized invention today?
A: The regulatory process has made it much tougher, but the fear of litigation is the biggest problem. Drug companies are wary of dumping tons of money into research when there are a troop of lawyers ready to file class action lawsuits.
Q: Your book covers recent social and scientific history. Who’s still around as a primary source?
A: There were still a fair number of people who knew these scientific players. Their children were often still alive. Some of the women who were among the first to take the pill are still around today. I was able to do a lot of firsthand interviews. The other amazing thing is that scientists write down all of their records. While researching my previous books, I learned that gangsters do not. That was a huge advantage.
Q: There are serious and evolving concerns related to birth control. Innovations like IVF, artificial insemination, the Pill, etc. have led many to wonder if there’s such a thing as too much control over birth. Is there?
A: Look, if governments assert control over these personal choices, yes. It’s possible to have too much control. I don’t think that it’s possible for a woman to have too much control over her body. She should have as much as she possibly can.
Q: The Pill’s invention fueled so many popular movements and sentiments. Why have researchers and journalists ignored this history?
A: It may have something to do [with] that it’s still fairly recent. We might still be getting our arms around what it all meant. It’s also a function of sexism. We view this product as something really only for women.
Q: The incredibly annoying elevator-pitch question—what’s at the core of your book?
A: For thousands of years, women were seen as nothing but vessels for babies. These four brave rebels decided that they could do something about it and give women control over their own bodies. It should have been impossible, but they pulled it off.