The Power Of The Pill

A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World

By Bernard Asbell

Random House 411pp $25

For several years I've stayed at home while you had all the fun,

And every year that came by another baby come.

There's gonna be some changes made right here on nursery hill

You've set this chicken your last time 'cause now I've got the pill.

--Loretta Lynn, The Pill (1973)

Remember the first time you heard that ditty? I do. I remember my devoutly Catholic mother listening to the radio, making sure she heard correctly, then issuing her all-purpose response to the shock-a-minute '70s: "Oh, good Lord."

As Bernard Asbell so wonderfully captures in The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World, the birth-control pill had a tendency to elicit such visceral reactions. Approved in 1960 but controversial well into the 1970s in the U.S. and in some quarters still, the pill not only fundamentally changed the lives of many women but led to a more open discussion of birth control, reproduction, and sexuality in general. The Loretta Lynn lyrics Asbell quotes represent just one reaction. From inner-city tenements to the inner sanctums of the Catholic Church, from bedrooms to boardrooms, everybody had an opinion on the synthetic hormone extracted from the Mexican yam.

Some thought easy birth control was the creation of the devil. Some considered it a godsend: finally, a cheap, simple, nonintrusive way for women to gain better control over their futures. But as Asbell's well-balanced, lively book shows, the pill "was born unplanned--at least by the scientists most widely named as its parents--and it has lived a life full of surprise."

The Pill is a smooth, thorough historical account that is neither fawning nor apologetic about the motives, actions, and considerable flaws of the pill's attending midwives. One of the pill's "mothers," Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, was the child of a frail, sickly woman whom Margaret believed had been bred to death after 11 children and 7 miscarriages. A nurse, Sanger also witnessed the grim result of back-alley abortions and spent her life pushing every political and public-relations button she could to make birth control available. But the book raises unnerving questions about Sanger's motivations: In 1950, she advocated "national sterilization for certain dysgenic types" until such time as contraception was made widely available.

Another pathbreaker, Russell E. Marker, the rebel chemist who performed some essential experiments with progesterone, is shown as a difficult, self-absorbed man whose conflicts with drug companies ultimately led him to quit chemistry. His tussles with Syntex Corp. in its early days in Mexico, when Marker claimed it stole his processes and beat up his assistants, make for lively intrigue. And that's just one of The Pill's corporate soap operas involving G.D. Searle & Co., Parke-Davis, and others.

Asbell's discussion of the Catholic Church's 1963-68 debate over the pill is poignant and disturbing. The author, who acknowledges that much of this material was gleaned from Robert Blair Kaiser's book, The Politics of Sex and Religion, suggests that after years of thoughtful work by a special commission, which included physicians and married couples who felt the Church's ban was too hard-line, Pope Paul VI decided to follow the recommendations of an archconservative faction of cardinals. In 1968, he issued a harsh condemnation of the pill and of contraception in general that drove many Catholics out of the church. Asbell also contends that Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (the current Pope, John Paul II) wrote "kindly" about contraception around this period but was advised to stay out of the debate if he had political ambitions.

The author's explanation of the science of reproduction and contraception is clear and insightful. Oddly, though, The Pill doesn't contain much discussion of oral contraceptives' persistent reputation for side effects and for possible links to cancer and blood clots--or how those claims have affected usage in the U.S., if at all. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks sexual practices in America, as recently as 1990, 28.5% of U.S. women of child-bearing age were using the pill despite health concerns. Asbell's failure to address these matters is a serious gap that would be fatal in a less skillfully presented historical narrative.

But the past is Asbell's strong point. One birth-control strategy he cites: In the sixth century, some learned Greeks advised women that wearing cat testicles in a tube around their navels would prevent conception. That myth is only slightly goofier than one subscribed to by many modern teens: "Everybody knows you can't get pregnant the first time."

Asbell says that by one estimate, the world had 400 million fewer people in 1990 thanks to family planning, though from the number of unplanned pregnancies still occurring, contraceptive options are obviously far from perfect. Asbell suggests that the controversy over RU486, the "morning after" pill, shows that even if a reliable and safe contraceptive were developed today, it might have trouble getting approved. The nation's conservative tilt has a lot to do with that, but The Pill shows that politics and technology are only a part of the complex realm of human sexuality.

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