Book Review: Well-Behaved? Let's Assume Not.
Jonathan Eig's breezy history of the Pill is engaging, but Katha Pollitt's argument for abortion rights is indispensible
Reviewed by Michael King, Fri., Nov. 28, 2014
PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rightsby Katha Pollitt
Picador, 272pp., $25
The Birth of The Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolutionby Jonathan Eig
W.W. Norton and Co., 400pp., $27.95
"I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud." Katha Pollitt's no-nonsense and vivid polemic intended to "reclaim abortion rights" begins with reclaiming abortion as one necessary aspect of women's overall health care. It is based on what should be the unarguable principle that live, breathing women should always be valued above barely formed embryos (let alone zygotes or just-fertilized eggs). That such a notion is even debatable reflects how irrational – and how misogynistic – our political discussions are about abortion. Pollitt carefully tracks how so many of those discussions consider embryos (or histrionically, "unborn children") as though the woman involved is invisible – sort of a passive container who must be encouraged – or forced – to surrender her own person and her actual choices to the potential person that is her socially designated moral burden.
Addressing her text to the "muddled middle" – that majority that doesn't want "to ban abortion, exactly, but doesn't want it widely available, either" – Pollitt stoutly and clearly defends the proposition: "Terminating a pregnancy is always a woman's right and often a deeply moral decision. It is not evil, not even a necessary evil." Moreover, she argues, "it's good for everyone if women have only the children they want and can raise well." On the way, she undermines the irrational theocratic and patriarchal logic of the anti-abortionists while demonstrating their arguments are inevitably anti-woman, anti-sex, anti-human.
Jonathan Eig's breezy history of the development of the birth control pill – and it became "The Pill," immediately upon arrival in May, 1960 (Federal Drug Administration approval) – is a very different sort of book. It recounts the development of readily available contraception (for like unsafe abortion, inadequate DIY contraception has been with us for thousands of years) primarily through the stories of four "crusaders": feminist Margaret Sanger, philanthropist Katherine McCormick, scientist Gregory Pincus, and doctor John Rock, each of whom played crucial roles in the conception, financing, research, invention, and finally promotion of the ovulation-regulating nostrum that would revolutionize "birth control" (the term was Sanger's invention). Sanger was a visionary who understood that enabling women to control their fertility would be liberating overall; Pincus an unorthodox and often peremptory scientist who was focused on the problem presented by hormonal regulation; McCormick a feminist, heiress, and Sanger acolyte who provided the continuing support for Pincus' research; and Rock a Catholic doctor (both roles crucial to the outcome) with a clear-eyed understanding of the predicament of women (married or unmarried) unable to regulate their pregnancies.
And there were also legions of women who became the (sometimes eager, sometimes reluctant) participants in the testing that established the efficacy of the pill. Eig's pop-history approach has its drawbacks – chronologies are jumbled, and the social context is often write-by-number – but the raw history itself is fascinating (and likely the subject of a public television documentary coming your way).
Eig's book is always engaging; Pollitt's is indispensable.