Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Jonathan Eig's "The Birth of the Pill"

Jonathan Eig is the New York Times best-selling author of four books: Luckiest Man, Opening Day, Get Capone, and, most recently, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. He is currently working on a biography of Muhammad Ali.

Eig applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Birth of the Pill and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Birth of the Pill contains this thrilling quotation: “The foregoing experiments demonstrate unequivocally that it is possible to inhibit ovulation in the rabbit and successful breeding in the rat with progesterone…. It has been determined furthermore that following the sterile period, normal reproduction may ensue.”

Sterility in rabbits and rats? Does it get any better than that?

Fortunately, it does. You see, the characters in my book have embarked on one of the most audacious scientific missions of the twentieth century. They’re going to try to create a hormonal birth-control pill for women, never mind that birth control remains illegal in thirty states, the Catholic Church is sure to put up a fight, and the FDA has never approved anything remotely like this. In many ways, their mission seems like a hopeless cause.

But science doesn’t permit shortcuts. And if the biologist Gregory Pincus is serious about trying to give Margaret Sanger the pill’s she’s been searching for, he’s got to start with basic research, which means rabbit and rats and a lot of mundane work.

In the passage I quoted above, it’s 1952 and Pincus is writing to Planned Parenthood, asking for about $3,000 to fund his work for the next year. He’s explaining that progesterone shut down ovulation in lab animals. He’s also pointing out that the animals were able to reproduce again after the progesterone made them sterile. That’s important because Pincus would be in big trouble if he gave progesterone to women and rendered them permanently infertile. But even with the encouraging early results, Planned Parenthood executives were reluctant to give Pincus money. To them, it seemed like a risky leap from rabbits and rats to women.

So while this passage focuses on administrative details, it’s important because it shows the enormous obstacles he and Sanger are facing. If they can get the money, and if the science works, and if they can find women willing to try this untested drug, and if the pill proves safe and effective, and if they can get a drug company to manufacture it, and if they can get the FDA to approve it, and if the Catholic Church doesn’t attack them… Well, then maybe they really can pull this off. But as of Page 99, it seems highly unlikely.
Learn more about the book and author at Jonathan Eig's website.

The Page 99 Test: Get Capone.

--Marshal Zeringue