AMERICA AND THE PILL: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation. By Elaine Tyler May. Basic Books. 224 pages. $25.95.
Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill, Elaine Tyler May's book is both a historical retrospective and critical analysis of the development and impact of the pill, which is taken by more than 12 million American women.
May has a special connection to the pill. Her father, Dr. Edward T. Tyler, was a clinical researcher who tested the pill in his private practice, and in fact his concerns about the safety of the pill delayed its approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Her mother worked to establish birth control clinics in Los Angeles, where clients could get the pill for free. In addition, May herself was involved in clinical trials of the low-dose pill being tested in the early 1970s.
Likely to be eye-opening for women born in the 1970s and beyond is the notion of researchers and politicians that the pill, when first being tested, was going to control the population boom and save the world from catastrophic hunger and poverty. It neither did this nor created a sexual revolution, but its influence is wide-ranging nonetheless.
May juxtaposes the clinical research and advances with the shifting societal views. Particularly enlightening are passages demonstrating how Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine staff promoted the pill almost completely from the perspective of the male advantage.
May also provides a sampling of responses gathered through an Internet survey asking for feedback about experiences with the pill. What hasn't changed over time, these responses show, is that women either love or hate the pill because of side effects (despite the lower dose of hormones in today's pill), the daily nature of the pill and the lack of protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
The book is both wide-ranging and up-to-date. May reveals how various U.S. presidents and administrations influenced the availability and dissemination of contraception and assesses the development of other types of birth control, while taking stock of the recent developments that allow pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control and morning-after pill prescriptions based on personal moral grounds.
It's a must-read for anyone who wants to have a better understanding of the birth control pill and its direct and indirect influences on women's lives.