On his brilliant 1972 album, FM&AM, the comedian George Carlin predicted that it wouldn’t be long before birth-control pills were available without prescription. Customers would buy them as quickly and easily as a pack of mints.
When that happened, Carlin said, the pills would need snappier names.
“Preg-Not!,” he offered by way of example. “Doctors prefer Embry-no. Here’s one for the ladies: Narry-a-Carry. Something lofty and poetic…Nay-Family-Way. Something for the youngsters…Junior Miss. Here’s a real man’s product: Inconceivable.”
He rattled off more:
He went on: “They’re clever guys. I wouldn’t be surprised if they came up with a birth-control pill that didn’t work all the time. Call it BabyMaybe, available in the six-pack, the sex-pack, and the handy shack-pack for you weekenders.”
You can hear it here:
Why a book about birth control?
I get that a lot.
It’s a fair question. After all, my first three books were about Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Al Capone. Birth control is not exactly the obvious follow up.
I could explain it with a joke. I could tell you that I’m following the old maxim, write about what you know, which in my case would mean sports, violence, and sex. But that wouldn’t be true. Or funny.
I could tell you that I believe strongly that a woman has the right to control her own body and that I was fascinated by the story of how women first began to grasp that control fifty years ago with the invention of the pill. That would be true. But it wouldn’t explain the real reason I wanted to write this book.
In the months ahead, I’ll use this blog to tell you more about why I pursued this story and how I went about reporting and writing the The Birth of the Pill. For now, here’s the capsule version.
First, my wife made the brilliant observation that women buy more books than men. She went on to suggest that I should try writing a book that might appeal to this larger audience. But even after deciding that I would try to follow my wife’s advice, which I always do, I had to figure out where to start.
Almost accidentally, I came across the story of Gregory Goodwin Pincus, the inventor of the birth-control pill. I remembered reading a story in 1999 in The Economist that called the pill the most important invention of the twentieth century—bigger than the atomic bomb, the airplane, the Internet…even bigger than the stuffed-crust pizza. I was curious (always a good sign): If the pill was so important, why wasn’t Gregory Pincus famous?
I began doing research, and the story I found blew me away. Pincus was fired from Harvard in the 1930s because his ideas were too radical, his style too bold. He was working out of a garage, practically destitute, when he happened to meet Margaret Sanger, an aging radical who had dreamed for more than forty years of a birth-control pill that would permit women to take more pleasure in sex and let them choose when or if they wanted to get pregnant. Every scientist Sanger ever spoke to told her such a pill would be impossible. Science wasn’t ready. Society certainly wasn’t ready. Birth control, after all, was illegal at the time.
Pincus had nothing to lose, and he had an idea that making a pill wasn’t going to be as difficult as other scientists believed. If you’ve got the money, he told Sanger, I’ll make you a pill.
And so it began—one of the most unlikely and miraculous quests in the history of science. I like to tell my sports fan friends to think of it as Rocky with a lot more menstruation. It’s a joke, but only partly, because, honestly, I think this is one of greatest underdog stories ever told. You’d certainly be had pressed to find one with a greater impact.
Gregory Pincus was asked once why he invented the pill.
His answer: because a woman asked me to.
I can relate to that.
In the 2001 documentary The Life Of Bob Marley, Esther Anderson, who was Marley’s girlfriend, claims she helped write the lyrics to I Shot the Sheriff and that the song is about birth control.
I still prefer to think it’s about a guy who shot a sheriff, probably in a drug dispute. If the song really is about birth control, it can’t compare to The Pill by Loretta Lynn.
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I shot the sheriff
But I didn’t shoot no deputy, oh no! Oh!
I shot the sheriff
But I didn’t shoot no deputy, ooh, ooh, oo-ooh.)
Yeah! All around in my home town,
They’re tryin’ to track me down;
They say they want to bring me in guilty
For the killing of a deputy,
For the life of a deputy.
But I say:
Oh, now, now. Oh!
(I shot the sheriff.) – the sheriff.
(But I swear it was in selfdefense.)
Oh, no! (Ooh, ooh, oo-oh) Yeah!
I say: I shot the sheriff – Oh, Lord! –
(And they say it is a capital offence.)
Yeah! (Ooh, ooh, oo-oh) Yeah!
Sheriff John Brown always hated me,
For what, I don’t know:
Every time I plant a seed,
He said kill it before it grow –
He said kill them before they grow.
Read it in the news:
(I shot the sheriff.) Oh, Lord!
(But I swear it was in self-defense.)
Where was the deputy? (Oo-oo-oh)
I say: I shot the sheriff,
But I swear it was in self defense. (Oo-oh) Yeah!
Freedom came my way one day
And I started out of town, yeah!
All of a sudden I saw sheriff John Brown
Aiming to shoot me down,
So I shot – I shot – I shot him down and I say:
If I am guilty I will pay.
(I shot the sheriff,)
But I say (But I didn’t shoot no deputy),
I didn’t shoot no deputy (oh, no-oh), oh no!
(I shot the sheriff.) I did!
But I didn’t shoot no deputy. Oh! (Oo-oo-ooh)
Reflexes had got the better of me
And what is to be must be:
Every day the bucket a-go a well,
One day the bottom a-go drop out,
One day the bottom a-go drop out.
I – I – I – I shot the sheriff.
Lord, I didn’t shot the deputy. Yeah!
I – I (shot the sheriff) –
But I didn’t shoot no deputy, yeah! No, yeah!