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The Pill

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“The Pill” airs Monday night on most PBS stations (check local listings).

At the end of one of his Sundance diaries, Aaron Barnhart wrote:

“The Pill,” airing next month on “American Experience,” was merely OK. Afterward, more people seemed to prefer the short that preceded it, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” a quirky little rant about reproductive freedom.

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is available on video (and the website has lots of information).

While it isn’t a great documentary, I did learn a lot from “The Pill” which makes it worth watching. The history of birth control is not a subject that is covered in most schools. The only name I knew in association with the pill was Carl Djerassi (who isn’t even mentioned in the documentary though he is included in this timeline). It focuses on Margaret Sanger who fought for access to birth control, Katharine McCormick who funded the research, the scientist Gregory Pincus and John Rock, a Catholic doctor who conducted the first human trials.

As Salon editor Laura Miller mentions in her review, the best parts are the stories told by women about the period before the pill and how it changed their lives. To illustrate the roles of women in the fifties, footage from Miss America (which was the subject of a better “American Experience” documentary last year). The documentary also explores how the pill changed sex which led to the kind of alarm expressed in this 1966 US News & World Report article.

It brings up the use of women in Puerto Rico to test the Pill (an issue that was explored in Laure Dunphy‘s short film “A Western” which was shown before “Roger & Me” at the 1988 NY Film Festival), and how Pincus and Rock ignored complaints of side effects. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about why Rock’s lack of knowledge of menstruation helped lead to problems with the pill.

In 1969, journalist Barbara Seaman wrote a book critical of the pill which was the subject of congressional hearings. Along with activism at the hearings, this led to changes in the pill. Unfortunately it doesn’t mention that there are women that still can’t sue the pill or look at the current state of birth control (such as the renewed use of condoms to prevent STDs and attempts to develop a male pill).

Upcoming documentaries on “American Experience” include the Oscar nominated “Daughter From Danang on April 7th and on April 21st, Seabiscuit, the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s book (and a feature film this summer).

About Steve Rhodes