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The Pill

Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, #500, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada
Directed by Erna Buffie and Elise Swerhone
VHS, color, 45 min.
College - Adult
Women's Studies, History, Health Sciences

Reviewed by Lori Widzinski, Health Sciences Library, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   

The opening song, 1956 hit "Ain't That a Shame," sets the period, the mood, and the message behind this award winning documentary. Buffie and Swerhone have created a multi-faceted program that looks at the striking impact the development of the birth control pill had on social, medical, political and economic norms in the United States. In addition to being a pharmaceutical history, The Pill explores the events that shaped the beginning of the consumer health movement and informed consent.

In the 1950s, birth control proponent Margaret Sanger introduced wealthy heiress Katherine McCormack to physician/researcher Dr. Carl Pincus who was working on an oral contraceptive. McCormack's funding of his research led to Dr. Pincus contacting a physician colleague in Puerto Rico to conduct the first clinical trials of the pill. Women enthusiastically used the pill, which at that time contained high doses of estrogen, innocent of the fact that they were part of an experiment with the new drug. As reports of side effects increased, they were noted, but largely dismissed because the pill was successful at preventing pregnancies. There were three deaths thought to be associated with the drug, but never substantiated. While the Puerto Rican trials produced the most clinical data at the time, it was, as one historian described it, "a footnote in the annals of the history of the pill."

As the pill gained a foothold in the U.S., the stock of its manufacturer, Searle, soared. One year after its release, 132 women using the pill had developed thromboembolic disease (blood clotting). By 1963 the cases tripled. The economic and social pressures to keep using the pill were so strong that investigating the association of blood clotting and other serious symptoms to the drug were never pursued. By the late 1960s, a British committee published the first scientific link between high doses of estrogen and the formation of blood clots. Soon after, the seminal event that started the notion of informed consent and patient education occurred with the publication of Barbara Seaman's The Doctor's Case Against the Pill. The furor over this book led to the 1970 Senate hearings on the pill, which led to a group of young women protesting uninformed consent, which led to patient packaging inserts and warning labels on drugs.

Like the fabled house that Jack built, The Pill superbly spotlights each step in the development of a female oral contraceptive, and how they built a foundation for some of the most important issues of the new post-WWII society. First rate editing and the use of film interviews from the 50s and 60s as well as political cartoons and folk songs of the era are part of the strong emotional impact of this production. It will push some buttons for both those who lived through this time in our history as well as those looking in from another perspective. The treatment is relatively balanced, with an emphasis on women's rights. Highly recommended for library collections supporting health sciences, women's studies, and history collections.