The Misuse of History in 2021 Documentary "The Business of Birth Control"Historians in the News
tags: abortion, documentaries, birth control, Reproductive Justice
Donna J. Drucker, MLS, PhD, is Assistant Director of the Office of Scholarship and Research Development at the Columbia University School of Nursing. Her books include Contraception: A Concise History (MIT Press, 2020) and Fertility Technology (MIT Press, forthcoming 2023).
“The Business of Birth Control,” a 2021 film directed by Abby Epstein and executive produced by Ricki Lake, tells a selective history of contraceptives in the United States and aims to “empower” women (and persons with uteri generally) to make knowledgeable choices about their choice of preventative methods. However, as previous critics of the film have pointed out, the film criticizes “Big Pharma,” particularly Merck (manufacturers of the Nuvaring) and Bayer (manufacturer of Yaz and Yasmin pills), and then points viewers uncritically toward fertility awareness methods (FAM) and their accompanying technologies (Lady Comp and Daysy), companies that provided a portion of the film’s financial backing. Additionally, the film’s website offers a “Body Literacy Masterclass,” in which viewers may interact with the experts profiled in the film and may learn more about fertility awareness methods through their recorded videos.
Rather than centering the narrow pill-to-FAM information pipeline, though, this review focuses instead on three ways that the filmmakers use history to examine the modern contraceptive movement and pharmaceutical manufacturers and build their case for FAM. Examining the film’s perspectives on Margaret Sanger, the feminist women’s health movement, and the connection between race, pill testing, and forced sterilization shows not only that the filmmakers misread these histories in service of their argumentative interests, but also that misinformation in the film could lead present-day viewers to make ill-informed choices about contraceptives.
First, the main historical figure that the film addresses is Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), founder of the organization that would later become Planned Parenthood. It shows photographs of Sanger’s early activism to spread birth control information among poor women in New York City beginning in 1914. However, it glosses over her organizational work and support of medical research on diaphragms and cervical caps to highlight her turn toward eugenics via a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace. The interviews with historians Linda Gordon and Deirdre Cooper Owens center on their comments that Sanger was a lifelong racist and eugenicist, but in fact, her earliest motivation was to prevent women’s premature deaths from self-induced abortion and to give poor women some control over pregnancies when their husbands refused to use condoms. Sanger’s initial efforts provided unaware women information about their bodies and offered recipes for inexpensive, homemade spermicides as contraceptives—not dissimilar to those that the filmmakers claim for themselves.
Second, the Feminist Women’s Health Movement (now the National Women’s Health Network) appears at two points in the film, but its development and activities are misrepresented. The filmmakers include powerful primary source clips of the January 1970 pill hearings held by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, in which young activists from DC Women’s Liberation, led by Alice Wolfson, interrupted the all-male witness panel and demanded to share their experiences with the pill. The protests eventually led to the US Food and Drug Administration’s requirement that pharmaceutical manufacturers include printed information for patient-consumers on side effects in all medication containers. The Feminist Women’s Health Movement appears again when the film addresses the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in January 1973, but viewers are told that “the energy of the mainstream women’s movement turned away from the body and toward getting power in society.” There is a brief image of women in the shoulder-padded business suits of the 1980s walking along an urban street, and then the film moves on.
The allegation that feminist women’s health advocates turned to workplace concerns and away from bodily needs is simply untrue.
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