Review: Sweetening the Pill

February 17, 2014

Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control by Holly Grigg-Spall is a poorly written and edited book with no footnotes or index. It has provoked controversy among feminists, especially over its contention that the birth control pill and other hormonal contraception are unsafe. Some say the pill is scientifically proven safe and are concerned this book may fuel recent religious Right attempts to ban it. Others thank Grigg-Spall, saying their health problems resulted from the pill and that feminists should focus on promoting other contraceptive methods.

Grigg-Spall explains that scientific studies can be biased and manipulated and describes outrageous situations in which this happened with both the earliest and most recent generations of birth control pills. On the other hand, many feminists have analyzed how she blatantly does the exact same thing by twisting her supposedly scientific evidence to show that all hormonal contraceptives are harmful. She also hypocritically ignores the experiences of women who prefer the pill.


Grigg-Spall only briefly mentions what should be one of her most important topics: the close relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies and the resulting obsession of many doctors with putting all women on lifetime prescriptions of hormones. Instead of making this part of a coherent critique of capitalism, she makes vague statements that capitalism promotes hormonal contraception because it supposedly allows women to perform monotonous tasks. She spends most of the book making biologically essentialist, sexist claims that women’s thought processes, and in fact our very selves, are controlled by our reproductive cycles.

Grigg-Spall makes confused, rambling attempts to put her critique of the pill into feminist, anti-capitalist philosophy, but, deliberately or not, she constantly repeats the lies of the Right that attempt to give a feminist spin to their own propaganda. She claims women in developing countries don’t want contraception, sex-positive feminism means “making women sexually available to men at all times,” feminists view “pregnancy as a disease,” and most abortions are for economic reasons. She even trashes Planned Parenthood.


There is a danger readers alienated by their doctors may follow Grigg-Spall into her partially anti-science and partially Right-wing ideology. Furthermore, the feminist health movement continues to put medical knowledge into the hands of patients, and it is disturbing that some of its leaders give this book glowing reviews. They should follow the example of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, whose book, Our Bodies, Our Selves, balances both scientific research and women’s experiences while dismissing pseudoscience.

Readers put off by Grigg-Spall’s disinformation and ideology might get an inaccurate impression of feminism or think that opposing capitalism is ridiculous. They also might miss the few good ideas she does present, such as the many uses for the Fertility Awareness Method and the need for new contraception methods. The best thing to do with this book is not to ignore it but to critique it to help ourselves learn to think critically and challenge counter-revolutionary philosophies.


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