Archive | 10:15 pm

the pill & the pope

26 Apr

Let me tell you a little about John Rock.  You might have heard of him.  He’s kind of a big deal in the OB/GYN world.  A graduate of Harvard Medical School in 1918 (sadly, one of the few physicians I rave about who didn’t go to Penn…but I wouldn’t trade William Carlos Williams for the world), he was a pioneer in in vitro fertilization and sperm freezing, and he quickly became known as a “ground-breaking infertility specialist.”  Rock was a long-standing advocate of natural family planning and the legalization of other birth control methods (he literally wrote the book on voluntary parenthood), and he was recruited to lead the clinical trials of the oral contraceptive pill in the 1950s, even though he was approaching his 70s and had already attempted retirement.

Rock was also a Catholic.  Or, perhaps more appropriately: Rock was first and foremost a Catholic.  A father of five and a grandfather of fourteen, he attended Mass daily and kept a crucifix on the wall above his office desk.  Rock credited the Catholic Church with steering him to always, even in the face of opposition, follow his conscience.  Over the course of his career, he witnessed the suffering women endured from unwanted pregnancies (the collapsed wombs, premature aging, and economic crises), and he was guided by his humanitarianism.  He believed in the Catholic Church, and he believed in the importance of effective birth control.

If you’re anything like me, you might have dismissed those quasi-obnoxious Seasonique commercials (“Repunctuate your life with fewer periods!”) as the latest gimmick.  How were we supposed to know that we all just bought into the long-accepted, socially ingrained gimmick of the necessity of a monthly period, originally concocted by John Rock?  Those weekly withdrawal bleeds?–Solely an attempt to demonstrate to the Church how “natural” birth control could be.  It used the same natural hormones and, check it out, women still underwent the same monthly discomfort that they always did.  Does anyone else feel just a little uncomfortable with how easily the influence of the Catholic Church worked its way into our private lives?  Though, in all seriousness Dr. Rock, well played.

Pope Pius XII approved use of the pill to treat menstrual disorder in 1958, and Rock thought it was only a matter of time before the Catholic Church approved its use as a contraceptive.  In 1968, Humanae Vitae settled the matter: oral contraception would remain prohibited by the Catholic Church…period.  Dr. John Rock stopped attending Mass.

I can’t get over the name of the encyclical: “Of Human Life.”  Are we not considering the lives that already exist?  I have nothing really profound to say on the matter that hasn’t already been said before by physicians, scientists, activists, and friends who have invested far more time into understanding the nuances and can express the practical sentiments far more eloquently than I, but I leave you with this: 6 million women become pregnant each year.  Half of these are planned.  Unplanned pregnancy is a major public health problem…and I don’t just mean physical health, but mental health, social well-being, and economic security and safety.  The failure of any sect to support the benefits to humanity that could be obtained through the use of contraceptive technology is blasphemy.