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.


30 Responses to “the pill & the pope”

  1. Janet O'Connor April 26, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    I read this article out of sheer curiosity and after I got done reading it, I had a couple of thoughts which I would like to share with you. First, how on Earth could Pope Pius favor the use of the Pill in 1958 the same year that he died, and the Pill was not even invented until two years later in May 1960? Perhaps it was a different contraceptive? The use of the Pill has led to the Culture of Death, demographic declines and a host of other problems including economic collapses in 2008? Any Thoughts? Any answers on these issues you do not seem to want to face but Popes Pius XI and Paul VI did in 1931 and 1968 respectively. Think it over carefully before you make these kind of statements without facing some very hard truths I speak about.

    • annaojesus April 26, 2011 at 11:23 pm #

      Dear Ms. O’Connor,

      Thank you for your input. I wanted to inform you of the responses others have left to your comments, in case you were not otherwise alerted. Quite the discussion!

      Thanks for stopping by. a

    • Eric Rosoff April 27, 2011 at 12:24 am #

      Damnit, Janet. I love you…because you’ve given me a great opportunity to talk about the Culture of Death.

      Neo-natal Death. Neo-nates are more likely to die when they are the product of an unintended pregnancy. Failure to use contraception is the number one cause of unintended pregnancy.

      Maternal Death. Unintended pregnancies have worse outcomes for women, too. It’s good we still have a backup plan, because women are many times more likely to die giving birth than from having an abortion.

      That leads me to what I’m sure will be your favorite: Abortion. It’s the most common outcome of an unintended pregnancy.

      I feel strongly about the Culture of Death that is propagated by those that oppose contraception. Let’s save as many neonates, women, and fetuses as we can by using effective contraception.

      Lastly, with regard to your “history” lesson: As Anna mentioned, the pill was being tested in clinical trials starting in the early 50s. Pius did indeed approve of the morality of its use for menstrual disorder in 1958, two years before it was approved by the F.D.A. – not two years before it was invented.

      “Think it over carefully before you make these kind of statements without facing some very hard truths I speak about.”

  2. Erin Zoller April 26, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    “The use of the Pill has led to the Culture of Death, demographic declines and a host of other problems including economic collapses in 2008? Any Thoughts?”

    My thoughts? Are you off your rocker?
    Are you kidding me? Are you a birther, too? Do you think aliens landed in Roswell in 1947 and the government is covering it up?
    What in the WORLD are you talking about?

    This is part of the reason why differing sides of the abortion/contraceptive debate can barely hold a conversation with each other. You reference “truths” that I don’t see as truths at all. Referencing literature written by popes as some sort of final say or proof on any matter only further alienates me from your points and makes me stop listening.
    I am currently pregnant with a planned pregnancy, but it has only strengthened my views on MY right to PLAN my parenthood. Some guy in Rome who has never met me has the balls to tell me what I can do with my body? This is a man who singularly leads a church that covers up child rape. That, along with just about everything else the Catholic Church stands for, isn’t a truth to me by a LONG shot.

    • annaojesus April 26, 2011 at 11:25 pm #

      Love it. Love your articulate opinions. Love that you’re going to be a mother…and your child sure is lucky–he/she could not have better parents!

  3. Meg April 26, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    Great post, Anna! I didn’t know anything about Dr. Rock (although I am a fan of WC Williams). I hadn’t thought about the religious implications of having a “period” every month. Interesting information! Thanks!

    • annaojesus April 26, 2011 at 11:26 pm #

      Meg, thank you! You are such sweet heart! I check in with you “religiously” (pun intended, poor as it is)…you make me want to get married or have a major life event all over again! Will be in Beantown end of June…JP Licks date?? My treat, please!

  4. Jim Oppenheimer April 26, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    The matter of reproductive rights is a real flashpoint, as the utterly over-the-top reply you already received sadly demonstrates.
    We assume so many things:

    A woman ought to have the right to control over her own body. No, a lot of folks think that’s just communistic nonsense. If women don’t “ant” to do the right thing (what the thinker sincerely believes is right), then she needs to be stopped and forced to do the right thing.

    A woman ought to be free of pain. No, the Bible clearly teaches that woman’s pain is a curse on her from God. There was a major argument over whether it was ethical to allow women anesthesia or any kind of analgesic for birth pains. (gag me with a spoon)

    The antiabortion movement has the distinction of advocating fiercely for the rights of children from conception, and ending at birth.

    A little personal note: when my partner and I were having fertility difficulties, it was Planned Parenthood that gave us enormous support, for which we will always be grateful. About five per cent of their budget goes to abortions. They do a heck of a lot of other grand stuff, helping folks who have nowhere to go.

    • annaojesus April 26, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

      Beautifully said, Uncle Jim. Truly, thank you! And the man has a Masters of Divinity…that has to give you some authority, right?

      And thank you for sharing a bit about your experience with Planned Parenthood…I didn’t know that, and I would love to talk about it more with you, if you’re willing.

      Love you!

  5. Jim Oppenheimer April 26, 2011 at 11:21 pm #

    Uh, it should read <>

  6. Erin Zoller April 27, 2011 at 12:54 am #

    Where is most of the anti-abortion movement when children are unwanted or aren’t given the proper resources? The “right to life?” How about the right to a WANTED life?

    Actually, we had a dear Catholic family friend when I was growing up that put her energy towards making keeping a fetus until birth a easier CHOICE. She volunteered to help new mothers living in poverty. So not everyone who is against abortion stops caring after the decision to keep the fetus until term is made.

    The other important point is that the anti-contraceptive movement fails to understand is that without birth control, some women have no control over pregnancy. MANY women in our country and around the world do not have control of their sex lives. And women who don’t have control of their sex lives can’t prevent pregnancy.

    • annaojesus April 27, 2011 at 11:30 am #

      I can’t agree with you more, Erin. I’ve also been similarly fortunate to know some truly awe-inspiring women and men who consider themselves profoundly religious and have dedicated much effort to providing women with a greater range of options through pregnancy and postpartum, which is not a piece I want to ignore. Thanks for bringing it up.

      Unfortunately, without the option of contraceptives and abortion, how could it be possible for women to even come close to achieving equality with their male counterparts? While I certainly respect and appreciate the opinions of smart, thoughtful people who disagree with me regarding abortion, I’m pretty shocked by the anti-contraceptive philosophy. What’s the benefit?

  7. brenna April 27, 2011 at 4:08 am #

    Great article my Malcolm Gladwell on the subject!

    Outlines the history of John Rock as well.

    • annaojesus April 27, 2011 at 11:34 am #

      Brenna! How are you doing? Thank you so much for the article! I only read the first section on John Rock so far, but it’s a fantastic piece! Love the writing, love the subject!

      Some of my classmates are seeing Thao perform soon…when are YOU performing?? Would love to hear your voice again!

  8. Caitlin April 27, 2011 at 7:12 am #

    I will write to you personally later, but I’d like to respond briefly to your post and a few of the comments here. This is a brutal topic for many: the physical pain of birth contrasted with the emotional emptiness of infertility placed against the fear of bringing a child into the world seemingly all alone and even facing the tragedy of a rape or abuse or sex work and no one story is exactly like another. No assumption can cover every woman’s life, body, spirit, and experience.
    I find many of these comments to focus on inflammatory accusations rather than promoting dialogue. As a Catholic I believe that life starts at conception and continues through a natural death. I believe that the leading cause of unplanned pregnancies is not a lack of effective contraception but instead sex (planned or not). I do not hold these beliefs with a purpose of judging anyone else’s choices, but with a hope to promote the value and dignity of human life (all life – that of the mother and the baby and the father – an important but often forgotten part of this conversation). I choose not to begin a fight with any one person or statement but I would like to request respect for a community of people who support life and oppose death and want to raise the standards of life and care for children and mothers rather than resorting to a drugs or surgical procedures to end/prevent pregnancy. Humanae Vitae is a powerful teaching on the love that God has for all people from a flawed (as all of us are) but holy and devoted man. I do not argue that any Pope or any other Catholic has ever been perfect or sinless, but please please please do not accuse our quest for mercy, justice, life, and love for lives that start at conception as blasphemous.
    I hope I have been able to stand up for the belief in life without attacking anyone or stirring a nasty debate.

    • Eric April 27, 2011 at 9:10 am #

      Anna didn’t really mention abortion – I did, and it was really only to point out something I think you’ve implied by sharing your own beliefs, that those who oppose abortion sometimes also oppose contraception. Contraception prevents abortion, and as John Rock hoped the Pope would understand, the birth control pill does this by preventing conception – that’s before the Catholic definition of life.

      For humans, sex is an instinctual behavior and a natural part of a healthy adult life that contributes to our happiness and social bonding. That’s really less of an opinion than it is a widely understood fact.

      It seems to me that opposition to contraception is more about discomfort with sex than it is about saving or improving lives. This is particularly true when one considers how important sex is to improving the quality of our lives, but also when you revisit the points I made in a previous comment (unintended pregnancies that carry to term have worse health & social outcomes for Mom & child).

      Like every measure of health, these outcomes disproportionately impact women of lower socio-economic status, keeping them poor and disenfranchised.

      You mentioned fertility, and I think it’s an important added benefit of contraception. Barrier methods (and maybe even some non-barrier methods) of contraception prevent infections that can lead to infertility.

      If preventing disease is a laudable goal, if protecting women’s health, life, and fertility is a laudable goal, if preventing infant death is a laudable goal, and if women’s equality is a laudable goal, it is vital to have effective methods to separate sex from reproduction & disease.

      For the most part, it seems to me that you and I have similar goals (mercy, justice, life). Medical evidence unequivocally shows that effective contraception is the way to achieve them.

      • annaojesus April 27, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

        Caitlin & Eric,

        I want to thank you for your very thoughtful comments. I was going to respond slightly differently, but I think Eric more than made my point (quite articulately and passionately; thank you), and I don’t find the need to be redundant.

        Caitlin, I hope it goes without saying that I have always respected and admired your faith. In fact, you are someone I cite quite frequently as someone with whom I tend to disagree on some points, but with whom I will always engage in discussion, because we will always respect and love one another.

        I actually came very close to referencing something you once told me in the original post. Several years ago, you explained to me why you came down in support of contraceptive use. Simply put, some people should not be parents, but that does not mean that they should never have sex. You were referring to (mainly if not solely) married couples, and I, in my belief system, extend that to any individuals, but at the crux of the argument we have a huge point of overlap: sex can be appropriate without a desire for parenthood.

        I’m a little surprised that my post hit such a negative chord. With the exception of the last line, I thought I did an okay job expressing some of the conflicts of a profoundly religious man, whose faith led him to push for the acceptance of oral contraceptives, and who felt extreme disappointment with the Church’s ultimate decision against them. My gut inclination is to apologize and make it all better, but I truly don’t think there is anything for which I need to apologize. I didn’t call the entire Catholic Church blasphemous, just that one particular philosophy. It was a criticism, not an insult. And I feel like, whether in conversation, over email, or on facebook, we’ve all exhibited human nature and expressed opinions that are “inflammatory.” There have been some comments that have frankly rubbed me a little raw, but I’ve done my best to appreciate that sometimes it’s appropriate for us to air our grievances frankly and with minimal inhibition, if only because I feel like it does promote dialogue.

        Also, I’m not sure that you know this, but “Jim” (above) is a minister (albeit not Catholic), an incredibly religious and spiritual man, and his take on this subject was very very different. This post was not an attack on the Catholic Church. There are a number of religious sects that share this philosophy on contraceptives, which I feel, in the modern era, is antiquated and dangerous.

        Thank you both for your very thoughtful insights. I hope that my appreciation is apparent, and I would be more than happy to continue this discussion in this forum or in private.

        much love,

  9. Michelle Ellwood (Jen's friend) April 27, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    Great post, Anna.

    • annaojesus April 27, 2011 at 11:34 am #

      Ha! I like to think of you as my friend as well 🙂 Thanks so much, Michelle! I hope I get to see your beautiful face in June!

  10. RM April 27, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    i agree there’s no biologic reason that women on OCP’s need monthly periods. some women feel uncomfortable, though, without the monthly confirmation that they’re not pregnant.

    • annaojesus April 27, 2011 at 11:37 am #

      That’s a very good point, Rick, thank you! I have to admit, it took me a LONG time to come around…not until several lectures into the repro block, did I feel like, okay, this might actually make sense. And I certainly believe that women should be comfortable with their choice of contraceptive; if that means a monthly withdrawal bleed, I’m in full support. Thanks for checking in.

      How are you and that lovely wife of yours??

  11. Daniel W. Phariss April 7, 2015 at 11:14 pm #

    I think, if you do some research, that the Pope refused to allow the use of the pill because it interferes with natural sex, Gods plan for humans, the REASON for sex, other than lust and that it would result in the exact immorality we are seeing today, abortion, gay “marriage” and a host of other things. A major problem today is our low birth rate. Its too low the support the society. So the Gov’t lets in illegals to bump up the numbers and some hope they will vote for more socialism. We simply cannot survive with the current birth rate. China is figuring this out now too. That the pill lead to abortion is simply a fact. Now in Europe they are discussing post birth abortion. Even though their birth rate is so low and the Muslim birth rate so high that Europe will be a Caliphate by 2050 by some predictions. The pill has been a disaster is many ways. I only came to this conclusion too late. I am 65 and won’t be having any more kids. Doctors are not reliable reference for morality. Until Rowe v Wade the AMA stated that life began at conception, as it does. But after Rowe v Wade they saw an another income source and this changed their mind and the “science” changed. Saying the life begins at birth is just silly, well it was until Rowe v Wade.

  12. dispennett September 11, 2019 at 1:42 am #

    I think one thing that’s often missed is the logical connection between contraceptive sex and abortion. So much is often made of the argument, “Well, if people have more unplanned pregnancies, that will lead to more abortions, ergo we need to use contraceptives, to reduce unwanted pregnancies, to reduce abortions.” The problem with this logic is that it stays within the paradigm that completely severs sexuality from reproduction. The paradigm that the Catholic Church gives us says that we may not, through artificial means, sever sexuality from reproduction. Therefore: If I absolutely cannot have a child in situation X (for whatever serious reason), then I absolutely cannot have sex either. This requires a lot of self-control, but the Catholic paradigm (inherited from the Church Fathers) is built on self-control and asceticism. The Catholic goal is to shift the paradigm so that we don’t make sexuality just about pleasure, apart from procreation. The pleasurable aspect is good, but it may never be separated from the reproductive aspect…

    Getting back to my original point, the logical connection between contraception and abortion goes like this. This is a true case I read in the news not too long ago: Mr. A gets a vasectomy. A fluke happens, and somehow some sperm get through; his wife conceives. They decide to have an abortion. What’s the logical connection?

    Contraceptive mindset=How can I have sex with 0% (or as close to 0% as I can get) risk of pregnancy?
    Underlying implication: Baby is unwanted; I must not become a father or mother by this act.
    Abortive mindset: How can I get rid of this embryo/fetus that I’ve conceived?
    Underlying implication: Baby is unwanted; I must not become a father or mother as a result of antecedent sexual acts.

    In the thinking of Pope John Paul II, we must approach every sexual act in marriage with the mindset, “I might become a father” or “I might become a mother.” This approach completely undermines the abortive mindset, and if it were followed by most people, would reduce the number of abortions significantly.

    In other words: Catholics who hold to the Church teaching don’t cooperate with a system they believe to be inherently evil. Rather, they seek to shift the paradigm away from the contraceptive mindset so that abortion, too, will become unthinkable. Some forms of contraception might reduce the number of abortions, but they do so in a way that leaves the underlying problematic mindset unchanged; the contraceptive mindset, in the Catholic view, leaves people with hearts that are closed off to life and to God’s plan for their sexuality. I know that most of you don’t agree with the Catholic paradigm, but please at least try to understand it before you launch into criticism.


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