Pill Inventor Gave Women Protection But Lost His Religion

October 05, 2009|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

The Pill earned its capital letters in my house when my mother found mine after my freshman year in college.

The packet had been designed to resemble a woman's compact so that birth control could be discreet. But I was a flower child and we didn't wear makeup, so I hid mine between the mattress and the box springs of my bed.

I think my mother was looking for trouble.

"You know," she said hotly. "Your father and I never relied on artificial means. We relied on prayer."

"Mom," I said, with just as much heat. "You had four kids in five years. What exactly were you praying for?"

The Pill, and The War, were the reasons I stormed out of my parents' lives - and away from their disapproval - for so long.

All these years later, the Pill became something my generation offered our own daughters, out of a sense of caution and love. Proactive and protective at once.

Malcolm Gladwell tells a different story about the Pill in his new collection of essays, titled "What the Dog Saw."

First printed in The New Yorker, "John Rock's Error" is the story of the devout Catholic scientist who helped invent the Pill and believed that his faith and his work were compatible.

Born in 1890, John Rock attended 7 a.m. Mass almost every day of his adult life, and a crucifix hung above his desk at Harvard, where he taught for more than 30 years.

The approval of the Pill by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960 brought calls for his excommunication, but his faith and his belief in his work remained firm.

Mr. Gladwell describes how hard Dr. Rock worked to dovetail the chemistry of the birth control pill with the rhythm method, the church-approved method of birth control for Catholics.

Dr. Rock theorized that if the rhythm method worked by limiting sex to the safe period of the month created by progestin, why not just use more progestin to expand the safe period?

For the rhythm method to work, a woman needed to count on menstruating once a month, so Dr. Rock built a three-weeks-on, one-week-off cycle into that little compact container of pills. Dr. Rock believed that he had found the perfect compromise between his faith and his science.

At this point in the essay, Mr. Gladwell does what he does best - finds the intersection of science and society to explain how we got where we are.

He flashes forward in time to the 1980s and the present as science tries to understand the particular vulnerability of American women to breast, ovarian and uterine cancers, compared with other countries and cultures. The answer, Mr. Gladwell suggests, may be in the Pill and those 12 periods that it guarantees a woman each year. Dr. Rock's science could have provided a cycle of any length - as newer varieties of the Pill now do.

But "in John Rock's mind, the dictates of religion and the principles of science got mixed up, and only now are we beginning to untangle them."

This means that American women - waiting longer to have children, having fewer of them and breast-feeding for shorter periods of time, if at all - are subject to perhaps 400 periods in a lifetime, compared with women in other cultures who have more pregnancies, breast-feed longer and endure only 100 periods in a lifetime.

"In other words, what we think of as normal - frequent menses - is in evolutionary terms abnormal," Mr. Gladwell writes.

A woman's cycle (the explosive release of an egg from the ovaries and the regular build-up and break-down of the endometrium in the uterus) subjects her body to just the kind of cell division and reproduction that an opportunistic cancer takes advantage of. That is what cancer is, after all: cell division run amok.

It appears, Mr. Gladwell writes with the help of his scientist interviewees, that the price of the Pill's monthly week off may be enormous for women, and not just in terms of menstrual discomfort.

Back to John Rock.

The church would eventually ban the use of the Pill by Catholics. "No amount of word juggling can make abstinence from sexual relations and the suppression of ovulation one and the same thing," concluded the Catholic journal America.

If Dr. Rock had been able to pitch the Pill as an anti-cancer drug instead of an anti-pregnancy drug, his story might have had a different ending.

As it was, however, Dr. Rock abandoned his faith before his death, declaring it nothing but a "solace for the masses."

In the end, Mr. Gladwell writes, neither Dr. Rock nor his church was able to reconcile the requirements of his faith and the results of his science.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays.

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