Bitter Pill

For Catholics of a certain age, John Rock’s name evokes distant battles. Popularly viewed as the “father” of the birth control pill (“stepfather” was more accurate, according to Rock), the Boston physician and cradle Catholic was also famous for a 1963 book that argued for a modification of the church’s ban on all modes of artificial contraception. (The book was ghostwritten, as it happens, by Planned Parenthood professionals, although clearly expressive of Rock’s own views.) At least in the American context, Rock’s was one of the earliest lay voices to challenge the teaching publicly, and by far the most prominent.

But although he was eulogized at his death in 1984 mainly in terms of the pill, Rock’s medical career was largely devoted to problems of human infertility. He was seventy when the pill was initially marketed for contraceptive purposes in 1960. By that time he was already famous, having come to public notice in the 1940s when he and assistant Miriam Menkin claimed to have achieved the in-vitro fertilization of a human egg. In the 1950s, several popular magazines ran profiles of Boston’s renowned “fertility doctor”—the last, best hope of barren women longing to augment the baby boom.

The Fertility Doctor is thus aptly titled, and its authors are at their formidable best when dealing with this dominant aspect of Rock’s career. Joint authors of an earlier study on the history of American infertility, Marsh and Ronner—a historian and a gynecologist, respectively—provide a learned but readily accessible context for Rock’s pioneering research in the 1930s and ’40s. Readers will be astonished at how little was known, as late as the 1930s, about the physiology of human reproduction. Rock’s professional reputation was established in that decade by a long-running project that aimed to document, for the very first time, the process by which a fertilized ovum becomes an embryo.

In pursuit of this important goal, Rock clearly violated Catholic moral teaching, as the authors duly acknowledge. They aren’t terribly interested in what might be called the “Catholic angle,” having no moral qualms themselves about the content of Rock’s experiments. Indeed, they note that, for his times, Rock was scrupulous in matters of informed patient consent. For a Catholic reader, however, the “Catholic angle” is bound to be riveting, especially given the current climate in the church.

To carry out his “embryo” experiments, Rock solicited the cooperation of women who frequented the “rhythm clinic” which he had established in 1936 at Boston’s Free Hospital, an institution mainly serving working-class Catholic women. Those patients judged to be in medical need of hysterectomies but not so gravely ill as to require them immediately were asked to keep careful track of their menstrual cycles for several months. During the month preceding her surgery, each patient was asked to have unprotected intercourse during what looked to be, based on menstrual record-keeping, her maximally fertile days. The fertilized ova discovered in the course of surgery provided the data for Rock’s ground-breaking work on the earliest stages of embryonic development.

Rock did not regard these fertilized ova as “human” in any meaningful sense—they embodied potential life, not individuality. The patients who participated in his research presumably felt the same. Rock had in fact endorsed therapeutic abortion in print as a medical necessity in a variety of circumstances—probably none of which would be thought to require abortion today—in 1927. Neither his experimental work nor his views on abortion were a secret. (The “embryo” project received occasional mention in the Boston press.) He was equally open, even in the 1920s, about his conviction that contraception was medically indicated in a great many cases, publicly endorsing repeal in 1931 of a Massachusetts law that forbade dissemination of birth-control information or devices. Rock was also a proponent of artificial insemination with donor sperm-something else prohibited by Catholic moral teaching. But nothing in the historical record suggests that he was ever reproved, much less disciplined, by ecclesiastical authority. Indeed, he numbered several priests among his closest friends.

Matters were otherwise by 1963. Rock received plentiful criticism from Catholic spokesmen for The Time Has Come, in which he argued that the pill—for which he was now a principal public advocate—did not violate the church’s ban on contraception. No barrier was interposed between sperm and egg, he pointed out, nor were any organs mutilated. But amid the storm of public criticism, Rock apparently got private support from a number of priests. Marsh and Ronner are not very good at explaining what emerges in their book as a flat-out contradiction. Their “default version” of Catholicism is rigidly hierarchical and repressive, unremittingly hostile to sex and the body. It would be difficult indeed for an uninformed reader to understand where compassionate priests or dissenting theologians could possibly have come from.

The authors are equally maladroit when it comes to Rock’s own religious sensibilities. Rock, I concede, did little to help them, being generally tight-lipped about spiritual matters. But the authors seem incapable of handling what little evidence they do possess in a nuanced or even plausible way. Described on page 251 as observant but not “devout in the accepted sense of the term,” Rock emerges on the next page as “a nearly daily communicant.” No effort is made to resolve this seeming contradiction, which isn’t even recognized as such. Catholicism appears to be so alien to Marsh and Ronner that their usual acuity deserts them when they are forced to address it.

It would be wrong, however, to close on a carping note. The Fertility Doctor provides a balanced portrait of a twentieth-century medical giant—a man whose work had impact far beyond a rapidly disintegrating Catholic subculture. If Rock’s interior life remains something of a mystery, Marsh and Ronner do a splendid job of sketching his persona as a physician. (Compassionate and patient-centered, Rock was always more clinician than researcher.) They deal deftly too with the ironies that marked Rock’s long career. Relatively conservative on issues of gender, he facilitated a revolution in women’s roles. Dedicated to ending the curse of infertility, he achieved enduring fame as a contraceptive pioneer. By the close of the 1960s, Rock faced criticism from both ends of the political spectrum: feminists angered by the pill’s alleged side effects joined forces, at least metaphorically, with the Catholic Right. The Fertility Doctor explains this seemingly bizarre alliance in a way that makes sense of our present conflicted emotions about both medicine and reproduction.

Published in the 2008-11-21 issue: 

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.

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