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- Women's and Gender Studies
Hot Topics: 50th Anniversary of the Pill
Americans consume innumerable amounts of medicine, but only one pill is known precisely as “the pill.” This year marks the 50th anniversary of oral contraception, which was first marketed to married couples in 1960. Since its creation by co-developers Gregory Pincus and John Rock, oral birth control options now surpass some 30 variations. No other medicine has been as tested, and contested, as this medical breakthrough that some call “the development of the 20th century.”
Margaret Marsh, university professor of history and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers–Camden, with her sister Wanda Ronner, a clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, were the first researchers granted access to John Rock’s personal letters. Together they wrote the book "The Fertility Doctor: John Rock and the Reproductive Revolution." A book on reproductive sexuality and medicine from the 1970s until today is in the works.
Rutgers Today: Did John Rock know the far-reaching impact of the pill?
Marsh: Rock was a complicated figure. On one hand, he claimed to be a social conservative who had no sympathy with feminism. Yet, he was married to a very independent woman. He was also tolerant sexually and extremely sympathetic to his unmarried patients who were having sex. When people warned that the pill would allow even more unmarried couples to have sex, he would reply that if these couples are having sex anyway then they might as well be safe from pregnancy.
I don’t think he foresaw the sexual revolution though. He really did think that the pill would find its greatest popularity among married couples. But when things turned out differently, he wasn’t upset. The first decade of the pill witnessed so many changes that sometimes I find it hard to believe that 1960 and 1968 are even in the same century. There was such rapid change in such a short period of time that no one could possibly have predicted.
Rutgers Today: Did the pill cause the sexual revolution?
Marsh: It certainly had a role, but it wasn’t causal. There were many contributing factors like Baby Boomers coming of age, more people going to college, and the huge anti-war rebellion. What the pill did do is make it possible for women to have careers. It really was the first foolproof contraceptive.
Rutgers Today: What has changed since the pill first came on the market?
Marsh: Certainly there are many more options today and of course there are much lower doses of the various drugs in the pill. The creators had no idea how low a dose could be and still prevent conceptions. The pill is now 50 years old; it’s been tested and retested. About 80% of women who have used any form of contraception have used the pill at one time or another in their lives.
Today, it is pretty common for couples to live together and then get married when they decide to have children. People can be engaged forever. In the 1950s and early 1960s, people got married and were expected to have children right away. Now we seem to postpone marriage until we’re ready to have children, increasing the age of when we do marry.
Rutgers Today: Rock, an ardent Catholic, nearly convinced the church to reconsider its views on allowing contraception use by its parishioners. Did he completely fail in this pursuit?
Marsh: In the 1960s, the church came very close to saying OK to birth control use. While contraceptives are against the laws of the Catholic Church, American Catholics have come to rely on their consciences more than on the pope’s pronouncements regarding birth control. The pope has never spoken infallibly on the issue. When he speaks “ex cathedra,” he can’t be wrong, because he’s speaking the direct word of God. But the pope has never spoken “ex cathedra” on the issue of contraception. In fact, American Catholics are using birth control in the same numbers as the rest of the country.
Rutgers Today: What’s on the horizon for reproductive medicine?
Marsh: In the last 100 years we have been gradually separating sex from reproduction. Now you can guarantee sex without reproduction and can also have reproduction without sex. All of these technological advancements enlarges the question of what it means to be a family. It allows a variety of couples, including same-sex couples, to have biological children. I see same-sex marriage as part of a family-building trend, even a conservative one. Same-sex marriage encourages the creation of nuclear family units. A hundred years from now, we won’t think it’s a big deal.
Media Contact: Cathy K. Donovan