“Scientists, especially those who are Catholics, will by their research establish the truth of the Church’s claim”

Pope Francis has recently said, to the outrage of the more traditional followers of the Catholic Church, that Church teachings have focused too heavily on matters of homosexuality, abortion, and birth control. However, his personal stance and the official stance of the Church, still oppose use of contraceptives except in extreme cases where they are used to address another medical issue.

Not surprising, as this has been the view of the Church since Pope Paul VI outlawed the use of oral contraceptives in 1968. What may be surprising to some however, is that the pill was sanctioned for a brief time by the Church and its very development and design were intended to merit the approval of the Catholic Church.

John Rock was a strongly devout man. He was also a pioneer in sperm cell preservation and in-vitro fertilization, and was a major developer and proponent of oral contraceptives. And he wholeheartedly believed that his work in the development of the birth control pill was “perfectly compatible” with his faith in the Catholic Church.

But he was by no means a radical proponent of women’s reproductive rights – he was traditional minded in many ways and a conservative who still opposed the admittance of women to medical schools. But he supported birth control because as a doctor he saw the necessity of preventing pregnancy in ill patients and for families who could not afford more mouths to feed.

The complicated chart used to help women determine their periods of infertility according to the Rhythm Method, "Nature's Method"

The complicated chart used to help women determine their periods of infertility according to the Rhythm Method, “Nature’s Method”

However, in the field of contraception, he was radical.  He boldly signed a petition to repeal the Massachusetts ban on sale of contraceptives (1931) and later was the first medical doctor to open a Rhythm method clinic in Boston (1936). At the time, the rhythm method was the only contraceptive sanctioned by the Church because it was a “natural” method of regulating procreation, unlike other methods which killed sperm (spermicides) or disrupted natural biological processes (vasectomies).

The pill works by providing women with a constant dose of Progestin, a synthetic version of Progesterone.  Progesterone is a hormone released during pregnancy to prevent the release of more eggs which may threaten the current pregnancy. The pill therefore was an arguable extension of nature by duplicating what already happens naturally, but more often and consistently.  This was the logic with which Rock believed the pill would be approved by the Church.  Plus, to its credit, the pill regulated women’s cycles and could be used as a aid to the rhythm method.

However, the design of the pill contains one aspect which is biologically unnecessary – a week of placebo pills which enable menstruation to occur.  Ironically, this aspect is present only to satisfy the whims of Church approval.

Menstruation occurs because ovulation produces an egg and the lining of the uterus becomes flooded with blood and nutrients in expectation of fertilization. If fertilization does not occur, the swollen endometrium is shed. The pill prevents ovulation all together. No ovulation means no swelling, and no need for the menstrual shedding.  

There is no medical reason why women should have to have the week of placebo pills which allow menstruation. Yet it is found in nearly all birth control regimens, for two reasons:

  1. It was Rock’s belief that women who took the pill will feel safer and more natural if they still had their monthly cycles.
  2. By providing women with a reliable cycle of menstruation, it technically aided in the rhythm method (though the method is unnecessary with the pill).  If the pill aided in an already acceptable form of birth control, logically, one could go one step further and say the pill itself was pre-sanctioned by the Church.

Unfortunately, only 8 years after the first birth control pill was released for mass purchase, the Church rejected it and banned its use.  And Catholic women are still stuck fighting for their own reproductive rights today.

“If all your other friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”

If you have ever heard of lemmings, you will probably imagine those little fluffy rodents that are pretty stupid and commit mass suicides by jumping off cliffs. Their tragic story has become synonymous with blindly following a crowd, and their sad fate demonstrates the moral of any story beginning with the classic parental question of if all your other friends jumped off a bridge

Except that lemmings don’t actually gather into little fluffy lemming herds to hurl themselves off cliffs. (Disney filmographers did that once though, but we will get to that later.)

So imagine my surprise when sitting in my “Psychology of Animal Behavior” class the other day, I hear my professor use mass suicides in lemming populations as an example of a coordinated group behavior. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. My animal behavior professor did not just actually tell his class this right? I was shocked that he would use this as an example, and if he was just using it symbolically, not everyone in the class understood his humor.

So here it is: Lemming mass suicides are false. They don’t jump off cliffs to icy waters of death. They just don’t.

But the incorporation of this myth into modern-day belief is a pretty interesting story involving a nature documentary that apparently wasn’t interesting enough for the general audience without fabricating odd animal behavior (which is a sad fact if filmographers felt they needed to jazz up the wonders of nature).

In an effort to prove my professor wrong (which I enjoy far too much sometimes), I started googling and this was the best site I found: Great Moments in Science.  I took the liberty of summing up my findings below:

FACT: The 1958 Disney documentary “White Wilderness” was meant to be an accurate nature documentary filmed in Canada. It features lemmings migrating across an open tundra, then plunging to their deaths in icy rivers in a coordinated manner. The film treats this behavior as scientific fact and incorporates it nicely into the rest of the documentary about tundra wildlife.

MYTH: Lemmings are not from the region where the film was made, they were in fact brought there by the filmographers, and filmed on a snow-covered turntable to look as though they were on a massive trek across the tundra. Then a small handful of them were herded off the turntable right into a river, creating the illusion of a mass suicide. (PETA wasn’t founded until 1980, otherwise I’m guessing they would have had a strong opinion on this matter.)

This film, along with the public’s general lack of knowledge at the time, led to the spread of the myth of lemming suicides which is still a part of our culture. To be fair, the film crew (probably unknowingly) picked a good animal to perpetrate strange behavior for: there was already a medieval Nordic myth that they spontaneously generated and fell from the sky during storms. (Which, just saying, flying lemmings set against a back-drop of thunder and lightning would have made for a much more epic documentary scene – if I would good at Photoshop you would also get to enjoy this imagery, but alas, I’m not.) In light of an increase in scientific understanding, later myths acknowledged that lemmings were not created through spontaneous generation, so any in the sky were a result of wind.

All that being said, the filmographers likely based their ideas on the scientific fact that in high population surges, migrations can be dangerous for lemmings and some are bound to die by being pushed, crushed, or drowned by the sheer weight of other lemmings. So according to population dynamics, the myth has a basis of fact in that migrations can be dangerous, but with a large, large flair of artistic license.

 (I had to include this, I freaking love Gary Larsen’s Far Side comics)

And thus concludes this rant.

*Also, just an additional note: Although I have never actually seen the film, I really want to and it apparently is “visually stunning” and “one of Disney’s best documentaries” (I’m not sure what this means for Disney’s other documentaries like “Chimpanzee”, “Big Cats”, or Babies”). And it even won an Oscar for “Best Documentary” in 1960.  More info here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052389/

What’s coming soon:

So what is this cool place? What makes it famous?  Coming Soon!