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.
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:
- It was Rock’s belief that women who took the pill will feel safer and more natural if they still had their monthly cycles.
- 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.