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Rutgers historian puts 50th anniversary of the pill into cultural medicine cabinet

CAMDEN 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, an innovative collaboration between Gregory Pincus and John Rock that some have called the development of the 20th century.

As Rock's 120th birthday is commemorated on March 24, the only comprehensive biography on Rock has its origins at Rutgers UniversityCamden. Margaret Marsh, university professor of history and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at RutgersCamden, 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 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

According to Marsh, Rock did not fully appreciate the far-reaching impact of the pill. In fact, he predicted the pill would find its greatest popularity among married couples. But when things turned out differently, Rock wasn't upset. "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," notes Marsh of Haddonfield.

But the RutgersCamden historian adds that no one could have possibly predicted all that transpired at the end of the 60s. "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," says Marsh.

The sexual revolution, she points out, didn't occur solely because of the pill's existence. "There were many contributing factors like Baby Boomers coming of age, more people going to college, and the huge anti-war rebellion," she says. "What the pill did do is make it possible for women to have careers. It really was the first foolproof contraceptive.

"While there are many more oral contraceptive options available to women today some 30 variations, in fact one big difference since the pill was first created are the lower doses of the various drugs in it.

"The creators had no idea how low a dose could be and still prevent conceptions," notes Marsh.

And unlike the 1950s, the average age of parents today is older. Couples tend 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."

What hasn't changed since the early days of the pill is its tricky relationship with certain religious groups. But Rock, an ardent Catholic, nearly convinced the church to reconsider its views on allowing contraception use by its members. According to Marsh, Rock didn't completely fail in this pursuit.

"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," states Marsh. "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. Today about 80% of women who have used any form of contraception have used the pill at one time or another in their lives.

What's in the future for reproductive medicine? With the introduction of the pill and in vitro fertilization, b y the end of the twentieth century sex and reproduction had become uncoupled. Now you can guarantee sex without reproduction and can also ensure reproduction without sex. With even more advances on the horizon, Marsh predicts that our definitions of family will be reevaluated.

"All of these technological advancements enlarge the question of what it means to be a family. I see same-sex marriage as part of a family-building trend, even a conservative one," posits Marsh. "A hundred years from now, we won't think it's a big deal."

Marsh and Ronner also co-authored The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

The author of Suburban Lives (Rutgers University Press, 1990) and Anarchist Women, 1870-1920 (Temple University Press, 1981), Marsh earned her B.A. and M.A. in history from RutgersCamden and her PhD in history from RutgersNew Brunswick. Prior to joining the RutgersCamden faculty in 1998, she served as a professor of history at Temple University.


Contact: Cathy Donovan
Rutgers University

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