Wednesday, December 30, 2009

John Rock's Error

What the inventor of the birth control pill didn't know about women's health


Two or three of my Christmas presents this year were recommended to my friends and family by our local bookseller (who probably knows my taste in books better than most) including Malcolm Gladwell's latest book "What the Dog Saw, and Other Adventures".

I expect several of the chapters of this book will inspire blogposts, but I wanted to start with the chapter on the Birth Control Pill, because it echoes some of the themes I've been talking about recently.

Partly for religious reasons (he was a devout Catholic), John Rock designed the birth control pill to be a "natural" method of contraception. He believed that the pill was merely reinforcing the established rhythm method, and he was bitterly disappointed when Pope Paul VI banned the Pill along with all other "artificial" contraceptives.

Rock and his colleagues had designed a pill with a twenty-eight day cycle, because they thought that this was the proper menstrual cycle for women, and they wanted to replicate and regulate this cycle in order to make the rhythm method (which only worked effectively for women with a regular menstrual cycle) more effective.

As Gladwell puts it, the Pill was

"shaped by the dictates of the Catholic Church - - by John Rock's desire to make this new method of birth control seem as natural as possible. ... But what he thought was natural wasn't so natural after all, and the Pill he ushered into the world turned out to be something other than what he thought it was".

For when female scientists look at patterns of menstruation, they typically find that the twenty-eight day cycle is not "natural" at all - it is a product of urban modern life. Furthermore, the artificially induced cycle has both short-term side-effects (period pains) and longer-term health risks (cancer).

So here is how Gladwell describes the consequences of John Rock's desire to please his Church.

"In the past forty years, millions of women around the world have been given the Pill in such a way as to maximize their pain and suffering. And to what end? To pretend that the Pill was no more than a pharmaceutical version of the rhythm method."


I've been exploring different kinds of problem-solving recently, including a common preference for solutions that seem to preserve the structure of the problem. But such structure-preservation often turns out to rely on hidden assumptions - in this case, assumptions as to what counts as "natural".

Describing a solution as "natural" implies that it is safe and unobjectionable and somehow innocent. But when we unpack what counts as "natural", we may find a hidden agenda buried within the allegedly "natural". The Pope refused to see the Pill as an innocent technology, and perceived it as a source of disruption to traditional family values.

So what is interesting here is that Rock and the Pope, two men with very similar religious beliefs and values, both Catholics, should interpret the POSIWID of the Pill in such completely different ways. Meanwhile, Gladwell's interpretation is different again. The purpose of the Pill depends who is telling the story.

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