Fifty years ago this week, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the contraceptive pill. The man most prominently associated with the development and introduction of the pill, John Rock, was an Irish Catholic doctor from Boston. Dr. Rock didn't set out to make waves with the Vatican; in fact, he was sure that his invention would gain approval from the Vatican and finally allow Catholics to practice safe and effective family planning. He was successful on both counts. Three different layers of a Vatican commission approved the pill back in 1965. But Pope Paul VI decided to ignore the findings of those panels and condemned Catholic women to a variety of unreliable methods if they were to follow the Vatican's dictates. To this day, most Catholic women ignore the Vatican's decree, and many millions of them have safer and more reliable family planning thanks to Dr. Rock's pill.
The story of the pill's genesis is a fascinating one. John Rock was an infertility expert who was a pioneer behind many modern methods of assisting couples to conceive. In the course of his work, he also met many fertile Catholic women who wanted to space the births of their children, and sometimes to avoid having children. The Vatican's ban on artificial methods of contraception meant that they had to rely on so-called natural methods, when a couple can only have sexual intercourse during the time each month when a woman is infertile if they want to avoid pregnancy. This was unacceptable to many, unworkable for those who have unreliable cycles and impossible for women who could not negotiate their sexual relationship with their partners.
Rock, who worked with biologist Gregory Pincus to develop the pill, was convinced "that every couple should be able to choose freely the number of children they could afford -- materially and emotionally -- to bring into the world."
Rock figured that he could invent a hormonal pill that suppressed ovulation and therefore extend the safe period for sex as long as a woman stayed on the pill. He reasoned that the Vatican would accept this, and Catholic women who did not want to go against the Vatican would be able to have a healthy sex life.
Contraception was an issue the Vatican had addressed before, and the advent of the pill raised new questions about Catholics and family planning. The Vatican had imposed a ban on "artificial" methods of contraception, such as condoms and diaphragms, in the1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. There was growing debate in the church about whether this ban should be continued, and if so, whether it should be broadened to include the new pill.
This was a huge issue for the Catholic church, and not long after the introduction of the pill, in 1963, Pope John XXIII convened a panel to study the matter. The papal commission on birth control was composed of bishops, priests and lay people, including married Catholic women. They considered Catholic theology, modern science and the lives that married Catholics lead. The commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the church rescind its ban on contraception. The pope, concerned that overturning the ban would call all of the hierarchy's teachings into question, appointed a second commission, made up of 15 bishops, which also voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the church rescind its ban on contraception.
The results of these votes were leaked, and there was widespread rejoicing among Catholics. It was therefore a significant shock to Catholics -- and indeed most of the world -- when the encyclical Humanae Vitae was finally released by Pope Paul VI on July 29, 1968, proclaiming the teaching on contraception unchanged and unchangeable.
The pope had completely ignored the work and recommendations of his own commission, despite five meetings over three years and a vote by 30 of the 35 commission's lay members, 15 of the 19 theologians and 9 of 12 bishops that the teaching be changed (three bishops abstained).
There is little need to reconvene a commission to study this issue. Not much has changed to negate the findings of the majority votes in the commission. Indeed, we have learned so much more about safe reproductive health that supports the real world application of the commission's findings. It makes no sense to continue the Vatican's wrong-headed approach to family planning. Even without the twin scourges of maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS, there are billions of good reasons to allow women to plan their families and to allow them to decide when and whether to have children: namely the 3.5 billion women in the world, of whom about 600 million are Catholic.
It would be a lasting and wholly positive legacy if the current pope got behind the majority report of the 1963-68 commission and lifted the ban on the use of contraceptives to allow Catholics to plan their families. Given the fact that today, in the United States, 97 percent of sexually active Catholic women above the age of 18 have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican, it makes little sense to continue the ban. In fact, the ban does more harm to the Vatican and its teaching authority than would changing it.
Dr. Rock was a Catholic champion of women's health. If the Vatican wants to regain some relevance and respect on this issue, it's time to join him in his support for contraception.
Jon O'Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice