Popes and the Pill

…and the NHS


For 60 years the Catholic Church has managed to insinuate itself, without our knowledge or consent, into the administration of the Pill –  that daring contraceptive invention that since 1960 appeared to banish forever fear of unwanted pregnancy and the papal injunction against the pleasures of sex.

Lo, the Catholic Church influenced the way that the Pill would be taken – for 21 days, with a week off each month. This was always risky, women had to remember the timing, and there was always the possibility of rogue sperms swimming towards destiny. The failsafe Pill was not as reliable as it could have been in preventing unwanted pregnancy.

New NHS guidelines have finally ended that 21-day cycle, and the commitment to periods. It was always, apparently, motivated not by medicine or heterosexual women’s needs – lest we forget, all of this was steered less by women’s pleasure than the consequences of the penis-vagina fix – but by the patriarchal principles of the Catholic Church.

Prof John Guillemaud, a specialist in reproduction and sexual health, recalls the history of that  arbitrary break in the cycle of Pill-taking  – said to be one of the easiest and most effective medical interventions.

Prof John Rock was a member of the team that invented the Pill. He was a practising catholic and embarked on a heroic navigation of papal resistance. In the hope that the Vatican might yield, he proposed that Pill-taking should mimic the natural monthly cycle of ovulation and bloody menstruation.

Poor John Rock, his aim was to release women from the risk of unwanted pregnancy, to circumvent the Augustinian cult of sex-as-sin in the Cathoilc Church, and the dictum that sex and marriage go together in the holy service of procreation.

Rock tried his best to reassure the Vatican. He might have felt some optimism during the brief (in some ways) beautiful reign of Pope John XXIII, the humane advocate of human rights and equality. Except, of course, for women.

In 1963 Pope John, mindful of the Pill revolution, launched a commission on the family and reproduction. Ultimately, it did not recommend relaxation of the doctrine on birth control and the blessed sperm’s freedom of movement.

Pope John’s successor Pope Paul VI cemented the Vatican’s injunction against women’s control over their own bodies with the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, affirming the church’s official ban on all forms of artificial contraception.

But not before some dense politicking and secret manoeuvres to steer the commission.

The dictum was endlessly challenged by the prevalence of rape and infection. Even now, and even amidst the tragic manifestation of the Zika virus in South America, the seemingly progressive Pope Francis recoils from any loosening of that sacred sex-procreation fixation.

The extraordinary thing is that the NHS guidelines on the Pill prescribed the formula devised in vain to appease the Vatican.

Rock failed. Popes were not persuaded.

Poor John Rock’s faith was killed. Millions of catholics in Europe and North America retained their faith but abandoned the Augustinian cult and the prohibition of the Pill.

Bizarrely, however, that patriarchal principle enjoyed a residual influence over women’s lives. Until now and the new NHS guidelines. Amen.


Catch a rollicking discussion between Dr Sarah Jarvis and me, on the Jeremy Vine Show @BBCRadio2 with me and Dr Sarah Jarvis (around 12.15) on 22 January 2019.






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