RockfamilyThe Rock family. Photo supplied by Rachel S. Phillips


Jennifer Roback Morse’s review of Jonathan Eig’s new book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, appeared on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the death of one of those crusaders: Dr John Rock, my grandfather.

The relationship between these four people is complicated. Their motives and intentions were even more so since they each had different perspectives, reasons and desired outcomes that brought them to work together in the first place. Much of their collaboration happened before I was born so I can’t attest to how they even were able to function as a team. Indeed, my mother once told me that it was somewhat remarkable that they were able to achieve anything at all together, precisely because of their different background and views on just about everything. I accept as a given that they were concerned for women whom they perceived to be in difficult circumstances and that in turn enabled them to work together.

Here I would like to share what I know motivated my grandfather. In his clinical practice he encountered women who were in desperate conditions and he felt a deep sense of responsibility to use his expertise to help them. Further, as a devout Catholic, he relied on his faith to do his work. Throughout most of his career his pioneer work on embryology and fertility helped him find ways to enable couples to have children. Eventually he sought ways, by using that same research, to help couples space the births of children, thinking that this would contribute to a healthier home life.

He published his line of reasoning in The Time Has Come (1963). Like others, he was confident that his work was consistent with Church teaching and like others he was surprised and defiant when it became clear, with the appearance of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, that it was not.

The fact that he was, at times, misguided and at odds with the Church’s teachings on this issue can’t be dismissed. But this is well known and discussed. To what extent strong causal connections between the Pill and the present cultural climate, marked by trivialization and commercialization of sex and the breakdown of the family, can be established has also been widely debated.

John RockSo rather than weighing in on this contentious topic here, I want to share more about my grandfather as a family man and a man of faith. He was acutely disappointed by the fact that the Church rejects all forms of artificial contraception as acceptable solutions to family planning. Perhaps he was even disheartened. A friend of his once asked him why he didn’t leave the Church altogether. His reply, “I can’t leave my Church”, shows it was one that he dearly loved. He eventually retreated from public life and the public practice of his faith, receiving the last sacraments shortly before he died and requesting a private funeral Mass and burial.

But in those years following Humane Vitae he too was distressed at the trivialization of human sexuality and the disintegration of the family that ensued with the wide acceptance of birth control. He did not have any intention of launching the sexual revolution, and while he was a pioneer in his field of research he was neither rich nor powerful as Roback Morse suggests.

John Rock loved his wife Anna, whom he lost to cancer in the early 1960s shortly before the “birth of the Pill”. He loved and was proud of his four daughters (his only son died in a tragic car accident while running an errand for his father), along with their spouses and children—that is, all 19 of us grandchildren. He lived to see seven of his 28 great grand children. All of us constitute “The Rock Clan”.

Being barely three and a half when my grandmother died I have only one vivid memory of her. Nevertheless I was struck by my grandfather’s comments on how he missed her even after so many years. He learned needlepoint to finish a bench she had started shortly before she died. Years later as a young adult, I was again struck by the grief he displayed at the funeral of his youngest daughter, my mother.

In between those events are those that make up small but significant memories of my grandfather, which included lessons in manners and proper diction, as well as signs of affection and small gifts. When money was short he would help with school tuition, sending us to camp and so forth. Although I speak for myself, I will contend that each one of us 19 grandchildren thought we were his favourite. Amidst a busy schedule of work and speaking engagements he would take time out to dictate letters for his secretary to type and send to us. What 10 year old would not feel special after receiving a letter written in those circumstances?

He didn’t have much but he was generous with what he had. And so his small country home where he lived his final years often became the crash pad of grandchildren and our friends on a weekend ski trip or a summer break. In hindsight he seemed to enjoy most of it, even if he didn’t like our music.

The point I hope to make with these memories of John Rock is that his work, misguided as it may have been, was shaped by what he thought made for strong family life– that is, his belief that mothers and fathers need resources not only to have children but also to educate them in a loving nurturing environment.

In his more than 50 years of clinical experience he was caring for women who, due to their personal circumstances, were overwhelmed with providing for the children they had. He saw first-hand that families barely survive in sub-human living conditions much less flourish. As a man of faith and convictions he wanted to do something about it. Like many of his contemporaries he erroneously presumed that regulating pregnancy, especially among people living in dire poverty, would help to provide more resources for families, the logic being that it may be better for a father and mother to feed fewer children than to bury many.

He may have been thinking that all fathers and mothers should not only have the opportunity to raise their children in a dignified manner but also experience the joy of holding their grandchildren and great grandchildren on their knees, not unlike the patriarchs of old. It is a mistake to take John Rock’s work in the development of the Pill out of that context.

Fifty years after widely available birth control the problem of families not having what they need for basic survival has not gone away. In fact it grows, even as first world countries have more things to consume. But children have a way of helping adults be less selfish and more generous, and family is the first and best place to learn that “whatever we have, we share”. While John Rock knew this in practice because he lived it, he missed it on a theoretical plane. The more untimely a child’s entry to the world, or the more care she needs as she grows up, the more parents and siblings have to get out of their comfort zone.

Simply put, every newcomer to the human race brings opportunities for the rest of us to share. At the end of it all, it is not the poor who are depleting the world’s resources, but those of us in the land of plenty who fail to see how we must share those resources and give of ourselves so that each and every member of the human family thrives.

Rachel S. Phillips has an MA in Philosophy and works in non-profit management and program development for woman of all ages. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.