Probing the reproductive revolution in a time of heated politics

By Brendan Coyne, exhibits and awards manager

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to our political discourse in recent weeks you know that reproduction is a hot and controversial topic. From Susan G. Komen for the Cure to insuring contraception for women, uncomfortable questions about sex and power and religion have forced their way into American public discourse.

We here at the JHU Press think all the political heat and light could use a bit of grounding. That is, of course, scholarly publishing’s most noble purpose, and so we humbly suggest that those of you looking for a better understanding of reproductive medicine and rights begin with The Fertility Doctor: John Rock and the Reproductive Revolution, by Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner.

John Rock was born 122 years ago tomorrow. The first researcher to fertilize a human egg in vitro in the 1940s, Rock became America’s leading figure in the treatment of infertility, his clinic serving rich and poor alike. In the 1950s he joined forces with Gregory Pincus to develop oral contraceptives and in the 1960s enjoyed international celebrity for his promotion of the pill and his campaign to persuade the Catholic Church to accept it.

Called “fascinating and important” by Wendy Kline in Isis and “enormously valuable” by Leslie J. Reagan in the Journal of American History, Marsh and Ronner’s biography of Rock recounts how a directionless young man began his working life as a timekeeper on a Guatemalan banana plantation and later became one of the most recognized figures of the 20th century. Looking at how Rock’s work altered medicine and society, they provide a compelling portrait of a man whose work defined the reproductive revolution.

A search of Project MUSE turns up even more contextual information, such as Susan L. Smith’s Reviews in American History article of last December, which digs into the broader historical controversy over birth control through reviews of two books, Cathy Moran Hajo’s Birth Control on Main Street and Elaine Tyler May’s America and the Pill. Our own Condom Nation traces the history of the federal government’s sex education efforts.

We doubt that reproductive issues will fade from politics anytime soon. Our hope is that our books can help readers look at the issue empirically before making up their minds.