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Interview with Bernard Asbell

BROADCAST: Jun. 14, 1995 | DURATION: 00:52:05

Synopsis

Interviewing author, singer and songwriter Bernard Asbell.

Transcript

Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.

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Bernard Asbell "At a neighborhood supermarket in the university town where I live, now and then I see a man shuffling through the checkout line, smallish, bald, stooped with age but spry. He grips a paper bag that groups with the grocery item or two, scarcely enough for a single meal. His dark brown suit jacket doesn't match his [doctor?] pants and a pair of solemn eyes dart this way and that, stirred by some restless hunger. I wonder, looking around the huge store, if a single shopper among the young collegians and profs and townies has any sense of how this almost invisible 92-year-old has touched their lives intimately and has helped redirect moral beliefs and sexual practices in most of the nations of the world. Since Russell E. Marker lives alone and avoids cultivation of friends, remarkably few townsfolk know who he is or what he has done. At the mention of his name, those who know something of him are likely to look distantly into their memories and say, "Marker. Isn't he the one they call 'the father of the Pill'?"

Studs Terkel That is a very provocative opening of a book called "The Pill", and we all know what the Pill is, the anti-contraceptive pill, and the subtitle is "A Biography of the Drug that Changed the World", and my guest whose voice you heard is the author of the book, Bernie Asbell, teaching at Penn State now. Now, a word about Bernie Asbell. He is one of the early participants of "The Midnight Special" here in Chicago. Bernie was a folk singer in town. He and I worked on a campaign together for Henry Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket for president, and Curtis MacDougall running for U.S. senator, and he got many a tomato tossed at him in Southern Illinois, and Bernie Asbell teaches at Penn State, and is author of a good number of books, one a very moving one, "The Day Franklin D. Died" [sic - "When F.D.R. Died"] And this book, though, is the big one. The book about the Pill. Now, it starts right off. Who is Russell E. Marker, this 92-year-old guy?

Bernard Asbell Well, Russell Marker, who by the way is a chemistry professor at Penn State, he died about two months ago at the age of 93, he was one of five men who have been called "the father of the Pill," because he did make a very important contribution, the other four did, but none of these guys were the fathers of the Pill. It's often said that the Pill was invented by men as a new way of controlling women.

Studs Terkel We think of two names, of course. We think of John Rock

Bernard Asbell And Gregory

Studs Terkel We think of these two,

Bernard Asbell And then there's also Carl Djerassi, and someone here in Chicago, the least known of them all, a man by the name of Charles [sic - His name was Frank] Colton, who worked at G.D. Searle

Studs Terkel -- And what

Bernard Asbell He's retired in Evanston, I

Studs Terkel And what about the chemist Chang?

Bernard Asbell And M.C. Chang, who was the assistant to Pincus, and it's funny, Chang's gravestone in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, I saw it about a year ago, it's marked! M.C. Chang, "Father of the Pill."

Studs Terkel Rather

Bernard Asbell But the fact is, the Pill didn't really have any fathers, it had two mothers! It was invented by women, and the two women were Margaret Sanger and a Chicagoan, Katharine McCormick, who had been married to the son of Cyrus McCormick, and had immense wealth.

Studs Terkel So you have to start way at the beginning of the story, it's a very provocative opening. The two, we know that Margaret Sanger of course is the legendary figure, the historic figure involving the battles for birth control down through the years, dramatic and romantic story and hear more about her. Now Katharine McCormick was also an emancipated woman who supplied the dough. She's an heiress.

Bernard Asbell Not a penny of government money went into the development of the Pill, it was all hers.

Studs Terkel So

Bernard Asbell She bought it!

Studs Terkel Russell E. Marker. Now we started with him.

Bernard Asbell Now, he was a young chemist who wanted to make his mark. This is the early '40s, by finding a new way to develop steroids. Steroids were the glamour thing in chemistry at that time. They thought it could cure rheumatoid arthritis, and they knew that one of the steroids, progesterone, could do marvels for women in curing endometriosis and lots of gynecological -- but it was extremely expensive, because the only place you could get it is out of women's bodies or oddly out of the urine of bulls. So he said, he has, the only people who could afford it were owners of racehorses, they would make the racehorses more, more fertile and that, they used

Studs Terkel And of course we know of steroids today and its misuse indeed by athletes and what it does to them

Bernard Asbell -- Oh, but it's still cortisone and others are, you know, the very positive aspects of them, too, that's right. I mean, it's a whole class

Studs Terkel So this is what Russell Marker, a chemist

Bernard Asbell So he said he's going to find a vegetable source of steroids, which seemed crazy, and all of science said "You can't do it." He said he would. He went on an immense search and found in Mexico in the jungle he found a useless root, a yam, that contained what he was looking for, a chemical that was very close to progesterone, and by knocking off what they call a little side change, finding a way to do that from every molecule, you could produce progesterone. Well, he did it. He did it, and he and he and suddenly the abundance of progesterone

Studs Terkel Well, how does that concern us with the Pill?

Bernard Asbell Ah! You see, then a few years later, another one of the so-called fathers, Carl Djerassi came along, he found that he could make it effective by swallowing it, see, and it's a progesterone of course is the

Studs Terkel By the way, Margaret Sanger had this vision, did she not, of a pill orally taken?

Bernard Asbell Her phrase was, "I want a reliable contraceptive that could be, that would be so simple it could be swallowed like an aspirin."

Studs Terkel As we we're talking we'll be free and easy, going round and about, we'll come back to Marker. Pincus is involved here tracking down Marker in Mexico, but now Margaret Sanger. There was the theory, was there not, or is it true, that the diaphragm was for people in the Third World countries difficult or this or that, whereas to them it was "No" to the diaphragm to a great extent, but "Si," yes, indeed, to the Pill. Is that true?

Bernard Asbell To this very day, people in the Third World and people in the working classes, with very old-fashioned working-class traditions, do not like the diaphragm. It, for two perceptible reasons. Number one, it, the woman has to know something about her body, and she's been taught that this is a no-no. You don't think about it, you don't touch, and it's been an enormous cultural resistance to using a diaphragm.

Studs Terkel But this leads to a great deal of controversy because today the working-class woman or the Third World woman can pretty much know what it's about. Do they not? Today.

Bernard Asbell Apparently it remains a deep-seated inhibition because it has still not caught on very much with the women.

Studs Terkel But the oral, but the swallowing something is

Bernard Asbell That too had resistance at first, and then it swept, it did sweep through the Third World, and there have been some sharp declines in in many countries in the birthrate. In some countries it's been a total failure. In Africa

Studs Terkel And we'll also talk about dangers of it, too. That's one of the aspects of it. But pick it up again. So now we has Marker in Mexico, we have this guy Djerassi, and we have these two women with their dream of a birth control something.

Bernard Asbell Well, now Sanger, see, another storyline, see Sanger in 1950, once she hooked up with Katharine McCormick, and these were not young crusaders. Sanger by this time after a long life of cruci-- she was now 71 years old. McCormick was 75, and at that age they began this whole thing. They'd decided they're going to go for this. And they went to see Gregory Pincus at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. He was an expert on mammal reproduction.

Studs Terkel Now, why do they pick Pincus? He's a chemist, too.

Bernard Asbell He's a chemist and was the world's outstanding authority on the mammalian egg. So they go to him, and you know, "This is what we want, can you do it?" He says, "Yeah, it can be done, but it's going to take time." She's, "We don't have time!" And McCormick waved a check, you see, and he said, "Science doesn't work that way." She says, "Well, make it work that way." See? And within two or three years, they had it, because the chemicals -- now we get back to Marker and Djerassi. The chemicals already existed. See, Marker and Djerassi never thought of what they were doing as leading towards a contraceptive. And then when Pincus looked around, he found what he needed was there.

Studs Terkel How did he know about Marker? Now Marker was in Mexico, right?

Bernard Asbell Well, he was, yeah

Studs Terkel Minding these roots.

Bernard Asbell But he's also associated with Penn State University. He would publish

Studs Terkel Where you are, by the way.

Bernard Asbell Where, coincidentally but not, not cause and effect. That's right. But the, the, through the literature, you know, what they call the literature, the journal papers, they -- Pincus learned that these, they had already produced a progesterone. So then he began creating the Pill. Then he tied up with John Rock at Harvard. Now Rock was this, they say he looked like a god, and he was this Catholic, devout Catholic Harvard gynecologist. He had been working towards an opposite goal. He was working with infertile women to try to make them fertile, and progesterone served his purposes, too, for reasons that take too much time to explain. So these two guys go for opposite goals, one to cure infertility and one to prevent pregnancy.

Studs Terkel They got together. Let's stick with John Rock for a moment. Now, here was a dilemma, was there not, a theological as well as a physical, a biological dilemma for him. He was a devout Catholic and here was in the world suddenly of a contraceptive.

Bernard Asbell He apparently decided early that this didn't bother him. That he felt that the prevention of conception, not, now, you see, not after the egg was conceived, that would, that -- the idea of abortion bothered him, but the prevention of conception he decided was okay as far as he was concerned. And as many Catholics said, millions of Catholics in the world have since decided, so that he -- and he went ahead with work on the Pill. In fact, his book -- he wrote a book about it. The week that the that the Pope called the Third Ecumenical Council, there was a picture of the Pope inside, with John Rock's -- it's on "Newsweek" magazine.

Studs Terkel Pope,

Bernard Asbell Paul VI.

Studs Terkel Paul

Bernard Asbell He was in "Newsweek" -- Pope Paul VI was inside the magazine, John Rock was on the cover. His book made a tremendous splash, and probably his book is what caused the Pope later to have to set up a commission

Studs Terkel We'll ask about that, you have some rather stunning revelations here concerning the commission, the Vatican council meetings and the fact that there was a decision it seems in favor of the contraceptive

Bernard Asbell The majority of his commission was

Studs Terkel -- Let's hold off on that. Now we have to go back to the beginning. Remember we found this old man, we opened up talking to the 92-year-old guy who is forgotten, his roots now, Pincus knew of him. So Pincus visits him in Mexico, where he's finding more and more, working with Mexican agronomists or farmers finding more, more

Bernard Asbell This root, yeah, the root. Well, he by this time he found -- one of the reasons he had difficulty finding Marker is that Marker had quit chemistry. He just quit! He got into a, you know, he had created this progesterone, he went to -- he looked up the Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages, Mexico City, to find someone who could work with him, because none of the American drug companies would. They just wouldn't touch this thing. They said "No chem-- no good chemistry can be done in a day in a place like Mexico."

Studs Terkel That was one thing. And the companies, you name them all, Parke-Davis, Searle, Upjohn all ran away from the idea of a contraceptive pill.

Bernard Asbell This was before the

Studs Terkel Well, yeah! I mean, at the beginning!

Bernard Asbell At the beginning

Studs Terkel -- They all avoid

Bernard Asbell -- Then once, once the contraceptive thing was was, once it was created, and once it was tested in Puerto Rico, and once it was ready to -- for application to the FDA for approval, no -- none of the companies would do it. They said, "Put our name on a pill that's going to prevent babies? I mean, women will, women will boycott us at the drugstores." They could not imagine that women would do that. G.D. Searle was the first, and their stock just shot up like a, like a skyrocket.

Studs Terkel Marker again, his -- didn't care about patents. A man who died practically almost penniless. This thing is multi-multi-multimillions. The companies, Pincus, what happened to him, and the two women. We have to come back to Sanger and to Katharine McCormick, and also the bit about Sanger's whole background, the controversy and the difficulty she had, and the women and you have - you open with these letters of these women, and some testified in court is one [meant to do?]. We're talking to Bernie Asbell, Bernard Asbell of Penn State. But this is his first of a -- the most recent of a number of his books. I remember of course the one

Bernard Asbell "When F.D.R. Died". In fact, I was I was on your program when

Studs Terkel You were.

Bernard Asbell First of all of my books.

Studs Terkel And that one, but this one is called "The Pill", and it is an interesting, the subtitle is "The Biography of the Drug that Changed the World", and Random House is the publishers. [pause in recording] Bernard Asbell, and now connections are being made, the drug companies are avoiding it now, but these different chemists and gynecologists are starting to get this pill, because the diaphragm is somehow has difficulties for some women. But here's something that is easy.

Bernard Asbell Studs, we have to take us on a little subplot here.

Studs Terkel Go ahead.

Bernard Asbell See, when they went through all this and it got its FDA approval in 1960 to use as a contraceptive, that was only chapter two of the story, because Chapter 1 was the same pill, the same chemicals, were approved in 1957, three years earlier, to be used as a as a remedy for menstrual cramps. And in the package for it, there was a warning. "Warning: Take this pill regularly and you -- and it will prevent pregnancy." They warned people, see. That got around like a free ad. We take this pill and it'll prevent pregnancy. Suddenly millions of people became to -- they went to the doctor, "Is that true?" Doctor's "Oh, yes," you know and then millions people began taking it, including, by the way, millions of Catholics. So that by the time it was approved as a contraceptive, the genie was out of a bottle, the Pill already existed. It was one of those little tricks of history.

Studs Terkel So now the drug companies

Bernard Asbell Now they now they caught on. There was a market for this.

Studs Terkel Now, Marker himself was against patents. He didn't want the patent.

Bernard Asbell He was a very -- he died so recently I don't like to speak

Studs Terkel By the way, you interviewed him.

Bernard Asbell Oh, yes,

Studs Terkel That's about the only time he was ever really interviewed, isn't it?

Bernard Asbell One other person interviewed him just for, just for academic reasons. A man named Jerry Stricchio who now works one himself for one of the drug companies did a -- for a chemical archive. But I was probably the only one who interviewed him really at length about these ventures. He was a man who I think felt a little hounded and always felt that someone was doing him in. He was a troubled man and he got into a, into a fight with his partner in Mexico, they were going to produce hormones, and there was some threatened murder, this is all very murky, because his partner apparently wanted to drive him out of the company, and finally he just left, he quit, he turned over his stock to the guy and just left. That company struggled along until some Wall Street investors, a guy in the scrap metal business came along, and bought the Syntex Corporation, it was a tiny little thing called the Syntex Corporation. When that stock went on the New York Stock Exchange, once this chem-- once the birth control pill started, it became one of the fastest-rising stock in the history of the New York Stock Exchange at that time. It became a giant corporation and still is.

Studs Terkel This is wild. And then, so this guy wasn't that interested in the dough, he

Bernard Asbell He, yeah

Studs Terkel Now, how did Djerassi figure in

Bernard Asbell Djerassi was hired by this new Syntex Corporation.

Studs Terkel Ah, he was

Bernard Asbell Just hired, as he's a young chemist just out of the University of Wisconsin and out of Wayne State. He had, he had trained at the University of Wisconsin, and he was one, he was a young Jewish refugee from Hungary and wondering, "Should I go to Mexico and get out of the mainstream?" But he was lured down there because of the project and trying to find cortisone! Again was what he thought he was looking for, cortisone!

Studs Terkel So sometimes you have looking for something and finding something else that leads to

Bernard Asbell I'm now married to a scientist, see, and I -- one of the reasons, I did the book was to find these accidents. You look for one thing, you find another. You find somebody else doing the same thing in another side of the world that just -- it's a, it's a -- we would love to think it's an orderly world of science. It's a chaotic world like everything else is.

Studs Terkel So now how does Colton figure in this?

Bernard Asbell That Charles [sic - His name was Frank] Colton was working for G.D. Searle here on the same, exactly the same compound that the -- and he developed what Djerassi had done, the pill that could be swallowed and still be effective. In fact, it was more effective when swallowed. Colton developed here and now Djerassi was working in a semi-academic situation. They have to publish their papers right away and get credit and so forth, see -- he was working at, Colton was at Searle and they don't want to publish these, they want to protect their, they want to protect their ownership. So they patented it but did not publish it.

Studs Terkel Now did they -- sorry.

Bernard Asbell So that the two of them have had a lifelong kind of -- they've been looking at each other leerily.

Studs Terkel Before we come back to Pincus and Rock and their relationship and Pincus and the two women Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick and what happened to him and to Rock and the Vatican commission that's very stunning or that -- these pharmaceutical companies, was there, was there a -- were there battles between them?

Bernard Asbell No, they did, they just went out in the market to try to get their share of the market. There was nothing very much for them to fight about, except at the very early, there were little skirmishes very early, you know, of who owned what. But the market was so big, they just shared it.

Studs Terkel So now we come to, back again to how the Pill is coming forth. Pincus' job was to do what? Pincus the chemist.

Bernard Asbell Pincus

Studs Terkel He was at Harvard by then, or?

Bernard Asbell Well, no, he was out of Har-- no, he had founded this Worcester Foundation because he couldn't get, he couldn't get tenure at Harvard. They turned him down for tenure. Harvard does that. His job was to take Katharine McCormick's money and follow her orders, "Find this pill," see? And he quickly found that the components that he was looking for existed and there were a lot of varieties of it, and he just had to go through an enormous drudge, drudgery of testing these various components. Science, a lot of it is drudgery, drudgery. And they came up with the one they wanted, had the, the one that had the least side effects and so forth. And then they went to Puerto Rico to test it. They had to go to Puerto Rico because they knew if they did it in any of the states in the United States, they would be hounded by oh, religious vigilantes and two state, the very state they were in, Massachusetts, had laws against

Studs Terkel Massachusetts, the enlightened

Bernard Asbell Enlightened mass, had but it was also is a heavily Catholic mass, too, you see, and there were laws there against disseminating any information about birth control or dispensing any materials, and they were now consciously looking for the contraceptive

Studs Terkel They might have been arrested.

Bernard Asbell They would not have arrested John Rock and Gregory Pincus, but they they would have shut 'em down.

Studs Terkel And by the way, how did -- did Rock and Pincus work together?

Bernard Asbell Yes, they

Studs Terkel

Bernard Asbell "At a neighborhood supermarket in the university town where I live, now and then I see a man shuffling through the checkout line, smallish, bald, stooped with age but spry. He grips a paper bag that groups with the grocery item or two, scarcely enough for a single meal. His dark brown suit jacket doesn't match his [doctor?] pants and a pair of solemn eyes dart this way and that, stirred by some restless hunger. I wonder, looking around the huge store, if a single shopper among the young collegians and profs and townies has any sense of how this almost invisible 92-year-old has touched their lives intimately and has helped redirect moral beliefs and sexual practices in most of the nations of the world. Since Russell E. Marker lives alone and avoids cultivation of friends, remarkably few townsfolk know who he is or what he has done. At the mention of his name, those who know something of him are likely to look distantly into their memories and say, "Marker. Isn't he the one they call 'the father of the Pill'?" That is a very provocative opening of a book called "The Pill", and we all know what the Pill is, the anti-contraceptive pill, and the subtitle is "A Biography of the Drug that Changed the World", and my guest whose voice you heard is the author of the book, Bernie Asbell, teaching at Penn State now. Now, a word about Bernie Asbell. He is one of the early participants of "The Midnight Special" here in Chicago. Bernie was a folk singer in town. He and I worked on a campaign together for Henry Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket for president, and Curtis MacDougall running for U.S. senator, and he got many a tomato tossed at him in Southern Illinois, and Bernie Asbell teaches at Penn State, and is author of a good number of books, one a very moving one, "The Day Franklin D. Died" [sic - "When F.D.R. Died"] And this book, though, is the big one. The book about the Pill. Now, it starts right off. Who is Russell E. Marker, this 92-year-old guy? Well, Russell Marker, who by the way is a chemistry professor at Penn State, he died about two months ago at the age of 93, he was one of five men who have been called "the father of the Pill," because he did make a very important contribution, the other four did, but none of these guys were the fathers of the Pill. It's often said that the Pill was invented by men as a new way of controlling women. We think of two names, of course. We think of John Rock and And Gregory We think of these two, but And then there's also Carl Djerassi, and someone here in Chicago, the least known of them all, a man by the name of Charles [sic - His name was Frank] Colton, who worked at G.D. Searle -- And what about He's retired in Evanston, I believe. And what about the chemist Chang? And M.C. Chang, who was the assistant to Pincus, and it's funny, Chang's gravestone in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, I saw it about a year ago, it's marked! M.C. Chang, "Father of the Pill." Rather But the fact is, the Pill didn't really have any fathers, it had two mothers! It was invented by women, and the two women were Margaret Sanger and a Chicagoan, Katharine McCormick, who had been married to the son of Cyrus McCormick, and had immense wealth. So you have to start way at the beginning of the story, it's a very provocative opening. The two, we know that Margaret Sanger of course is the legendary figure, the historic figure involving the battles for birth control down through the years, dramatic and romantic story and hear more about her. Now Katharine McCormick was also an emancipated woman who supplied the dough. She's an heiress. Not a penny of government money went into the development of the Pill, it was all hers. So She bought it! Russell E. Marker. Now we started with him. Now, he was a young chemist who wanted to make his mark. This is the early '40s, by finding a new way to develop steroids. Steroids were the glamour thing in chemistry at that time. They thought it could cure rheumatoid arthritis, and they knew that one of the steroids, progesterone, could do marvels for women in curing endometriosis and lots of gynecological -- but it was extremely expensive, because the only place you could get it is out of women's bodies or oddly out of the urine of bulls. So he said, he has, the only people who could afford it were owners of racehorses, they would make the racehorses more, more fertile and that, they used of And of course we know of steroids today and its misuse indeed by athletes and what it does to them -- Oh, but it's still cortisone and others are, you know, the very positive aspects of them, too, that's right. I mean, it's a whole class of So this is what Russell Marker, a chemist -- So he said he's going to find a vegetable source of steroids, which seemed crazy, and all of science said "You can't do it." He said he would. He went on an immense search and found in Mexico in the jungle he found a useless root, a yam, that contained what he was looking for, a chemical that was very close to progesterone, and by knocking off what they call a little side change, finding a way to do that from every molecule, you could produce progesterone. Well, he did it. He did it, and he and he and suddenly the abundance of progesterone -- Well, how does that concern us with the Pill? Ah! You see, then a few years later, another one of the so-called fathers, Carl Djerassi came along, he found that he could make it effective by swallowing it, see, and it's a progesterone of course is the basic By the way, Margaret Sanger had this vision, did she not, of a pill orally taken? Her phrase was, "I want a reliable contraceptive that could be, that would be so simple it could be swallowed like an aspirin." As we we're talking we'll be free and easy, going round and about, we'll come back to Marker. Pincus is involved here tracking down Marker in Mexico, but now Margaret Sanger. There was the theory, was there not, or is it true, that the diaphragm was for people in the Third World countries difficult or this or that, whereas to them it was "No" to the diaphragm to a great extent, but "Si," yes, indeed, to the Pill. Is that true? To this very day, people in the Third World and people in the working classes, with very old-fashioned working-class traditions, do not like the diaphragm. It, for two perceptible reasons. Number one, it, the woman has to know something about her body, and she's been taught that this is a no-no. You don't think about it, you don't touch, and it's been an enormous cultural resistance to using a diaphragm. But this leads to a great deal of controversy because today the working-class woman or the Third World woman can pretty much know what it's about. Do they not? Today. Apparently it remains a deep-seated inhibition because it has still not caught on very much with the women. But the oral, but the swallowing something is -- That too had resistance at first, and then it swept, it did sweep through the Third World, and there have been some sharp declines in in many countries in the birthrate. In some countries it's been a total failure. In Africa as And we'll also talk about dangers of it, too. That's one of the aspects of it. But pick it up again. So now we has Marker in Mexico, we have this guy Djerassi, and we have these two women with their dream of a birth control something. Well, now Sanger, see, another storyline, see Sanger in 1950, once she hooked up with Katharine McCormick, and these were not young crusaders. Sanger by this time after a long life of cruci-- she was now 71 years old. McCormick was 75, and at that age they began this whole thing. They'd decided they're going to go for this. And they went to see Gregory Pincus at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. He was an expert on mammal reproduction. Now, why do they pick Pincus? He's a chemist, too. He's a chemist and was the world's outstanding authority on the mammalian egg. So they go to him, and you know, "This is what we want, can you do it?" He says, "Yeah, it can be done, but it's going to take time." She's, "We don't have time!" And McCormick waved a check, you see, and he said, "Science doesn't work that way." She says, "Well, make it work that way." See? And within two or three years, they had it, because the chemicals -- now we get back to Marker and Djerassi. The chemicals already existed. See, Marker and Djerassi never thought of what they were doing as leading towards a contraceptive. And then when Pincus looked around, he found what he needed was there. How did he know about Marker? Now Marker was in Mexico, right? Well, he was, yeah -- Minding these roots. But he's also associated with Penn State University. He would publish -- Where you are, by the way. Where, coincidentally but not, not cause and effect. That's right. But the, the, through the literature, you know, what they call the literature, the journal papers, they -- Pincus learned that these, they had already produced a progesterone. So then he began creating the Pill. Then he tied up with John Rock at Harvard. Now Rock was this, they say he looked like a god, and he was this Catholic, devout Catholic Harvard gynecologist. He had been working towards an opposite goal. He was working with infertile women to try to make them fertile, and progesterone served his purposes, too, for reasons that take too much time to explain. So these two guys go for opposite goals, one to cure infertility and one to prevent pregnancy. They got together. Let's stick with John Rock for a moment. Now, here was a dilemma, was there not, a theological as well as a physical, a biological dilemma for him. He was a devout Catholic and here was in the world suddenly of a contraceptive. He apparently decided early that this didn't bother him. That he felt that the prevention of conception, not, now, you see, not after the egg was conceived, that would, that -- the idea of abortion bothered him, but the prevention of conception he decided was okay as far as he was concerned. And as many Catholics said, millions of Catholics in the world have since decided, so that he -- and he went ahead with work on the Pill. In fact, his book -- he wrote a book about it. The week that the that the Pope called the Third Ecumenical Council, there was a picture of the Pope inside, with John Rock's -- it's on "Newsweek" magazine. Pope, Paul VI. Paul He was in "Newsweek" -- Pope Paul VI was inside the magazine, John Rock was on the cover. His book made a tremendous splash, and probably his book is what caused the Pope later to have to set up a commission to We'll ask about that, you have some rather stunning revelations here concerning the commission, the Vatican council meetings and the fact that there was a decision it seems in favor of the contraceptive pill. The majority of his commission was -- Let's hold off on that. Now we have to go back to the beginning. Remember we found this old man, we opened up talking to the 92-year-old guy who is forgotten, his roots now, Pincus knew of him. So Pincus visits him in Mexico, where he's finding more and more, working with Mexican agronomists or farmers finding more, more -- This root, yeah, the root. Well, he by this time he found -- one of the reasons he had difficulty finding Marker is that Marker had quit chemistry. He just quit! He got into a, you know, he had created this progesterone, he went to -- he looked up the Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages, Mexico City, to find someone who could work with him, because none of the American drug companies would. They just wouldn't touch this thing. They said "No chem-- no good chemistry can be done in a day in a place like Mexico." That was one thing. And the companies, you name them all, Parke-Davis, Searle, Upjohn all ran away from the idea of a contraceptive pill. This was before the contra-- Well, yeah! I mean, at the beginning! At the beginning -- They all avoid -- Then once, once the contraceptive thing was was, once it was created, and once it was tested in Puerto Rico, and once it was ready to -- for application to the FDA for approval, no -- none of the companies would do it. They said, "Put our name on a pill that's going to prevent babies? I mean, women will, women will boycott us at the drugstores." They could not imagine that women would do that. G.D. Searle was the first, and their stock just shot up like a, like a skyrocket. Marker again, his -- didn't care about patents. A man who died practically almost penniless. This thing is multi-multi-multimillions. The companies, Pincus, what happened to him, and the two women. We have to come back to Sanger and to Katharine McCormick, and also the bit about Sanger's whole background, the controversy and the difficulty she had, and the women and you have - you open with these letters of these women, and some testified in court is one [meant to do?]. We're talking to Bernie Asbell, Bernard Asbell of Penn State. But this is his first of a -- the most recent of a number of his books. I remember of course the one that "When F.D.R. Died". In fact, I was I was on your program when -- You were. First of all of my books. And that one, but this one is called "The Pill", and it is an interesting, the subtitle is "The Biography of the Drug that Changed the World", and Random House is the publishers. [pause in recording] Bernard Asbell, and now connections are being made, the drug companies are avoiding it now, but these different chemists and gynecologists are starting to get this pill, because the diaphragm is somehow has difficulties for some women. But here's something that is easy. Studs, we have to take us on a little subplot here. Go ahead. See, when they went through all this and it got its FDA approval in 1960 to use as a contraceptive, that was only chapter two of the story, because Chapter 1 was the same pill, the same chemicals, were approved in 1957, three years earlier, to be used as a as a remedy for menstrual cramps. And in the package for it, there was a warning. "Warning: Take this pill regularly and you -- and it will prevent pregnancy." They warned people, see. That got around like a free ad. We take this pill and it'll prevent pregnancy. Suddenly millions of people became to -- they went to the doctor, "Is that true?" Doctor's "Oh, yes," you know and then millions people began taking it, including, by the way, millions of Catholics. So that by the time it was approved as a contraceptive, the genie was out of a bottle, the Pill already existed. It was one of those little tricks of history. So now the drug companies -- Now they now they caught on. There was a market for this. Now, Marker himself was against patents. He didn't want the patent. He was a very -- he died so recently I don't like to speak of By the way, you interviewed him. Oh, yes, a That's about the only time he was ever really interviewed, isn't it? One other person interviewed him just for, just for academic reasons. A man named Jerry Stricchio who now works one himself for one of the drug companies did a -- for a chemical archive. But I was probably the only one who interviewed him really at length about these ventures. He was a man who I think felt a little hounded and always felt that someone was doing him in. He was a troubled man and he got into a, into a fight with his partner in Mexico, they were going to produce hormones, and there was some threatened murder, this is all very murky, because his partner apparently wanted to drive him out of the company, and finally he just left, he quit, he turned over his stock to the guy and just left. That company struggled along until some Wall Street investors, a guy in the scrap metal business came along, and bought the Syntex Corporation, it was a tiny little thing called the Syntex Corporation. When that stock went on the New York Stock Exchange, once this chem-- once the birth control pill started, it became one of the fastest-rising stock in the history of the New York Stock Exchange at that time. It became a giant corporation and still is. This is wild. And then, so this guy wasn't that interested in the dough, he was He, yeah Now, how did Djerassi figure in this? Djerassi was hired by this new Syntex Corporation. Ah, he was hired. Just hired, as he's a young chemist just out of the University of Wisconsin and out of Wayne State. He had, he had trained at the University of Wisconsin, and he was one, he was a young Jewish refugee from Hungary and wondering, "Should I go to Mexico and get out of the mainstream?" But he was lured down there because of the project and trying to find cortisone! Again was what he thought he was looking for, cortisone! So sometimes you have looking for something and finding something else that leads to a I'm now married to a scientist, see, and I -- one of the reasons, I did the book was to find these accidents. You look for one thing, you find another. You find somebody else doing the same thing in another side of the world that just -- it's a, it's a -- we would love to think it's an orderly world of science. It's a chaotic world like everything else is. So now how does Colton figure in this? That Charles [sic - His name was Frank] Colton was working for G.D. Searle here on the same, exactly the same compound that the -- and he developed what Djerassi had done, the pill that could be swallowed and still be effective. In fact, it was more effective when swallowed. Colton developed here and now Djerassi was working in a semi-academic situation. They have to publish their papers right away and get credit and so forth, see -- he was working at, Colton was at Searle and they don't want to publish these, they want to protect their, they want to protect their ownership. So they patented it but did not publish it. Now did they -- sorry. So that the two of them have had a lifelong kind of -- they've been looking at each other leerily. Before we come back to Pincus and Rock and their relationship and Pincus and the two women Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick and what happened to him and to Rock and the Vatican commission that's very stunning or that -- these pharmaceutical companies, was there, was there a -- were there battles between them? [You No, they did, they just went out in the market to try to get their share of the market. There was nothing very much for them to fight about, except at the very early, there were little skirmishes very early, you know, of who owned what. But the market was so big, they just shared it. So now we come to, back again to how the Pill is coming forth. Pincus' job was to do what? Pincus the chemist. Pincus He was at Harvard by then, or? Well, no, he was out of Har-- no, he had founded this Worcester Foundation because he couldn't get, he couldn't get tenure at Harvard. They turned him down for tenure. Harvard does that. His job was to take Katharine McCormick's money and follow her orders, "Find this pill," see? And he quickly found that the components that he was looking for existed and there were a lot of varieties of it, and he just had to go through an enormous drudge, drudgery of testing these various components. Science, a lot of it is drudgery, drudgery. And they came up with the one they wanted, had the, the one that had the least side effects and so forth. And then they went to Puerto Rico to test it. They had to go to Puerto Rico because they knew if they did it in any of the states in the United States, they would be hounded by oh, religious vigilantes and two state, the very state they were in, Massachusetts, had laws against -- Massachusetts, the enlightened Enlightened mass, had but it was also is a heavily Catholic mass, too, you see, and there were laws there against disseminating any information about birth control or dispensing any materials, and they were now consciously looking for the contraceptive -- They might have been arrested. They would not have arrested John Rock and Gregory Pincus, but they they would have shut 'em down. And by the way, how did -- did Rock and Pincus work together? Yes, they -- That's Went

Studs Terkel They heard about Marker and the roots and started working, and did he call, he's the chemist called upon the gynecologist.

Bernard Asbell The chemist and the gynecologist got together because they had been working towards opposite goals, one to help with infertility, the other to help people get pregnant. And they found that it was really the same system they were working with. So they pooled their knowledge. See, by this time Marker is out of the picture. But an interesting man.

Studs Terkel No, and how. This book deals with the lives of each of these two.

Bernard Asbell Well, that's why I call it a biography 'cause it's full of people, but the central, the central character is the Pill itself.

Studs Terkel The Pill is the [center?].

Bernard Asbell And so it's the life story of

Studs Terkel this The biography of a pill. It's the biography of a pill. Well, let's pick up then. We have to go back and forth because Margaret Sanger we know is a dramatic figure in the history of everything, suffragism, early socialism, came from this very interesting father who is a freethinking sort of guy, a sister even more radical than she was one, but the central driving force was birth control.

Bernard Asbell She invented the term. She invented the term "birth control."

Studs Terkel And you have of course various letters and we have the testimony of women, mostly working-class women and the kids they have on the horrendous burdens they

Bernard Asbell -- Studs, can I take a minute to read a portion of one of these letters? I opened the book with this. Because, you know, I found this letter, I said, "My God, this is this is the problem. See?" A letter to her from a English town, New Jersey, January 5th, 1925. "Dear Mrs. Sanger," now if this, some of this sounds like I'm reading a run-on sentence

Studs Terkel No, go ahead.

Bernard Asbell It is, it is a run-on sentence. "I received your pamphlet on family limitation. I am 30 years old, have been married 14 years and have 11 children, the oldest 13 and the youngest one year. I have kidney and heart disease and every one of my children is defectived, and we are very poor. Now, Mrs. Sanger can you please help me? I have missed a few weeks and I don't know how to bring myself around. I am so worried and have cried myself sick, and if I don't come around I know I will go like my poor sister, she went insane and died. My doctor said I will surely go insane if I keep this up, but I can't help it and the doctor won't do anything for me." And then the letter goes on.

Studs Terkel And as you read that, I came across something else in your book on page 46. Ethel, her sister is on trial. Margaret Sanger's sister Ethel Byrne on trial, and the 50 women socially prominent we know that many socially

Bernard Asbell And they were on trial by the way for opening the first birth control clinic in the United States.

Studs Terkel For this birth control clinic, and in fact they were force-fed. Ethel, Margaret's sister was on a fast, and she was force-fed. Tubes through her nose, and so they called upon one of the witnesses, a woman, a hard-working woman, and Sanger's trial opened a few days after Byrne, here's the scene" "One by one, the Brownsville mothers," this was a working-class area near, "the Brownsville mothers took the stand, according to Sanger's written description. The district attorney asked one mother, "Have you ever seen Mrs. Sanger before?" "Yes. At the clinic." The way she did it, with accents.

Bernard Asbell She wrote it with accents,

Studs Terkel "Why did you go there?" "To ask her to stop the babies." "Did you get this information?" "Yes. Thank you. I got it. It was good, too." Eager to prevent a public furor, the judge offered Sanger freedom for the mere promise she would not repeat her offense, and of course she said she had broken the law deliberately. She won a test case. So throughout you have these women, as [almost?] was counterpoint to the thing, the women who found [salvage?].

Bernard Asbell And you know, since working on this book, it's an interesting read, younger people today, younger women are amazed that we, so recently had this extremely repressive atmosphere about birth control. There was such a forbidden subject.

Studs Terkel Now we want to pick up with the idea of Margaret Sanger herself and another aspect of her, not that great, that belief in a kind of eugenics bell-curveish almost in a sense, we'll come to that, it's an interesting aspect of it, and we have to come to Katharine McCormick, too, and the fact that there were some of these socially prominent and affluent women who were devout, fervent suffragists and [indeed?] birth control advocates too when it was not fashionable. Bernie Asbell is my guest, and the book is called "The Pill". As you can see it's pretty exciting one, and the subtitle "A Biography of the Drug that Changed the World". [pause in recording] Sanger and her thoughts about -- she, by the way she was undergoing various stages. She had -- she very romantic figure, and you put a lot of people in her life, and then she married an older guy who very easy-going guy who was very rich and supported her, and

Bernard Asbell He was, he owned the Three-in-One Oil Company.

Studs Terkel An oil company. What was his name?

Bernard Asbell Noah -- he had two -- J. Noah H. Slee.

Studs Terkel Slee. And he's apparently a very easy-going guy, but he gave her a great deal of comfort, material comfort, and money to go on. But she now has become more quote unquote "respectable" too, and was now thinking about -- now, I wouldn't use the phrase "lesser people," but in a way she was implying that.

Bernard Asbell Yeah, she, you know she had started out as a socialist, being a member of the Socialist Party, and later learned, she's very pragmatic woman. See, her interests narrowed, narrowed, narrowed, so she became interested only in birth control. Her, some English friends, among them who's this great sexologist?

Studs Terkel Havelock Ellis.

Bernard Asbell Havelock Ellis convinced her. He said, "It's nice to be interested in everything, but you've got to pick yourself a single subject and concentrate," and birth control was her subject. So then she found that it's people with money who can help her get things done, more than people with good slogans, and she began moving away from the left and from her revolutionary friends, and on to, and then she needed to make birth control respectable, and what made it respectable was that, when you took it out of the bedroom and you made it a population problem. See, as long as you it talked about being able to have sex without the fear of pregnancy, it was, it remained a forbidden subject. See? But as soon -- but then when you talk about controlling the rate of growth of, of the human race, then that that she found enabled her to talk to everybody and anybody and got respectable people on her side.

Studs Terkel So but throughout, and you have these cases, and she of course worked on the East Side, the slum areas and many cases. There's another case that comes up, Anne Greene Beerzhak [sic - Biezanek].

Bernard Asbell Biezanek.

Studs Terkel Beerzak [sic - Biezanek]. Anne Greene Beerzak [sic - Biezanek].

Bernard Asbell Biezanek. It's a Polish name.

Studs Terkel That's an interesting case.

Bernard Asbell This is a woman, she's a young doctor in England. She'd never met Sanger, had nothing to do with her. She had converted to Catholicism and have a very intellectual and very eloquent woman. I spent a bit of time with her recently in, outside of Liverpool. She had a baby and then another baby and another baby while she was in medical school. See? And while she's trying to practice as a doctor, and her husband was a ship's steward. He'd go off on transatlantic voyages, come home and wanted what he wanted, and boom! Another baby. She wound up with six of them, and she went to her priest and said, "Look. I could either be a doctor or keep having these babies. I know how to limit having the babies. but I have to be able to do it," and the priest said, "If you're a Catholic, you cannot do it." And she came in very consciously into direct collision between her service as a doctor and being one and the forbiddenness to control her birth. Finally she went to -- she announced publicly, "I'm going to Westminster Cathedral. I will be there at 11 AM on Sunday or whatever time it was," she announced what kind of clothes she will wear, what she looked like, and she said, "I'm going up there for communion." See? You know, "Let them turn me down." They didn't turn her down, they pretended they didn't recognize her. And some reporter wrote that it was the most possibly the most publicized sin ever committed.

Studs Terkel And this also knocked out, this became a case before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, didn't it?

Bernard Asbell Well, no, no, she was in England, see, but in a separate case, it was not long after that that -- actually the Massachusetts law which was the tightest was really knocked out because the Connecticut law came before the Supreme Court.

Studs Terkel Connecticut law.

Bernard Asbell Yeah. And then when the Connecticut law was declared unconstitutional, then that was the end of all these bluenose laws about birth control.

Studs Terkel Now we come to a sequence in your book that deals with the Vatican discussion. Why don't you tell that story?

Bernard Asbell Sure. And it has a very strong Chicago flavor to it as you [may?] -- in 1965 when good Pope John was still alive, the last weeks of his life

Studs Terkel That's John XXIII.

Bernard Asbell John XXIII. When he said, the appearance of the Pill presented a problem to the Catholic Church that they had never had. His first -- millions were using it. They had already approved it for use as a, as a therapeutic drug. And yet was it a contraceptive, was it not? If it was one, does it violate Catholic law? He set up a commission to study this. Cardinals, six cardinals and other theologians, they found that the commission was leaning towards approval of the Pill. So they added some. See? The card-- by this time Paul VI had become -- John died very soon as you know. Paul Vi had taken over. He was a very conservative pope, and he was surrounded by very conservative advisers, and one of them particularly, a Cardinal Ottoviani probably is personally responsible still to this day that the Church thinks it has disapproved of the Pill. See? I'll explain what I mean by that, see. This commission studied the Pill and studied the question of birth control for three and a half years, and they kept adding members to this commission because it kept leaning towards approval. Among the commission members that were added were Pat and Patty Crowley of Chicago, they headed the Catholic family organization. Yes, the Christian family movement. They were on the Pope's commission. After three and a half years when the membership had grown from six to 71, and every vote including the final vote recommended that there is no-- their exact words were, "There is nothing inherently sinful about birth control." It was even broader than the Pill. Word was out. The Pope was about to approve it. The stock of drug companies went up on Wall Street in record leaps. And then suddenly came down the encyclical: no. Still it was "no." It was too late. Now, Father Andrew Greeley of the University of Chicago here took a survey within the, he following of the year and two years and three years after the Pope disapproved of the use of the Pill. He found directly attributable to the Pill church attendance went down from something like 50 percent of Catholics to 38 percent. The church lost income of a billion dollars a year, that's a billion with a "B." I mean, just an immense revolt within the church. People decided to go their own way. The ancient Catholic law is that the church is not the Pope and it is not the Vatican, it is the flock, and the flock was saying, "We do not disapprove." They didn't all approve it for themselves, but we didn't, do not disapprove of other people making the personal choice, and surveys have found that Catholics use the Pill to roughly the same percentage as a shade less, a shade less than Protestants and Jews and the other major religions.

Studs Terkel The astonishing part, or the surprising part is that that Vatican Council, and with Pat and Patricia Crowley there at the time adding what could be considered the enlightened free choice point of view It

Bernard Asbell -- It had a lot of cardinals with them, too.

Studs Terkel Won originally, it won, and then it was a certain group within the Vatican.

Bernard Asbell Yes. Surrounding who said, "No, not on our watch."

Studs Terkel And that swung it, so that altered things

Bernard Asbell It's been called the most self-destructive mistake that the church has made since they excommunicated Galileo. That it ended the traditional notion of obedience. People, people from that day on, people said "This is a matter of my personal conscience." By the way, young priests according to Father Greeley's survey, young priests said that, publicly said, "People do not have to come and confess. They're using the Pill, they did not consider it a sin.

Studs Terkel So what the controversy over the Pill did was open up so many bottles out of which the genies came.

Bernard Asbell Yeah. They couldn't be put back.

Studs Terkel We come back to the whole matter of the Pill and then we have to talk about a subject comes up all the time, the dangers of it, and who can and dare not use it.

Bernard Asbell Yeah. At the very beginning, the first couple of years after approval, the dosage of the Pill was far higher than it had to be. They didn't know that at the time. At that, there were then some serious side effects that a relatively small but an important number of women had. There were some strokes, there were some blood clots. You never know whether something is caused by something else, but it was coincident with their use of the Pill and presumed to be caused by. Then the dosage came down by 90 percent, the progesterone dosage in today's Pill is about one-tenth of what it was in the original Pill. The estrogen trace is about one-third of what it was in the original Pill. Those serious side effects are now virtually gone. I was reading a women's health letter just the other day that said the question of breast cancer is caused by the -- is now settled. It is not caused by the Pill, but there is a continuing warning by the FDA and by doctors, if you have a family history of heart attacks or of strokes or of blood clotting, you -- it is inadvisable to use the Pill. If you smoke, you should not use the Pill. No one should go into this without being in touch with a doctor.

Studs Terkel But, we do know there is quite a controversy still going on. One

Bernard Asbell The myth persists!

Studs Terkel One of

Bernard Asbell the myth persists! The facts are no longer there.

Studs Terkel Barbara Seaman, who is very fervent indeed in the matter of the warnings.

Bernard Asbell Yeah, the -- she wrote that one book in the early '60s and apparently sticking by

Studs Terkel "The Doctor's Case Against the

Bernard Asbell Pill". "The Doctor's Case Against the Pill", and I don't want to get into

Studs Terkel No.

Bernard Asbell Tangle with her, but the book has been criticized and the dosage has been, has been sharply declined, and I don't think it applies anymore.

Studs Terkel But it is, but nonetheless I mean that that fear and

Bernard Asbell The fear persists, which in a lot of it is just a memory of fear, but people, but some people still are inhibited by

Studs Terkel So what has happened, we have to come back to the dramatis personae here, this drama. Now, why did -- Pincus, was he shafted in any way?

Bernard Asbell No. No. He -- in fact he is recognized as probably the, they call him the product champion, the man without whom the Pill might not have existed, but that could also be said of McCormick's money and of Sanger's zeal.

Studs Terkel But certainly Rock, too, 'cause Rock's stature and influence.

Bernard Asbell That's right, his stature and his Catholicism, being on the side of the Pill was a very important, was a very important factor. Russell Marker, you know, you mentioned before that he died penniless. He was penniless when he left Syntex, later he made a fortune having nothing to do with any of this! He went into the, into the silver art reproduction business and made millions, and there's something about his at-- he then gave gifts, he gave a gift to Maryland, University of Maryland of the, which had refused to give him a Ph.D., he seemed to -- he was, conducted a kind of potlatch, you know the Indians who would insult you by giving a bigger gift than you gave them?

Studs Terkel You know, Marker to me, if I were to choose the one guy, the most dramatic failure, or certainly the most eccentric figure, would be Russell Marker. This guy who just -- here he started -- even though

Bernard Asbell And he was never looking for a contraceptive! He was never looking for a contraceptive.

Studs Terkel So we come to something else about your own adventure and the adventures of scientists, is very often as with artists, musicians, and others, very often or a writer whose turn of the pencil or pen, a moment may just change and the character takes over. In the scientific adventure, many of these guys didn't have contraception in mind at all.

Bernard Asbell That's right.

Studs Terkel That led

Bernard Asbell They were not, it's not what they were looking for

Studs Terkel In the work that, in one way or another led to this most

Bernard Asbell The only one who was consciously going, the, among the scientists consciously going for contraception was Gregory Pincus.

Studs Terkel Because it has come back to these two this is a play, it's almost a play, a drama, and Katharine McCormick is not to be denied her place.

Bernard Asbell Oh, no.

Studs Terkel It wasn't just the dough, was her own advocacy and fervor.

Bernard Asbell Oh, yes!

Studs Terkel Now, she followed Sanger I think, her story for a long time.

Bernard Asbell When you say "followed," how

Studs Terkel I mean with her, she

Bernard Asbell Oh, yes, they began-- they went into a kind of partnership on this thing. Yeah. Oh, yes. Sang-- in fact, McCormick from the distinguished family she came from, she was really a hell-raiser. She used to smuggle diaphragms into the country every time she went to Europe for Sanger to use in her clinic in lower Manhattan.

Studs Terkel Now we have the nature of the status of it today, the Pill, and also there's talk of Pill for men, and ask you what RU-486 means, and what is bio-intervention? We'll talk about these new aspects of, we're talking to Bernard Asbell, who, whose book, recent one is called "The Pill: A Biography of the Drug that Changed the World". Random House, incidentally, are the publishers. [pause in recording] We come to nature of it now. The companies, the women. Now, what effect did -- as far as population is concerned, there's -- throughout the world. Is it used throughout the world now?

Bernard Asbell Yes, yes, and in Third World countries very heavily subsidized by governments, and which started, you know, when Johnson, when Lyndon Johnson was the one who broke through on saying it's okay for the United States government to be supporting birth control in other countries. It is, the population council really recently estimated that the world today is 400 million people fewer than it would have been without these government programs which were mainly based on the Pill. That, that's like, it means that if, if it were otherwise, there'd be like taking the entire population of the United States plus Canada and Mexico thrown in and just dumping it on the present overcrowded world. So that the Pill has had that kind of effect. It has accomplished the dream, the simple dream that Margaret Sanger originally had, of in people's private lives of separating sex from the fear of unwanted pregnancy that has haunted women not for 50 years or just this century, but for 3000 years. I have a chapter on this long, long search of trying all kinds of magical ways and chemical ways to try to prevent babies. You mentioned the male Pill. One of the, one of the early things said, and you hear it with increasing frequency, a woman will say, "Why does the woman have to swallow the chemical? Why can't the man swallow the chemical? Why can't he take some responsibility for this?" And these are very valid questions. There are some biological problems that stand in the ways. There's a woman who heads reproductive search at the National Institutes of Health, and she summed up the biological aspects of it in a simple sense. She said, "It is, it is more reliable to disabled one ovum a month than it is to try to disable 30 million sperm a day." See? It presents a fierce problem. Suppose you do a pretty good job, see, of disabling sperm, but there's just a mere million left who didn't

Studs Terkel See, and also we come to, does it play any role, a Pill, in this whole battle of, concerning sterilization eugenics one form or another, that always enters into it, too, to some extent, doesn't it? One is advocated for people

Bernard Asbell Yeah, in fact, there was a, there was a time in the United States shortly after the Pill came out when women on welfare were being encouraged to use the Pill by the social workers. There got to be a movement, particularly in Pittsburgh, but it got be somewhat national among Black people saying that this was a, this was a form of what do you call

Studs Terkel Genocide.

Bernard Asbell Of genocide. See? That fizzled out and died very quickly. But Sanger herself had a background in the, in the old eugenics movement, there was a movement early in this century called eugenics, when it would -- nobody could talk today the way intellectuals, respectable intellectuals talked then about trying to reduce the population of the uneducated and "the poor in the jungles," that was a term they often used, "the poor in the jungles," as though they were diluting the, somehow diluting the gene pool. That was respectable talk at that time.

Studs Terkel Well, you might say "The Bell Curve" has that [temper?].

Bernard Asbell Yes. You see, though today it flies in the face of respectable thinking. At that time it did not. And there's a certain element of the of the of the pro-life movement today that is trying to hang on Barbara Sanger -- Margaret Sanger that she's a racist because of some relatively innocent things she said that were in keeping with the early eugenics movement. She was not a racist. She may have believed some things that she would not believe today, but that's an unfair

Studs Terkel What is

Bernard Asbell RU-486 is a pill that is an entirely different kind of pill. It's been developed by a Frenchman named Emile Etienne [sic - Etienne Emile] Baulieu. It's a morning-after pill. It is not a contraceptive. It is an abortifacient. After the, after you think the body has conceived or if there's a good chance the body's conceived because of previous action, you take RU-486 which, by the way, is not a simple task. A lot of people think it's "Oh, it's just simple, you pop a pill." There apparently is a very uncomfortable aftermath. But, but then it -- there's a very high likelihood that that will do away with the, with the fetus

Studs Terkel Toward the end, now we come to something, it's always called "point of no return" or "point of diminishing effect," we know the battles concerning DNA going on, the Cambridge battle, and I think there's a point to it. Maybe there's an over-shooting in the battle of conceiving, you know, determining the nature of the next generation. What is biointer-- you speak of bio-intervention

Bernard Asbell I invented the term

Studs Terkel What is bio-intervention?

Bernard Asbell We have now -- see, the Pill perhaps was the first in a whole series of technological developments in the last decades that now enable us to do all kinds of miraculous things. We can, we can choose the sex of our children. Nobody's doing it so far as we know. We can make

Studs Terkel We know we can determine

Bernard Asbell We know we determine it, but we also can choose. You see, there's a clinic in England that will for a price will see that you have a boy or a girl. We transplant hearts. We transplant kidneys. We saved Mickey Mantle, you know. We, soon we'll be able to create designer children. We have re-- we have reached a point in history where our technological abilities outrun our ethics, our ethical ability to make decisions. The abortion battle, where we see two camps shouting at each other and can't even discuss let alone resolve anything, this may happen to an even greater extent when we when we learn more about continuing, extending people's lives or how to control reproduction, and we have no ethical background to tell us what is right

Studs Terkel By the way, the word "ethical" figures here now, we hold subjects, an old subject and yet it's expanded considerably. Medical ethics.

Bernard Asbell Yes.

Studs Terkel The medical ethicist is a certain kind of teacher, the certain kind of department, isn't it? I'm sure it was always

Bernard Asbell -- Every hospital now

Studs Terkel There but never has been this expansion

Bernard Asbell -- Every hospital has to have an Ethics Committee, because we have, we have these technical capacities that we don't know how to handle. Do you keep Grandma alive or don't you?

Studs Terkel Well, that's Kevorkian again, too, and an aspect

Bernard Asbell Well, that's if the person wants to die. But how about, Grandma's lying there in a coma. She's been a vegetable for 98 days. The price of keeping her alive, you know, will inoculate 10,000 children. Do you keep her alive even though she'll never have consciousness again? These are these questions that we, for the first time in human history we have to decide.

Studs Terkel So this is not disc--

Bernard Asbell It's not disconnected

Studs Terkel No, not unconnected

Bernard Asbell Because the Pill opened that technolo-- was the first. It didn't lead, it didn't cause, but it was the first step in opening that whole era of being able to step into the biological system and take control of it. We are now Charles Darwin. We can control evolution.

Studs Terkel In fact, you have that phrase somewhere here. Yeah, that's it. So it's a very delicate moment obviously, and that's a moment that

Bernard Asbell Studs, you know the old Chinese

Studs Terkel -- We know there's

Bernard Asbell The old Chinese proverb, "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it." [sic - This saying is attributed to Aesop.]You see?

Studs Terkel And also there is our love of technical stuff, too. Our love of the machine. Now this of course, I'm, I have a touch of the Luddite in me. I really

Bernard Asbell We do, we do value and worship life, and you don't just do away with life. If there's some way of preserving it, our instinct is to preserve it. And yet, our technical capacity to do that outruns our

Studs Terkel Yeah, but there's something that, this may be wandering a bit, digressing, but also there's a disappearance -- diminishing of the human touch. You see, with machines more and more, the love of it and no doubt advances made because of technology. The loss of the human touch, as a doctor friend of mine said, "the laying on of the hands" was what impelled him to

Bernard Asbell This kind of debate, I think, or this [conscience?] is going to dominate life for the next 50 years. I think this could become the great issue of the next half-century.

Studs Terkel And so the Pill has played a big role in this thing quite obviously.

Bernard Asbell It opened the

Studs Terkel Birth control itself, the very nature, so this is Bernard Asbell's book, "A Biography of the Drug that Changed the World, the Pill", Random House the publishers, and it's available, and thank you very much.

Bernard Asbell Thank you, Studs.

Studs Terkel And here here's WFMT, of which you were a guest so often, back in the '50s.

Bernard Asbell In the '50s, when I was playing guitar and singing songs.

Studs Terkel And just a personal note, we'll end with this, when Big Bill Broonzy met Pete Seeger in a cold, on a cold winter morning, January morning, and our guy in hotel studios, it was Bernie Asbell's guitar that Big Bill had.

Bernard Asbell Yeah, I drove Big Bill down that morning and lent him my guitar, and you know later I called Moses Ash of Asher, to say this great discussion just took place between us, and he put it out as a record.

Studs Terkel Became a recording

Bernard Asbell A discussion between you three.

Studs Terkel Of the [almanac?]. The very first one. Well, Bernie thank you very much for that memory, but also for the book.

Bernard Asbell Thank you, Studs.