Play Addresses Birth Control And Other 'Taboos' Famous for his work on the first oral contraceptive in 1951, chemist Carl Djerassi has published a number of novels and plays over the last 20 years. His latest play, Taboos, grapples with the questions of sex divorced from reproduction.

Play Addresses Birth Control And Other 'Taboos'

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You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. My next guest is one of the fathers of the birth control pill, but he has turned away from the chemistry lab. Well, he did that many years ago to pen plays for the theater, and his most recent is called "Taboos." And it's playing for the next three weeks here in New York and the play tells the story of two couples trying to become parents through artificial means. One is a lesbian couple, the other an infertile Christian husband and wife and they play raises some really interesting and complicated questions about reproduction, when sex and children no longer go hand in hand.

So what does it mean to be a parent in the modern world of birth control, infertility drugs, test-tube babies when we all can interchange our sperm and egg and then raise children, surrogate parents, all kinds of issues. Very interesting issues. Carl Djerassi is the playwright behind "Taboos" and professor emeritus at the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. CARL DJERASSI (Playwright for 'Taboos'): Thanks very much.

FLATOW: Good to have you back. What was the - what's the catalyst for this play?

Mr. DJERASSI: Well, that's my preoccupation in the last probably 20 years when I started moving from the laboratory to be coming an author first of novels and then of plays. I either first started with the issue of reproduction, what is happening in this world, things using separation of sex and reproduction, sex as usual in the usual places. Reproduction more and more under the microscope on the other assisted conditions. And the implication it has not so much of the scientific ones, but really the societal ones and that includes everything from women's rights and the power position of men and women, the power of elation of women. Women and sex reproduction all the way to (unintelligible).

And since I want to make one correction, you introduced me - you are saying, when you introduced the play. You said a lesbian couple and a Christian couple. Christians is not really correct. It is a fundamentalist couple because it wouldn't make any difference whether they are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or anything else. But I wanted to say fundamentalist, and fundamentalist doesn't have to be fundamentalist Christian although in this case, it is. Because I think that it's another issue that I find it necessary to address many people who have a very preconceived notions about what is proper and improper in sexual reproduction, and yet, they themselves frequent violate it which to me is a form of hypocrisy to which we should call attention particularly in this politically-charged climate right now.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Do you write these plays because you think these are dialogues that scientists should be having but they don't speak out enough about them?

Mr. DJERASSI: Well, that is true also of the fiction, the science fiction that I wrote first. I've written five such novels and now, about eight plays. But that's the fundamental point scientist, I'm talking about active research scientists. Don't spend the time of talking to the public for very obvious reasons. Not only don't they think there's a time, but they get no brownie points for it by their professional peers and really professional recognition in science depends entirely - absolutely entirely on your peers and naturally general public. So really don't get any brownie points for that, and people that are willing to do this, people like me, basically are doing this when they are, you know, emeriti or close to the end of their active professional career which is extremely unfortunate.

But I think we scientists have to talk to the public and I'm particularly interested in doing it in a dialogic format who out of then just giving popular lectures or adding popular articles, because dialogue - really the most human form of intercourse you might say, which was used in literature from the Greeks all the way through Galileo and to the Renaissance is not used as a literary genre now except in plays. Now, the plays that I'm writing are intellectual plays. They are - I hope also amusing, and there were lots of laughs and performance I saw that's now "Taboos," but you know, every, any play is only seen for a short while, and I really feel very strongly that plays can also be a read as books, certain plays.

Plays of Tom Stoppard(ph) for instance just to give an example. A wonderful literature and just to call them plays is in a way demeaning. They're more limiting their exposure, and I feel very strongly about this and that's why I'm delighted that after this play will show - published in book form in just a couple of weeks ago by the University of Wisconsin Press under the the excellent title, 'Sex in An Age of Technological Reproduction" and that's really the theme that I'm addressing.

FLATOW: Yeah, it is. The difference between having children and just sexually reproducing and being parents, too.

Mr. DJERASSI: Yeah. But that is the key point. Again, in introduction, you ask the question well, even now, I've children, you know without people. You're only talking about the reproduction, the actual fertilization and the next nine months. Well, the nine months that even that has done within the woman because fertilization - but what I want to focus on - the really important thing is we shouldn't always talk about how to become parents in the biological sense, but how we behave as two parents. You know what's father's, well, just always a preoccupied about genetic fatherhood. You know the man's family name or the family blood, things like this.

In consequential compared to the role that you're playing as a parent in fathers, and people who think that this impending separation of sex and reproduction will destroy - affect the nuclear family are totally wrong in my opinion because if you, in fact, to resort to more and more to assist the reproductive techniques for various reasons and we can try and address that, not just infertile people but fertile people. But you only do this once or twice in your lifetime because in Europe average five family is now 1.5 children. In the United States, it's something like 2.1. So, people have very few children.

So, the important thing is what do they then do with the children? How do they behave to other children and that a wanted child because any child conceived by assisted is a wanted child not an inadvertent one, not an accidental pregnancy is this cement for a functioning family. And since both parents want to have a child, I think that both of them are going to pay more attention to the parenting aspect of it which I think makes it a much better and more meaningful nuclear family than just one which is a family in name only in where their mother plays most of the functions.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-5255 calling - talking with Carl Djerassi, playwright, writer, fiction to non-fiction. In particular, his new play "Taboos" which is running here in New York, has been running for about three weeks. Let's see if we can get a call in. Elaine of Fort Myers, Hi, Elaine.

ELAINE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to comment that it is a situation that happens only at reproduction and yet it does go on. I conceived my son almost - he's going to be 10 next month by artificial insemination, and it's funny because I was talking with a colleague today, he just joined Cub Scouts and so, this weekend we're going on our first outing and yet again, I will be faced with relative strangers who almost look at our family with pity until they understand the situation. It's like we were never abandoned. Nobody left us. We're good to go. We're fine, this is our family, it's been like this for a long time, and we're just fine with it. And it's kind of interesting that it is an ongoing decision, it's an ongoing decision about this decision and about this type of family.

FLATOW: You're a single mom.



ELAINE: By choice.

FLATOW: Yeah. Carl, any comment?

Mr. DJERASSI: No. I don't have any comment because in fact I write exactly in one of my novels, my third novel, (unintelligible) I'm writing exactly about a professional woman who decides to have a child and not find the right man or didn't even want one and is prepared to go through committed single motherhood. It is better to have two parents, but it is really particularly important to have one loving parent. Many people are born under condition - many babies are born or children are born under conditions where they were totally unwanted. Remember out of all pregnancies that occurred in the world, about 50 percent unexpected and 25 percent of them are unwanted and that results - that's the reason why we have nearly 50 million orphans each year. So, it is much, much better to have one loving parent than to have two lousy ones, and I think lots of people have these.

FLATOW: OK, Elaine? Thanks. Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. I find that your plays are could be great educational tools. So find that schools are able to use them or are your topics so controversial these days and not politically correct enough for a lot of schools that they shun that?

Mr. DJERASSI: Well, forget about political correctness, but your question is the key question. Now, this play, "Taboos" is written for the commercial theater and it involves, you know, theater production and so on. I've written at the same time, it play just called, "ICSI" and that is the technique that I was referring to inter-fad of love, an experiment injectional, the injection of a single sperm into an egg which is one of the key methods that is being used in that it's having enormous - enormous, ethical and practical and reproductive consequences. And that play which is a pedagogic word play just with two voices and you just need to read them, you need no staging and so on. With audiovisual materials also included in that same book with which came out in "Taboos." And this is now been used in Europe and actually also in Taiwan because it was translated into German before hundreds and hundreds of high school students that I saw but I also saw it at two medical congresses, I saw it at the Royal Academy of Medicine in England, BBC Radio Three broadcast it where I played one of the roles. And the interviewer, Vivian Perrier (ph) a woman Ira Flatow in London the other role.

We didn't tell the people it was before a live BBC audience that in fact it was - pedagogic play that I'd written because it's in a form of a TV interview between a woman, green moderator, a very critical moderator and a scientist discussing this particular fields that subject so you get the pros and cons all the time. You don't just get one view, that's a very important thing. I don't give them any answers, I only raise questions.. And when we did this on the BBC, people had not realized that in fact we're doing a play of mine, they thought it was a real interview because it was before a live audience and then they announced that in fact it was a play, and everyone was rather amused by this.

So, I have very important pedagogic motives and that is the reason why this paperback which I happened to pluck in my hand which it's called "Sex in an Age of Technological Reproduction" contains both plays. It contains the play "Taboos," it contains the pedagogic word play ICSI which is only 45 minutes long so it fits into a classroom, and it contains a CD with all the audiovisuals and even shows a DVD of the actual ICSI injection, how you see the injection of a single sperm into the next which very dramatic. There's nothing question of political correctness, there are no four-letter words in there. If people are embarrassed to look at this then I think they fail entirely in sex education in schools entirely.

FLATOW: Do you think that scientists can learn something from your plays?

Mr. DJERASSI: I beg your pardon?

FLATOW: Do you think that scientists too could learn things from your play?

Mr. DJERASSI: No question whatsoever. I've done this - first of all, if I ask a group of chemists just tell me what is ICSI. Well, you know nine out of 10 haven't gotten the foggiest idea. And after most scientists other than reproduction biologist or biologist are really not any better informed about reproduction and the complicated social consequences than any other person. I mean, we are all citizens and I think this is not to written down to an audience, it's written to a general audience and as I told you, it was done before the Royal Academy of Medicine where average audience were 60 and these were there, the (unintelligible) of British medicine. And they were asked, taken and engaged by this as I've saw high school students, and I talk to high school student. I basically mean juniors and seniors. It's not that younger ones can't understand it but I think the languages about a little bit more sophisticated because I really don't like to talk down to people.

FLATOW: I'm talking with Carl Djerassi, author of the new play "Taboos" on Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. Let's see if we can get another phone call in before we run out of time. Michelle(ph) in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi.

MICHELLE (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: How are you?

MICHELLE: Yes. Can you hear me?

FLATOW: Yes if you shut your radio off.

MICHELLE: Yes. Hold on. But I had a question. I agreed to be an egg donor for friend of mine and the process went quite well, and so I did it again but for someone that I didn't know, but it's just kind of a strange reality to me that when I go out in public, I'm not particularly fond of having children myself but children who are of that same age range of around the period that I would have done it could technically be mine, and that's just a strange reality for me to kind of think about, and I wondered if your guest could comment on that.

FLATOW: You mean as you at in the street, gee you think this could be my kid.

MICHELLE: Yeah. You know especially some screaming child. You know, I need to be nice because you never know.

FLATOW: Interesting. Carl?

Mr. DJERASSI: I don't understand. Are you asking this question as an egg donor or you're asking this in a case of a man as a sperm donor?

FLATOW: She's an egg donor.


Mr. DJERASSI: Well, I think first of all this is the key question in "Taboos." Even the generosity because it is very easy for a man to be a sperm donor, you just masturbate. For a woman, it is much more complex, and there are many more issues involved in this. And I have to say, I enormously admire women who are generous enough to do this because they are believing and sort of helping parents who cannot have children particularly women. And we feel best on it that didn't - do not want to adopt, but want to go through the intimate birthing process even though it's not their own genetic child. And I think I can only commend the caller.

I can only say I wish you would see my play because you'll see there is - they show the discussion, it's - in this case a conflict between a surrogate egg donor who also is a mother at the same time because she donates one of the eggs to one woman but the other one she uses herself. And then the question is who has, you know mother's rights to whic child. It's becomes very complex. You seemed to have done this in a simpler most straightforward way. So maybe you wouldn't appear in my play, but I like what you said.

MICHELLE: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: OK, Michelle. Have a good weekend. 1-800-989-8255. And you don't resolve - you don't answer the things.

Mr. DJERASSI: I fell I strongly, Ira that I shouldn't because then, I'll become a preacher. I am a scientist, and I'm a socially responsible person. I want to raise these crucial questions. I think this is the overpowering issue, the direction of which sex and reproduction go in the century I want to show the facts , not just the scientific facts which make this things possible but the manner, the good and bad manner because sometimes we use it very inappropriately that this things are being useful. But in the end, there have to be private decisions by an individual so I want to present them with the facts and then I would then like to debate this. And in my plays, I want to provoke them. And I think it would inappropriate for them to tell what Carl Djerassi thinks because what I think is really all of the opinion of one man and so what? Why should that apply to others?

This is why I really believe that sex and reproduction are really cannot be legislated even many religions fail this. I mean, the best example is that the highest proportion of illegal abortions in the world right now are all Catholic Latin American countries or that Italy and Spain, you know two all Catholic countries has the lowest birth rates in Europe. And of course, how do they do this. It's clearly not by abstaining, but by using contraception. So you see here people are violating religious beliefs because their beliefs and feelings about sexual reproduction are even stronger. And I think we have to accept that but we should be willing to debate them and not convince other people to correct all opinion but accept the fact that there has to be compromises. These are not black and white issues, they are inherently grey ones, and you're only going to grey answers.

FLATOW: Carl, I wish you great success and with your play "Taboos" in New York, hopefully it'll get around the country so other can people can see it there too or read it online now as you said they can...

Mr. DJERASSI: Well, they can read the "Sex in the Age of Technological Reproduction," the book.

FLATOW: Carl Djerassi. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

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