The Guardian - United Kingdom ; 15-Mar-1999 12:43:55 am ; 495 words

I have a friend, now in her mid-fifties, who remembers Life Before The Pill. She remembers the sharp fear of unwanted pregnancy, and the fumblings in the dark with the woefully inadequate contraceptives that preceded it. She says that if she ever met the man who invented the Pill, she'd kiss his feet.

This week An Immaculate Misconception opens in London, a play which explores the impact of the Pill and the technological advances which followed it. The play's protagonist is a woman scientist who invents a cutting-edge method of artificial conception and impregnates herself. The playwright is Carl Djerassi, aka 'Father of the Pill', who directed the synthesis of the first oral contraceptive in 1951.

Now 76 and a chemistry professor at Stanford, this is Djerassi's first play. In it, he celebrates 'asexual, non-coital' reproduction. His female scientist invents ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection - a real process invented in 1992) and uses herself as its first human subject, fertilizing her own egg with a single sperm she has 'misappropriated' from her married lover.

Contrary to the Dworkin-esque vision of a future, where babies are bred in test tubes and women become redundant, Djerassi believes reproductive technology has a feminist potential. As the Pill 'liberated' women's sexuality, the new technologies will liberate their fertility. 'My play is a promotion of single motherhood,' he says in Austrian-accented English, 'with ICSI, the man's role is reduced to the smallest one possible because one miserable little sperm is all it takes to conceive by this method. The reproduction process becomes completely woman-centred.' The separation of sex from reproduction is something of an obsession of his. 'As a scientist, my contribution was contraception,' he says. 'As a playwright, I'm writing about creating life through non-sexual intercourse.' As a man, Djerassi has married three times and fathered two children (one, a daughter, commited suicide). He has been quoted as saying that he was a 'very traditional' father and questions whether he 'would want to have children if I were to do it over again'. 'Sex,' he says, 'should be done for pleasure; reproduction for reproduction.' It is time men took more interest in and responsibility for their part in conception, he says. He recently proposed in a scientific journal that young men should be willing to have a vasectomy after preserving their sperm in a sperm bank. When, later, they want to have children they can be conceived through artificial insemination. That way sexuality would become completely separate from conception, ruling out accidental pregnancies and leaving the world only with wanted children.

The stuff of Dr Strangelove, Aldus Huxley or Arthur C Clark? Not according to the man who triggered the sexual revolution and who, despite whatever gratitude I might owe him, kept his socks and shoes on.

An Immaculate Misconception opens at the New End Theatre Hampstead, on March 16.