It strikes me as a curious disconnect that in this health-conscious environment, millions of women daily pop birth control pills made of artificial hormones, taking the Pill for decades from their teens through menopausal middle age, with hardly a second thought about potential physical, psychological, and societal downsides. Think about it: healthy women take a daily dose of man-made hormones to control a perfectly natural bodily function—fertility—that occurs only a few days each month.
The Pill is deemed to be safe, and modern contraceptives are undoubtedly safer from a medical viewpoint that the early higher dose formulations. But every package of birth control pills comes with a fine-print insert warning of side effects that may include blood clots, strokes, breast cancer, cervical cancer, depression, weight gain and bleeding and advising that certain people should not take the drugs. If you watch television, you’ve undoubtedly seen commercials urging women who have suffered serious harm from several kinds of contraceptives to join in class action lawsuits against the makers of the drugs. So—how “safe” is safe? Yet, most people take it as a given that the physical side effects and health risks are outweighed by the benefits of the Pill.
Whether or not the Pill is safe begs some larger questions: Is it morally right? What about the psychological and societal fallout? Early advocates of birth control touted it as the great cure-all for marital disharmony, divorce, out of wedlock births, and back-alley abortions. It would “liberate” women from oppression by men, free them from the demands of childbearing, and everybody would be happier.
To clarify Church teaching on contraception, on July 25, 1968 Pope Paul VI issued one of the most controversial papal encyclicals, Humanae Vitae, on the artificial regulation of birth. Writing just eight years after the introduction of the Pill, the Holy Father warned that widespread use of contraception would result in four major, unwelcome societal changes:
- An increase in conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality; a coarsening of society.
- A lowering of respect for women and the treatment of women as objects for gratification—“a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment”—by men.
- A potential coercive use of birth control by governments for population control, “a dangerous power will be put into the hands of rulers who care little about the moral law.”
- A desire to have unlimited control over one’s body.
Oh, my. Prophetic words indeed. Compare 1960’s television, movies and popular culture to today’s. Compare the rates of divorce, abortion, out of wedlock births. Look at the epidemic rise in pornography. Look at the one-child population control policy in China. Other factors may be a work, too, but it is hard to escape the connection with readily available contraception for all who want it.
In recent months Catholic bishops, organizations and spokespersons have gone to great lengths to explain that opposition to the HHS Mandate requiring employers to provide contraceptive coverage in health care plans is not about contraception, but rather it is about religious liberty. This is indeed the accurate reading of the HHS mandate and the reason for the pending lawsuits that stem from it. The Catholic Church and other organization are right in taking a firm stand on this issue, and the stakes are too high for us to give way. We’ve just recently observed the “Fortnight for Freedom” to highlight religious liberty concerns.
But while emphasizing the very real religious liberty threats, I wonder if we Catholics are letting a teaching moment slip by. One of the responsibilities of the Church and the faithful is to bear witness to the truth, to get the message of the Church out into the world. Sometimes we don’t do that as well as we could, either as the institutional Church or as the laity.
Here’s my point: Church teaching on contraception is morally correct, good for individuals, families and society at large, and it needs a fair hearing. One of the best kept secrets of the Church is natural family planning (“NFP”). NFP, properly understood, is the moral, holistic, drug free, natural, healthy, modern and scientific means of cooperating with God’s plan to achieve or postpone pregnancy. Every year the USCCB sets aside the week around the anniversary date of Humanae Vitae as Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. The website is a gold mine of information for individuals and parishes.
During NFP Awareness Week beginning July 22 we would do well to ponder and talk about serious questions that deserve to be examined in light of our faith. What are the consequences to individuals and society from the widespread use of birth control? What is the negative fallout of severing procreation from sexual activity? I suggest as a starting point a careful reading of Humanae Vitae. The writings of Professor Janet Smith are noteworthy. For an eye-opening look at the broader societal impact, I recommend Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, the recently published book by Hoover Institution research fellow Mary Eberstadt.