In an article in U.S. News and World Report (July 1, 1996, p. 57) evolutionary anthropologist Lionel Tiger recognizes what Pope Paul VI predicted in 1968: Widespread use of birth control would have disastrous consequences on our society. Those negative effects include impoverishment of women, marginalization of men, soaring numbers of abortions and out-of-wedlock births, and a general worsening of relationships between men and women. This decline, argues Tiger, happened because of the massive use of the birth control pill.
In this essay I offer my own reflection on why this is so.
Let's begin with a brief history of birth control. We read in the Bible that Onan lay with Tamar, but he did not want her to become pregnant. Therefore he "spilled his seed on the ground." This act was "evil in the eyes of God and He took his life." (Gen 38:9-10) That was during the patriarchal period, about eighteen centuries before Christ.
"Spilling the seed" or coitus interruptus was one of several methods which aimed at enjoying sexual relations while avoiding conception. Hipolitus in 225 A.D. refers to rich women who used "drugs of sterility" to not have children (Refutation of all Heresies 9:12). Like other Church Fathers he energetically opposed this and other contraceptive practices.
Not just the Catholic Church denounced contraception. The founder of the Protestants, Martin Luther, considered it a sin "worse than adultery or incest" (Commentary on Genesis 38:10). Calvin and Wesley, as well as Protestant theologians like Spurgeon and Pink, all condemned birth control. (In his remarkable book, The Bible and Birth Control, Charles D. Provan provides abundant quotes from them and other Evangelical greats.)
In 1930 this united front showed a small crack. The Anglican bishops approved a resolution allowing the use of birth control (the condom) in certain "extreme circumstances." Within 40 years almost all the Protestant Churches (with notable exceptions like the Mormons and Amish) have accepted the use of anti-conception.
The Catholic Church did not follow this current. On December 31, 1930, Pope Pius XI issued his famous encyclical Casti Conubi. He reaffirmed the teaching of the Bible on the two ends of marriage. After creating us male and female, God gave the first command "Be fertile and multiply." Or as one translation states, "Have many, many children" (Gen. 1:28). In the following chapter the Creator gives the other motive for marrying: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and the two shall become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24).
Considering these two inseparable purposes of marriage (procreation and union), Pius XI taught that it is never licit to use artificial methods and that natural methods should only be used with strict limitations.
The great majority of Catholics accepted this teaching. My own parents were no exception. They married in 1941 and used the much-maligned "rhythm method" to space their offspring. When they had completed their desired number (or perhaps when they finally achieved a daughter) they used the same method to avoid a further pregnancy.
During the 40's and 50's it was normal for a Catholic to follow the Holy Father's teaching. However, in my generation the situation changed drastically. It was in the late 50's that scientists mixed together certain hormones and chemicals to create "anovulatory capsules," which would become know simply as "The Pill." I was barely an adolescent but I remember the "hype." The Pill was presented as the solution to almost all our problems: Over-population, undesired pregnancies, abortion, child abuse, the poverty associated with large families and, above all, marriage stress. Spouses would now enter a new era of married bliss because the Pill would enable them to have sexual relations at any moment without fear of pregnancy.
With so many "advantages," there was enormous pressure to change the Catholic teaching. We must enter the modern world, accept this new technology as a blessing from God. After all, an airplane might seem "unnatural," but who wouldn't use one to get from Seattle to San Francisco?
At the same time proponents of artificial birth control ridiculed the natural methods with their calendars, temperature taking, abstinence and unexpected pregnancies. While the jokes ("Vatican Roulette" and "rhythm babies") stick in people's consciousness, the genuine advances in NFP techniques have been largely ignored. But more about that below.
Given this onslaught of criticism, the Holy Father decided to form a study commission. It included scientists, theologians and married couples. In the "spirit of Vatican II" (1963-65) many thought the Church should act like a democracy and accept the will of the majority. And it appeared that the majority of Catholic married couples practiced contraception, or at least wanted that option. "Vox Populi, Vox Dei!" was often heard.
However, in 1968 there came the great shock. Instead of embracing the new technologies, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the traditional teaching: "Every marriage act must be open to procreation" (Humanae Vitae11). To block conception with artificial means is gravely against the law of God, not only for Catholics, but for all people.
We must admit that relatively few, even among practicing Catholics, listened to the voice of the Holy Father. In fact, there was really not even a debate. The issue was decided in the media. Fr. Charles Curran and other dissenting theologians quickly grasped where the action was. Before the encyclical was even available for reading, Curran called a press conference with news that some sixty U.S. theologians disagreed with the pope on this issue.
A few years later Fr. Andrew Greeley did a study which indicated ("to my surprise," he said) that the main reason for the decline of U.S. Catholicism was the birth control encyclical. If only that teaching could be changed, we would have all those people back.
I was ordained in 1971 and, like most priests, I downplayed the Church's teaching on this touchy subject. Even though I got to know a few couples who were enthusiastic about NFP, I was certainly not going to make an issue if a couple chose the Pill or even sterilization. And it must be admitted most did not look to us for guidance on this matter.
Still, the issue has not gone away. Serious folks like Lionel Tiger, mentioned at the beginning of this article, are asking some tough questions about the consequences of the Pill. After more than thirty years of widespread use, we can now give some answers.
First, and perhaps most important to its promoters, the Pill has halted the "population explosion," at least in North America and Europe. The birth rate has already dropped below the death rate in many developed nations. So called "Catholic countries" like Spain and Italy are leading the way. But not all are happy about their shrinking populations. Spain has started giving gifts to couples who bear children. France offers large financial incentives. But those measures have little impact. Once the contraception mentality descends on a society, it is impossible to change it with government programs.
Contraception has not had the same success in ending unwanted pregnancies and the resulting abortions. The United States in 1994 had 1.4 million abortions and only four million births. That means that more than 25 per cent of the children conceived in this country died at the hands of abortionists. (I am also not considering here the fact that the IUD and some forms of the Pill are abortifacient.) These mind-boggling statistics are causing some Evangelical Protestants to re-think their easy acceptance of the Pill. Clearly there is a relation between the contraception mentality and abortion.
Acknowledging that abortion itself is the most severe form of child abuse, we must also note that mistreatment of children already born has not lessened since the Pill was introduced. It is difficult to know all the causes of this horrible plague. But no longer can we facilely argue that unplanned children later become abused children. In fact I was surprised to read a study which suggests just the opposite. According to this study, children who were the result of a planned pregnancy actually had a higher rate of abuse than the unplanned or so called "unwanted" children.
It seems an intolerable paradox to say that a wanted child is more liable to be abused. But the reason is not so hard to grasp - that child is more often seen as his parents' "right" or even their "property." If the child exists to fulfill the dreams of his parents and he fails to do so, the temptation to shout, to humiliate, even to hit, becomes strong. The Catechism attempts to correct such a distortion:
A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged "right to a child" would lead. In this area, only the child possesses genuine rights: the right "to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents," and "the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception." (#2378)
This teaching, I have discovered, comes as a shock to people today. Technology has made it possible to separate sexual expression from conception. It has also been able to separate conception from the marriage act. Most people know the Church opposes the former. They do not realize the Church also condemns the latter. Not only that, they cannot imagine why. After all, they reason, the Church wants couples to have babies; she should be ecstatic that science can help them. Well, yes and no. I refer you to the Catechism #2375ff to find out when the technology is morally acceptable.
One of the great slogans has been "every child a wanted child." That end of course is good. However, the problem is making the Pill the means to that end. It has distorted our basic view of the child. First the potential parent says, "I will decide when and how many children." But when they finally decide to try to have a child and encounter difficulty, the cry can become, "I want a child desperately, I need a child to be fulfilled." They are willing to spend large amounts of money and to submit to what otherwise would be considered degradingly invasive means. I have tried to talk some couples out of undergoing artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization. These difficult conversations have led me to the conclusion that what I was up against was not just the intense desire to have their own child, but a reverence for the medical profession and its technology that borders on idolatry.
The Pill, besides not eliminating unwanted babies, has had the paradoxical effect of making infertile couples want babies in the wrong way. But let us leave this discussion and move to what was considered the most desired effect of the Pill: Ending the major cause of stress in marriage.
Patty Crowley, a member of the pope's own commission on birth control, has written a book about their hopes. From this perspective it is almost touching in its naivete. She repeats the dream that the Pill will free couples from their fears of unwanted pregnancies and thereby open up a new era of marital happiness. Unfortunately we must say she was correct in one sense. The Pill did free couples from fear of unplanned pregnancies - not only in marriage, but outside it as well. The Pill has made the possibility of an extra-marital fling a lot less risky and therefore more attractive. I saw a graph that plotted the rise of divorce and the increased use of the Pill since the late 50's. The two lines rise at the same rhythm.
The law of unintended consequences can also be seen in another goal of the Pill: To reduce poverty by eliminating large families. They have virtually disappeared from our society, but questions remain. What is the best gift parents can give their child: A new car or a new little brother? And for that matter where does wealth come from? It is true a large family will probably be more hard pressed to make ends meet when the children are growing up, but there are lots of indications that that can be recouped in the long run. I think of my own four brothers and one sister. I do not want to romanticize our upbringing or say we are more cohesive than is true, but I consider overall we have been a help to each other. That help can be measured not only spiritually, but even economically.
And we have made a contribution to other folks' betterment. I used to offer my own family as an example to large families in Peru. Raise your kids with good values and a certain respect. They will be good not only for each other but society in general. Peru's poverty in fact is not caused by overpopulation. If anything, the opposite is true. The country in the last census counted only 23 million people. France has twice that number and one half the territory of Peru. Peru has enormous resources of land, petroleum, fisheries, minerals, water and so on. Its natural resources would be the envy of Japan or Korea. Yet it lacks the people to develop them. It is an open question whether Peru's population will ever attain the "critical mass" necessary for development. The rate of growth in fact is quickly dropping in that country, partly because of pressure from the U.S. to use the Pill, the IUD and to sterilize women and men.
Even in the rather remote area of Peru where I served for seven years, I saw the aggressive A.I.D. (United States Agency for International Development) campaign to promote contraception. The highest paid doctors, midwife practitioners and nurses are those who perform tubal ligations and insert IUDs. It is remarkable that we criticize past missionaries for imposing their culture, but we so readily assume this aspect of our culture is of unquestionable benefit.
Indeed before we push an anti-conception program on the rest of humanity, we should ask what its consequences have been for us. I outlined above the enormous negative experience we have had in the past three decades. Perhaps we are ready to ask whether Pope Paul VI was a reactionary or a prophet. At the end of Humanae Vitae he glimpses the negative results of massive use of the Pill.
The rather amazing "prophecy" contained in the pope's encyclical comes as no surprise to those who believe the Holy Father is guided by the Spirit in his teaching office. Like another Paul, he rejected "the wisdom of this world" and instead offered us the "wisdom of the cross" (cf I Cor 2:5).
What can we say about those who accepted the pope's teaching and embraced this "hidden wisdom"? While a majority even among Catholics was swept along with the current of our society, a minority followed the Catholic teaching. They give an impressive testimony. For a starter, the divorce rate among couples who conscientiously use natural methods is practically zero. The explanation is evident: These methods require a constant dialogue and a certain discipline which strengthens the marriage relationship.
The marriage-strengthening benefits of NFP are described at length in other places and by married couples themselves. But one of the most profound fruits of methods based on self-observation does need to be underlined here. It yields a deep appreciation for the gift of fertility. In fact the Creighton (University) model calls NFP "fertility appreciation."
There is a paradox here. In the beginning self-observation can be difficult, even disagreeable for some women. It involves taking cervical mucus from the intimate parts and examining it between the thumb and index finger.* Is it sticky or elastic? Clear or opaque? Is it abundant or scant? Does it have any color? Does it give a lubricating sensation? The husband often participates with his wife in making the observations or at least writing them down. What happens is that they move from prosaic observations to a real sense of wonder. They realize that when they identify the fertile mucus, it is precisely the substance that allows the male sperm to arrive at the female egg to begin a new human life. This bit of cervical mucus becomes for them almost like a sacrament: It brings about what it signifies, namely fertility. And this is precisely the great gift God gave us when he created our first parents in his image and said to them, "Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth."
To appreciate this gift of fertility can transform a marriage. The man no longer says to his wife, "I love you, but not totally. In fact there is one thing about you I do not like at all: your ability to become a mother and make me a father. Here, take this pill and we can forget about that disagreeable aspect of who you are." But if they are using natural methods, they will never suppress the gift of fertility, but rather will constantly recognize it.
The testimony of couples who have embraced the doctrine of Jesus and his Church indicates that the difference between "natural" and "artificial" is more than a question of words, a "distinction without a difference." In fact the difference is true and deep. This can be shown in how natural methods build a respect for woman.
While women have considered the Pill an essential part of their "liberation," perhaps natural methods would really be to their advantage. First of all, we must admit that men tend to "wander" while women generally prefer stable relationships. Certainly natural methods promote stability. We men are notoriously irresponsible as far as caring for children, as Lionel Tiger points out in the essay mentioned at the beginning. Natural methods require commitment and responsibility. In general it appears that while women will somewhat readily accept an older man, the opposite is true among men. When she becomes a little fat, wrinkled, and irritable, he often gets an "itch" for a younger woman. But those who have practiced natural methods more easily appreciate where true beauty comes from.
Natural methods clearly strengthen marriages and families. While the divorce rate among users of the Pill and other forms of anti-conception is high, among users of NFP it is virtually zero. The inherent communication and discipline are a part of the explanation. However, there is something more profound. I saw this in my experience in Peru.
In our parish in the high Andes of Peru we taught natural methods not only to married couples but also to young single adults. As part of the course the girls would chart their own cycle, not of course to engage in sexual relations but to understand their fertility. Some boys also took the course because they wanted to become promoters or even instructors of Natural Family Planning. We welcomed them, but there was one big obvious obstacle. Unlike the girls they could not keep a personal chart (or if they did it would be pretty boring since they would put a baby sticker on every single day). What they did however was to ask their moms if they could do a chart for them. To my surprise the moms said "yes."
After six months, as the course was nearing its conclusion, I asked one of the boys what he had learned. He said to me very simply, "Father, I learned respect for women." In a few words he summed the whole purpose of fertility appreciation. Respect for women is what our society lacks and desperately needs to recover if we are going to steer a new course into the third millennium. Respect for woman, for her fertility, can transform our personal lives, our marriages, our society - and our Church.
Fr Phil Bloom
Seattle, WA September, 1996 (revised March 1998)
A special word of thanks to Paul Schratz, editor of B.C. Catholic (Archdiocese of Vancouver) who contributed editorial improvements to this article, August 1998
*According to research of Dr Erik Odeblad it is possible to detect fertility with much simpler observations.
Interview on Birth Control
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)
Mary Bloom Center for Natural Family Planning
Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Birth Control (by Protestants Against Birth Control)
The Preacher and the Pill (How the Church and feminism gave a woman control of her body)
Artificial birth control as a major root cause of poverty: Keynote Address to St. Vincent de Paul Regional Gathering, May 16, 1997.
What Every Catholic Couple Should Know
For more on the struggle between dissent and orthodoxy see my review of Flawed Expectations.
Why Humanae Vitae Was Right An excellent book on the Birth Control Debate edited by Dr. Janet Smith
Review of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right
A clear and concise Summary of Church Teaching on Contraception
Chemical Abortions (Interview with Dr. Thomas Hilgers, M.D.)
To plan or postpone pregnancy: Billings Method
Cukierski Family Apostolate
"Not Your Mother's Birth Control"
Infertile and Catholic: Help for Catholic couples who have been unable to have children.
The Moral Difference between NFP and Birth Control. (Response to letter from Ken Stuart.)
He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."
Surviving as a Catholic Family (Archbishop Charles Chaput reflects on the difference between Birth Control and Natural Family Planning)
Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church
Germaine Greer on Birth Control
Renewal of Vows, Prayers of Faithful and Blessing of Married Couples on World Marriage Day