Before and After the Pill: Its Redefinition of Human Sexuality and Impact on Society
When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as ‘arbiters’ of the Divine plan and they ‘manipulate’ and degrade human sexuality – and with it themselves and their married partner – by altering its value of ‘total’ self-giving. Thus, the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality.
— Pope St. John Paul II (Familiaris consortio, n.32)
Late last month The Washington Post ran a lengthy obituary upon the death of George Rosenkranz, a Hungarian-born chemist. You might be thinking that chemists aren’t usually the subject of lengthy articles in publications as prestigious as The Washington Post, and you’d be right. Rosenkranz, however, was world-famous due to his instrumental role in devising one of the most revolutionary drugs in all of human history – the birth control pill.
Though responsibility for the invention of the pill can be attributed to a host of scientists, Rosenkranz was one of the first to create a synthetic version of the female hormone progesterone. Ironically, norethindrone – as the synthetic hormone was called – was initially intended to help prevent miscarriage. However, the pharmaceutical company that Rosenkranz worked for soon realized its potential as a contraceptive, and released their version of the pill in 1964, making the company (and Rosenkranz) immensely wealthy.
As The Washington Post summarizes, the release of the pill on the market was “a watershed moment in the feminist movement as well as the culture wars — allowing women to enjoy sex without fear of becoming pregnant, permitting couples to decide when and whether to begin families, and setting off an enduring debate about sexual values.”
It truly is hard to overstate the impact of the pill on our world. As Evangelical Pastor Albert Mohler observes in writing about the death of Rosenkranz, the invention of the pill is truly one of those rare events in history, the consequences of which are so seismic that it constitutes a dividing line – before the pill, and after the pill. Only in the 1960s, for the first time in human history, did humans widely have access to a relatively reliable method of separating sex from procreation. And, as Mohler observes, “once that separation took place, you basically redefined human sexuality.”
The Church was Right
The question that hangs over us to this day is whether this redefinition has been for good or for ill. Dr. Rosenkranz himself seemed ambivalent about the question, focusing instead on the purely practical question of technical achievement. “I leave to others any debate about the ultimate worth of the pill,” he said, while receiving an honor from the University of Mexico in 2001 for his work.
It’s no secret that the Catholic Church, and a small number of other Christian denominations and thinkers, have consistently opposed artificial contraception. This opposition is often based on, or at least supported by the observation that separating sex from marriage and procreation has helped unleash a sexual revolution that has devastated traditional sexual ethics.
As Mohler notes, the pill not only enabled couples (more or less reliably) to control their fertility, “it also gave technological authorization to adultery and premarital sex and extramarital sex and just about everything you can imagine.”
The “everything you can imagine” includes a whole lot. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine, for example, the grotesque excesses of the LGBT movement – which were so prominently on display during last month’s “Pride” celebrations – and the widespread public support for them, without the redefinition of sexuality that the pill precipitated. Once sex became viewed as just another pleasurable pastime, rather than the immensely sacred, powerful, and private act by which a married couple express their love for one another and create new life, there was nothing stopping all manner of sexual excess – from the explosion of pornography, to the celebration of various deviant and violent sexual practices, to the systematic grooming of children through so-called “comprehensive sex education.”
However, the Church’s critique of contraception has always gone beyond concerns about sexual morality, to the far-reaching practical consequences. Many people scoffed at the Church’s claim that more contraception would lead to more abortion. It seemed self-evident to the early birth control pioneers that if women had the means to prevent unwanted pregnancy, then abortion rates would drop. What they didn’t account for was the way contraception would drastically alter sexual behavior. With routine casual sex becoming the norm, contraception’s “small” failure rate of several percent suddenly translated into millions of “unwanted pregnancies.” The result was that the abortion rate exploded even as the rate of contraceptive use increased.
The early birth control pioneers also failed to anticipate other dire consequences of the illusion of unfettered “sexual freedom,” both for the individual and society. Monsignor Pope recently summarized some of the these in an insightful article, writing:
Since contraception’s widespread use began, abortion has skyrocketed, as has divorce. Other consequences included an increase in sexually transmitted diseases (such as AIDS), teenage pregnancy and single motherhood, absent and irresponsible fathers, the breakdown of the families, and the poverty and dysfunction that goes with all of this. There is also a pornification of our culture that assists in spreading sexual confusion to include the celebration of homosexual acts and so-called transgenderism.
Growing Secular Opposition to Contraception?
Lately, however, I have noticed a fascinating trend. More and more non-religious people are starting to take note of the downsides to artificial contraception. In a surprising number of cases, they are instead turning their attention to natural methods of family planning. Case in point: the explosion of secular-developed mobile apps to assist women in fertility tracking. While in many cases the moral outlook of these developers doesn’t match Catholic teaching (for instance, they happily promote using barrier methods of contraception during fertile periods), it’s astonishing how many secular people seem to be coming to the same conclusions about the harms of contraception as the Catholic Church reached long ago.
Many women, for instance, are realizing that they disproportionately (indeed, almost entirely) bear the burdens and responsibilities that come with artificial contraception. Even worse, they are increasingly realizing that they are doing so in order that men can use them for meaningless sexual encounters that they are far less likely to desire in the first place.
Among the burdens born by women are the myriad side effects of pumping their bodies full of artificial hormones. One recent article in a widely-read secular German publication is titled “Depression and Suicide: The Dark Side of the Birth Control Pill.” The article focuses on the story of one woman who developed suicidal tendencies after going on the pill. But as the article observed, she’s far from alone. Indeed, it’s not hard to find forums online where thousands of women share terrifying and sometimes heart-breaking stories of emotional side effects they suffered once they went on birth control – severe depression, anxiety, mood swings, personality changes, loss of libido, and on and on.
Other side effects are less obvious, but possibly far more pervasive, and equally troubling. One study released earlier this year suggested that using hormonal contraceptives can interfere with women’s ability to detect emotional cues from others. While this is a relatively small study, it adds to the growing body of evidence that hormonal contraception interferes with women’s cognition and psychology in subtle ways that, multiplied hundreds of millions of times, may in fact be altering society in far more substantial ways than anyone realizes.
Some studies, for example, have suggested that the pill significantly affects how women perceive men as potential mates. This might not sound like a big deal. But as the authors of one study observed, “[T]he use of hormonal contraceptives may not only affect initial partner choice but also have unintended consequences for women’s relationship satisfaction if contraceptive pill use subsequently changes.” That is, women who were attracted to their partner while on the pill may suddenly find that the attraction changes or goes away when they cease using contraception. Again, multiply this effect potentially several hundred million times, and you see how the pill may be affecting lives and society in ways that the pill’s inventors never anticipated.
Other well-documented physical side effects from hormonal contraception include increased risks of certain types of cancer, pulmonary embolism, heart attack, stroke, weight gain, headaches, nausea, and decreased libido.
Many women are now waking up to the fact that they have been the subjects of a vast, largely untested scientific and social experiment, often for the sake of the pleasure of others. And they are beginning (rightly) to ask themselves whether this is true female “empowerment.”
The Wisdom of the Church’s Teachings
In a way, it is easy to understand why contraception became as popular and widespread as it did, or why so many even within the Church urged Pope St. Paul VI to change Church teaching on contraception. All the pleasures of sex without any of the consequences? Who wouldn’t want that?
The problem, of course, is that the promises of contraception are a lie. The really Big Lie is that contraception eliminates the risk of pregnancy. It didn’t, and still doesn’t. Even the most effective methods of contraception have a failure rate. Even if only a few percent risk per year, that translates into an enormous number of unwanted pregnancies. The contraceptive mentality, and its false promise of total control, primes men and women to view these unwanted pregnancies as unjust encroachments on their freedom, instead of the natural consequences of their sexual behavior. Inevitably, many of them turn to abortion to fix the “problem.” Indeed, data suggests that a solid majority of abortions may involve women who were using contraception at the time they became pregnant.
However, the other Big Lie is that pregnancy is the only “consequence” of sex, and that once we get rid of that, sex can be rendered simply “fun.” As we are learning, the “contraceptive mentality” can change society. It fundamentally changes the way men and women relate to one another, the kinds of sexual behavior society deems acceptable, the way we pursue romance, the meaning of marriage, the values that people treasure, the education our children receive, the entertainment we watch, the structure of the family, the physical and psychological health of our populace. And on and on, into every aspect of society.
The Catholic Church saw all this from its very beginning. Pope St. Paul VI saw this when he resisted the immense pressure put on him to lift the Catholic prohibition on contraception, and instead upheld that teaching in Humanae vitae. Pope St. John Paul II saw this when he repeatedly and emphatically reemphasized the Church’s teaching, despite the reality of widespread dissent from Church teaching.
Herein we find one more proof of God’s providence operating through His Church – that despite the confusion in the world, the Church could chart a clear path through that fog of confusion, upholding a beacon of truth, showing Christian couples (indeed all couples) the way to contribute to a true “Civilization of Love.”
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.