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.

george rosenkranz
George Rosenkranz

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.”

George Rosenkranz is known as an inventor of the birth control pill.

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.

woman with depression

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

pope st paul vi
Pope St. Paul VI, author of Humanae Vitae

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.”

12 thoughts on “Before and After the Pill: Its Redefinition of Human Sexuality and Impact on Society

  1. Thank you for being a “voice in the wilderness” on such a serious matter.
    I knew Fr Paul Marx and cherish my conversations with him. He was a tireless defender of human life!

  2. I have 8 childern.My husband had an affair with a woman on the pill.I got infected and learned about it.It broke up my marraige and family.It was terrible.

    1. We are very sorry this has happened to you and your family. What a great difficulty you bear. My heart goes out to you. This is another sad reminder about the negative impacts of contraception.

  3. I wrote about three pages and sent it. Your comment page came back stating that I needed to have my email address. That’s no problem, but I’m out of time. You might consider altering your comment section to prevent that from occurring in the future. My response was centered around the wonderful benefits of Natural Family Planning. It works, it’s safe and effective and is marriage building. a few surveys have been conducted and the divorce rate is said to be in the single digits.

  4. Very clear-sighted and true. But fighting vs contraception is fighting vs human selfishness and human pride. It’s a severely uphill struggle like the myth of Sisyphus. The victory is not ours but God’s! For Him all things are possible.

  5. Two important comments.
    On the comment regarding men as potential mates, I recall a scientific article which noted a rather peculiar finding that women on the pill who were looking for a future male mate often noted that when they went off the pill, the man they chose seemed to smell like their brother. The hypothesis presented was that women are able to smell out a man who would have immunological traits different from hers that would best insure the survival of the offspring. The closer the relationship, the greater the probability of having similar traits. An alternative and broader hypothesis would be that the woman is able to discern via olfactory signals levels of genetic difference between herself and potential mates which would tend overall to assure survival of offspring. Modern science has confirmed the longstanding wisdom of the prohibition of marriage between close relatives.
    Another point is that runoff from birth control pills into our waterways has been shown to cause transsexualization of certain species of fish in the wild. This opens a very pressing question: What exactly is this doing to children in the womb? Although the role in human beings is not well understood, it is certain that a spike in estrogen at a specific point in pregnancy is responsible for masculinzation of the fetus. Some species such as rats will be morphologically and psychologically female if this surge is blocked and an artificial surge will cause female fetuses to become morphologically and psychologically female. This effect can be partial if the process is partially interfered with. In human beings this masculinization is in the brain. If even tiny amounts of these raucous, persistent biochemicals are able to cross the placental barrier, then there is a definite possibility of reduced masculinization of the male brain in humans or partial masculinization of the female brain. This gives a physiological basis for male and female children being born with homosexual tendencies, and with the concurrent sociological movement, it is not surprising that incidence of chosen forms of homosexuality have been on the increase over the decades. This is hard to study since the exposures to these run-off compounds are nearly universal. There was unofficial research a long time ago noting that in males this tendency might be reversed by a large dose of testosterone in adolescence.
    Birth control is responsible for what I consider to be the greatest environmental disaster in human history. This is not surprising since birth control was developed with tunnel vision of for the purpose of practical genocide. One of the precepts of Planned Parenthood’s program of “peaceful genocide” (as Margaret Sanger called it) was the extermination of homosexuals as genetic misfits. Oddly, PP may be responsible for its massive increase and the great suffering that comes with it.

  6. CATHOLIC HERALD, HERALD HOUSE, LAMB’S PASSAGE, BUNHILL ROW, LONDON, EC1Y 8TQ, UK
    letters AT catholicherald.co.uk , editorial AT catholicherald.co.uk
    (submitted for publication)

    Dear Mr Coppen,

    Mary Kenny (Herald, 21 June) discusses the tragedy of 205,000 babies killed by abortion in 2018. She recalls ‘contraception was supposed to curtail the demand for abortion’ and rightly states it hasn’t worked like that. She should have made clear the connection between abortion and contraception.

    Directors of the Brooks Advisory Centre for abortion referrals have stated publicly: the availability of contraception leads to an increase in the abortion rate. Saint John Paul II taught that abortion and contraception are fruits of the same tree. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court asserted abortion and contraception are of the same character (see P.S.). So parties on opposing sides of the abortion debate assert there is a close connection between abortion and contraception. Consider: contraception separates the unitive and procreative dimensions of sex which are naturally one. It degrades sex to selfish pleasure seeking – to using another human being for an end, so it should not surprise us that it leads to abortion.

    Catholics have a duty to be clear: contraception denies the truth of the male and female bodies united in completely self-giving love within married commitment. There is a better way than contraception, enunciated through St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and popularized by Christopher West and others: sex that is both procreative and unitive in the commitment of marriage. The best English translation today is Michael Waldstein’s ‘Man and Woman He Created Them’.
    ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology_of_the_Body )
    ( http://tobinstitute.org/ )
    ( https://www.amazon.co.uk/ Christopher-West/e/B001K8H50E )
    ( http://www.jp2.info/Theology_of_the_Body.pdf )
    ( http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/why-st.-john-paul-iis-theology-of-the-body-is-more-important-than-ever )

    Clearly this is a matter of the Catholic faith which Vatican II teaches us to discuss, so I copy this message to other Catholic organs.

    Praise GOD for Mary the Mother of life !
    WHMJolliffe
    William Jolliffe, EMMAUS, 199 Cumnor Hill, OXFORD, OX2 9PJ, UK;
    Tel. 01865 – 862 – 699; Mobile 07846 – 417 – 269;
    Email – williamhmjolliffe AT yahoo.co.uk

    P.S. perhaps I should explain the quotes above. Dr Judith Bury, former director of Edinburgh’s Brook Advisory Centre, an abortion referral agency, wrote: “Twenty years ago women were more resigned to unwanted pregnancy, but as they have become more conscious of preventing conception, so they have come to request terminations when contraception fails. There is overwhelming evidence that, contrary to what you might expect, the availability of contraception leads to an increase in the abortion rate.” (The Scotsman, 29 June 1981).

    Another Brook Advisory Centre director, Jean Malcolm, reportedly said: “It’s partly because of a greater availability of contraception that there are more pregnancies. I suppose it’s almost inevitable”. (Edinburgh and Lothian Post, 11 January 1992).

    Saint John Paul II taught in ‘Evangelium Vitae’: ‘abortion and contraception are fruits of the same tree’ (E.V, 13).

    In 1992, the United States Supreme Court stated in judgment: ‘In some critical respects abortion is of the same character is of the same character as the decision to use contraception (para. 852)… For two decades people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail (para. 856)’ (Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey, 1992, para.s 852, 856)
    ( https://www.law.cornell.edu/ supct/html/91-744.ZO.html )
    ( https://supreme.justia.com/ cases/federal/us/505/833/case. html )
    WHMJolliffe

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