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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 1
Lent-Easter 2013

The Contraceptive Superstition
and the mythology of the sexual revolution

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

Contraception was always supposed to be liberating. It made untrammeled sexual intercourse possible by eliminating pregnancy as one of its possible consequences. The powerful human sex drive had always been constrained before by the absence of any really effective means of preventing pregnancy; sexual intercourse was designed, after all, to bring pregnancy about,so it was not necessarily always going to be easy to prevent it.

Of course the human sex drive had also always been constrained by the moral and social rules and customs in place in virtually all human societies, in particular those pertaining to marriage. But the development of modern conceptive methods nevertheless got widely and broadly welcomed as liberating people from these constraints.

Contraception effectively separated engaging in sexual relations from the begetting of children. Another consequence of its wide and regular use that was not necessarily foreseen, however, was that it tended to separate sexual relations not just from the possibility of children, but also from the bond of marriage itself. It was no longer seen as necessary to be in a “stable” relationship in order to engage in sexual relations. The development of the oral conceptive pill in the early 1960s coincided with — indeed, largely helped to make possible and bring about — the so-called sexual revolution. With the sexual revolution, the philosophy of “anything goes” became widespread; people came to believe that, with effective contraception, anything could go. Sexual relations could be engaged in without consequences.

Contraception thus became the principal enabler of the sexual revolution. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the sexual revolution without contraception. People came to believe that willed adult sexual activity of whatever kind (providing it was consensual) should no longer be stigmatized or even perhaps disapproved of. Certainly such activity was not to be judged any longer by society! Old-fashioned ideas about fidelity in marriage or sins against chastity tended to go by the board, while the new sin of “judgmentalism” came to be practically the only sin any longer still harshly judged by society.

And contraception was not only the enabler, it was the guarantor of the liberation that it was believed to have brought about. That it was an unalloyed good and wholly beneficent was taken for granted. In fact it became hard to imagine life without contraception. But did the new “anything goes” society truly come without consequences?

In the years following the increase in contraceptive use, especially with the advent of the Pill, a number of other trends began to be evident in American society. Increased divorce, for example — whether or not it meant an increase in the incidence of fornication and adultery — did indicate a very marked decline in the institution as a stable and permanent relationship maintained especially for the good of children (who with contraception were no longer considered to be an essential component of marriage in any case; was not that the point of contraception after all?) No-fault divorce, enacted in nearly all the states almost without debate, soon raised the divorce rate to the point where around half the marriages in the United States were being terminated.

What this break-up of so many marriages indicated, among other things, was a marked increase in the number of single-parent families, fatherless families, and “mixed” families (divorced-remarried), all of which social science research tended to show were more harmful for children: the prospect of living in poverty for single-parent families, for example, being as much as six times greater than in a stable two-parent family. These broken families also meant more child abuse, especially by step-parents and boyfriends. All these and other negative trends were not necessarily “caused” by contraception, of course, but its availability and use, again, often served as the enabler and guarantor of the new behaviors and lifestyles.

Another trend almost impossible to imagine without the availability of contraception was the sharp increase in cohabitation. Not only were many people terminating their marriages, many of them were delaying marriage or not marrying at all. Similarly, the crude “hook-up” culture, which among some young people often replaced romance and dating, could hardly have been thought possible or doable if contraception were not there to eliminate the possible consequences.

Yet consequences persisted. Rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), for example, skyrocketed. A good half of sexually active young adults contract HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and other STDs. Between 1960 and today the rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies ballooned — yes, all forms of contraception without exception sometimes do fail to prevent the condition; not a single one of them is as effective as, well, abstinence. In fact, out-of-wedlock pregnancies rose from some 5% of all births in 1960 to around 40% today.

Then there were the abortions. The active votaries of the contraceptive society — unlike the American public at large — have always known and understood that abortion is the necessary back-up for failed contraception. One study found that over 15% of teens employing contraception for so-called safe sex became pregnant within the first year of use. Another well-known statistic is that over half (54%) of women seeking abortion were using contraception at the time that they became pregnant. The “preventive” means obviously weren’t necessarily preventing! A back-up is strictly necessary if the original decision to avert pregnancy is to be 100% effective.

This has been expressly recognized by none other than the US Supreme Court. In its 1992 Planned Parenthood v Casey decision, the high court officially held that abortion had to remain legal because, in its words, “for two decades of economic and social developments people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views and their place in society in reliance on the availability of abortion in case contraception should fail.”

Most people today are aware that the incidence of abortions rose precipitously with the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade decision removing restrictions on this lethal practice. Today around 1.2 million abortions are performed annually in the United States. According to the World Almanac, 1.2 million is the same number of those killed in all the wars of American history! Americans are matching that number of fatalities each year by means of legalized abortion.

Yet abortion is nevertheless thought by the Supreme Court to be the necessary back-up “in case contraception should fail.” However, many people today continue to characterize contraception as preventive or even as some kind of antidote to abortion. They argue for increased access to contraception in order, they say, to prevent abortions. Yet the opposite appears to be the case. Studies have shown that abortions are most prevalent where contraception is most widely employed.

Some studies have shown that contraceptive use may actually help increase abortion rates, though this may seem counterintuitive. Blessed Pope John Paul II referred to such studies in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life), where he pointed out that “the negative views inherent in the ‘contraceptive mentality’ show that they strengthened this temptation” to abort. The pope added: “Despite these differences of nature and moral gravity, [contraception and abortion] are often closely connected as fruits of the same tree” (§13).

A serious question remains, though: why do people persist in thinking that just because contraception is not killing (as abortion obviously is), contraception must therefore be all right? If, as John Paul II observed, it stems from the “same tree” as abortion, why not oppose it as the evil fruit that it is, even though it is not the same thing as abortion? There are other indications that contraception is neither neutral nor harmless.

For example, there are other effects that oral contraceptives — containing known carcinogens — have on women’s bodies. Various medical journals have reported that they can double the risk of heart attacks; increase the risk of strokes, blood clots, and pulmonary embolisms; increase the risk of breast cancer by some 44%; triple the risk of cervical cancer; and cause a 60% greater risk of HIV infection. Injectable contraceptives double the risk of this last kind of infection.

These are only some of the effects. Who was it that spoke of a “war on women”? Merely in view of such potential effects as these, how can anyone with a straight face really characterize the provision of these powerful drugs as health care for women? Yet that is the official position of the US government, and it is widely accepted by the American public without serious questioning. How and why, one wonders, can the belief in the efficacy of contraception remain undiminished, and its use remain at such high levels?

How, indeed, has the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) been able to put in place its current mandate that contraception, along with sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, must henceforth be provided by law virtually universally — and gratis — under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a/k/a “Obamacare”)?

The answer to these questions can only be, first of all, that many people evidently are determined at all costs to avoid pregnancy, which they see as a kind of disease, and hence they are going to avail themselves of the means to accomplish this in spite of the verified negative and even harmful consequences of contraceptive use.

In addition, though, it must be recognized that in today’s world, contraception has long since become a kind of superstition. The dictionary defines “superstition” as “a belief founded on irrational feelings, especially of fear, and marked by credulity.” Thus, the fear of pregnancy creates the false and credulous belief that since there is “nothing wrong” with contraception, it can and must be resorted to and employed regardless of the actual consequences.

This, then, is “the contraceptive superstition.” Its power and persistence are undeniable. It goes almost unquestioned in American society today. What is perhaps surprising, however, is that even those aware of the possible deleterious effects of contraceptive use — and perhaps even opposed to this use on moral grounds — rarely actually speak out against contraception. Many if not most of those opposed to the HHS mandate, for example, insist that their objections are “not about contraception,” but only about religious liberty.

This has been notably true of many Catholics since the HHS mandate was issued. Typically, only when pushed up against the wall by the mandate, thus being forced to defend the Church’s teaching, have many Catholics today conceded that, yes, they really are against contraception too — certainly against having it forced upon anybody. Yet the typical reluctance to oppose contraception has surely contributed to the apparent belief of government bureaucrats, as well as of some of the judges handling the lawsuits against the mandate, that Catholics and the Church cannot possibly be serious about being opposed to contraception. Surely, it is thought, they will have to come around, compromise, and comply.

So why can we not decide to state frankly and up front that, yes, we are against contraception as well as abortion? Why cannot we begin to broadcast from the rooftops and to the four winds the now well-established facts that contraception is bad for human beings as well as for society? This has irrefutably been shown to be the case. How much longer does the rule of public non-judgmentalism have to be observed as far as contraception is concerned? Why cannot we take an open position against this harmful practice?

It does not have to be personal. We do not have to go after the users of contraception in an ad hominem way. We merely have to point out the effects of contraception — bad for them too! Because contraception is not liberating. Rather, it is enthralling and even enslaving, no less so than tobacco or drugs.
That it represents any kind of real social good is simply false. This is a superstition


Kenneth D. Whitehead is a well-known Catholic writer, translator, and former career diplomat who was Assistant Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration. His latest book is Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Modern Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010). Mr. Whitehead is married to Voices editorial board member Margaret Whitehead and lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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