The Pill at 50
How It Has Shifted Society’s Moral Center
BY Joan Frawley Desmond
May 9-22, 2010 Issue | Posted 5/3/10 at 10:06 AM
WASHINGTON — Frannie Boyle, a 21-year-old Catholic at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., ignited a campus-wide debate when she repudiated the practice of casual sex and binge drinking.
That happened thanks to a recent CNN feature on this widely publicized trend.
“Casual hook-ups fueled by alcohol may be the norm across college campuses,” reported CNN, but Boyle “chose to stop. Her reasons to quit hooking up echo the emotional devastation of many college students, particularly girls whose hearts are broken by the hook-up scene.”
Vanderbilt’s fraternity leaders disputed Boyle’s portrait of campus socializing, while feminists chided the college junior for suggesting that female students wanted more from sex than their male counterparts. But the controversy helps explain why many Americans are not prepared to allow a related historical event — the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill — to glide by without scrutiny.
Decades after “The Pill” was supposed to secure a gender-free utopia — in sexual relationships, the home and the workplace — the data suggest it has produced a much more complicated legacy. The pill has been held responsible for unleashing the sexual revolution and for advancing the inclusion of women into the workplace, for fostering female independence and discouraging men from committing to marriage and children.
In the opinion pages of The New York Times, Elaine Tyler May’s “Promises the Pill Could Never Keep” suggested that contrary to the excited predictions of mid-century birth-control enthusiasts, the advent of the pill did not mark the decline of poverty rates, divorce or unwanted pregnancies. Quite the contrary.
Yet May, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and the author of the forthcoming America and the Pill, argued that this new technology still fulfilled its fundamental mission: helping women “gain control of not only their fertility, but also their lives. They could decide whether to have children, and when. They could take advantage of new opportunities for education, work and participation in public life that opened up in the years following the pill’s approval,” she asserted.
This conflicted assessment of the pill’s impact on both individual lives and the broader culture underscores the difficulty of measuring its precise role in the ongoing transformation of American attitudes about the purpose and meaning of sex, the morality of abortion and contraception, women’s roles in the home and the workplace, and the relationship between human fertility and poverty rates.
For May, and many of the pill’s feminist supporters, the rise of woman-controlled fertility is a milestone in the fight for liberation. But some Catholic theologians, historians and natural family planning (NFP) experts contend that the push for “control” — though possibly well intentioned — unleashed destructive forces that still bedevil efforts to strengthen marriages, encourage mutual respect in college socializing, and embrace the full meaning and purpose of the human body, including the gift of fertility.
Church teaching on artificial contraception remains unchanged since Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) in 1968. The encyclical provoked a powerful backlash which still governs both opinion and practice for many Catholics. In the last decade, however, the arrival of a new generation of bishops and priests eager to bring NFP and Pope John Paul II’s revolutionary teaching on the theology of the body to ordinary Catholics provide cause for hope.
A half century of tumultuous social change has strengthened the Church’s case against technological solutions that treat human fertility as if it were a disease rather than a gift. Not only have Paul VI’s dire predictions about the negative consequences of the pill come to pass — he anticipated an increase in adultery, divorce, disordered desire and the exploitation of women — social and medical research have revealed the complicated interplay of artificial birth control on women’s physical and mental health, dating practices and spousal relationships.
Much of this research has already been brought to light, and NFP practitioners report an increased interest from younger Americans about alternatives to artificial birth control and dysfunctional dating practices.
But Catholic scholars suggest that it’s past time to confront — and even debunk — a central tenet of most family-planning programs: woman-directed “control” of fertility as the engine for social change. These experts argue that the drumbeat of “control” has alienated wives from their husbands and made female fertility a “scapegoat” for failed economic and social policies throughout the globe.
“Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and an early member of the eugenics movement, wanted to develop a birth control pill for a long time. She was insistent that it be a woman-controlled approach,” explained Angela Franks, author of Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility. “Sanger hoped it would give women more control, but instead, it’s created a situation in which men have no responsibility.”
In Sanger’s 1920 book, Woman and the New Race, the author laid out her vision. “Women are responsible for the eugenic health for the human race. That is woman’s job — a duty and responsibility,” paraphrased Franks, co-associate director of the Master of Arts in Ministry program at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass. “Sanger considered this idea to be liberating for women. But it’s also very burdensome: Women become the eugenic gatekeepers.”
This eugenics-inspired vision of women as the gatekeepers of enlightened population control encouraged a utilitarian view of human fertility that viewed the body as an instrument for manipulation, based on a cost-benefit analysis of expected outcomes that would reduce disease and poverty. In a 1928 essay that Franks quotes in her book, Sanger said she wanted to create birth-control methods “that will be so simple, so safe, so convenient and so cheap that the popularization of their use among poor and ignorant people will be a comparatively easy matter.”
Control — not mutual spousal responsibility and dialogue — became the governing principle of the modern family-planning movement. But the unstated subtext of control was that some women should be given more power than others to make decisions about childbearing. Involuntary birth control and sterilization for the “unfit” took place in medical clinics that served the poor until a series of high-profile scandals in the 1970s prompted a crackdown. However, a recent survey suggested that many African-Americans still believe that they remain the primary targets of state-funded birth-control programs.
By the 1980s, a growing number of well-educated, middle-class women voluntarily embraced their role as “eugenics gatekeeper,” undertaking routine prenatal screening for birth defects. Today, 90% of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.
Humanae Vitae warned against the intrusion of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis into married couples’ most intimate decisions, but that tumultuous era did not celebrate the prudence and self-mastery needed to undertake natural methods of spacing children.
Mary Shivanandan, a professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and the author of Crossing the Threshold of Love: A Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology, recalls the immense challenge that era posed to the transmission of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life and the meaning and purpose of conjugal love and human fertility: “After Roe v. Wade in 1972, the Church put most of its efforts into fighting abortion. NFP took second place. There wasn’t a true understanding of the meaning of fertility, and there were no programs out there for people in the pews. The pro-pill propaganda was so strong in media and within the medical profession that it drowned out the conversation.”
Like many Catholic theologians who began their careers exploring the underlying philosophy and Christian anthropology of natural family planning, Shivanandan said she quickly concluded that the movement for women’s liberation would fail if it didn’t come to terms with the full nature of women, including their fertility.
“It struck me early on: You can’t have true equality between men and women without respect for both the man and woman’s fertility,” said Shivanandan. “Unfortunately, the whole purpose of the pill is to change women’s fertility.”
In recent decades, sterilization has emerged as an increasingly popular method of birth control, and Catholic experts say this trend is partly due to the family-planning movement’s refusal to grapple with an integrated approach to the challenge of fertility.
“The theology of the body speaks about ‘self-mastery for self-gift,’ and NFP is an approach that requires behavior change,” observed Shivanandan. “The pill substitutes a behavioral change with technology. That technology-driven approach has actually permeated our whole approach to addressing many problems in medicine and elsewhere.”
Vicki Thorn, the founder of Project Rachel who travels to college campuses around the country to speak about the pill’s impact on women’s bodies and present the theology of the body, notes that the majority of young women need information and support to make the right choices.
“They don’t know how their body works — the fertility cycle, the mood changes or the way the pill can affect their attraction to men who may be poor marriage partners. Contraception is supposed to ensure that ‘I don’t get pregnant. But if I do, abortion is the backup.’ When contraception fails, their parents say, ‘Don’t come home.’ Their friends say, ‘We’ll raise money for an abortion,’ and their boyfriend walks away.”
If the drumbeat of “control” continues to resonate in the widespread use of artificial contraception today, pro-life and NFP advocates believe a parallel reassessment of such practices provides reason for hope: Not only have abortion rates dropped — with just over the majority of Americans now identifying themselves as pro-life — NFP is also gaining traction.
Dr. Hanna Klaus, executive director of the Natural Family Planning Center of Washington, D.C., which provides NFP services and teacher training for the Teen Star program — sexuality education that helps young people understand and value their sexuality and fertility — recently participated in an NFP presentation for first-year medical students at Georgetown University and was impressed with their interest.
A longtime NFP expert, Klaus reports that some young people are attracted to “natural methods” of birth control — “Mechanical methods don’t give people a chance to see how the body works, while the pill can affect their emotions in unpredictable ways.” But if they aren’t committed to this approach for religious reasons, they may use barrier methods during fertile periods and miss the virtue-enhancing aspects of Church teaching.
If mainstream America remains oblivious to the countercultural insights articulated in Humanae Vitae and the theology of the body, a growing number of younger Catholics are becoming more interested. Theresa Notare, assistant director of the natural family planning program for the U.S. bishops’ conference, reports that “about 90-95 dioceses have a paid staff person in charge of ministry and coordination of NFP teachers.”
“There seems to be a huge demand for talks on contraception. Something has been happening at the grassroots level for several decades,” reported Janet Smith, a moral theologian who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and is the author of numerous works on Humanae Vitae.
The majority of U.S. bishops, who recently issued a pastoral letter on marriage that presented the theology of the body, acknowledge that more needs to be done, but Smith suggested that the popularity of John Paul’s teaching marks a generation shift in the Church.
“My experience of priests, and especially seminarians, is that they accept the teaching of Humanae Vitae. I’m getting more invitations by bishops to address priests on how to preach on Humanae Vitae,” said Smith. “These are all very good signs.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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