'Pill' Skeptics Catching Up With Paul VI

When Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, which reconfirmed a Catholic teaching at least as old as St. Paul's letter to the Galatians, many pundits viewed the encyclical as a sign that the Church had opted out of the real world. In 1968, the sexual revolution was in high gear. We had finally entered the paradise promised to us by Sigmund Freud. Who was this celibate priest in Rome telling us that the birth control pill would be bad for society?

A generation later, there are signs of second thoughts among our intelligentsia. This past month, two prominent social commentators, Lionel Tiger and Francis Fukuyama, have published books which take a very dim view of the pill. Neither man has any special sympathy for Catholicism. Neither seems to have much use for natural law, the idea that there is an objective moral order that is not subject to our whim and manipulation. Back in 1968, both probably would have been puzzled by Section 17 of Humanae Vitae, in which Pope Paul warned about the effects that the widespread use of contraception would have on the social order. But both have now written books which confirm Pope Paul's predictions.

Tiger, a famous anthropologist who teaches at Rutgers University, comes right out with it in The Decline of Males: “It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the contraceptive pill on human arrangements.” He thinks that in the advanced industrial countries, widespread use of the pill has created “an unprecedented and not-so-hidden nihilism about reproduction” that has made relationships between men and women far more difficult. He thinks that by driving a wedge between sex and babies, between sex and commitment, the pill has alienated men and women from their own fertility and thus from one another.

Tiger's book is a kind of admission that people in the social sciences, whose stock in trade is making predictions about human behavior, had no idea how the pill would affect society. He admits to being “baffled” by the fact that after the pill became available, the demand for abortions went up and not down. And he is struck by the fact that among the industrial nations, Japan, the one country that (until last month) prohibited the pill, has the lowest out-of-wedlock birthrate: 1.1%, compared to 31% in America. The fact that you can chart the explosion of all sorts of undesirable results — illegitimacy, abortion, divorce — from the introduction of the pill seems to Tiger profoundly “counterintuitive.”

Francis Fukuyama is equally puzzled by the statistics. In his new book, The Great Disruption, he writes that “if the effect of birth control is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, it is hard to explain why its advent should have been accompanied by an explosion of illegitimacy and a rise in the rate of abortions.”

Fukuyama thinks that one very bad effect of contraceptives has been to turn men into irresponsible predators in the sexual marketplace. “Since the pill and abortion permitted women for the first time to have sex without worrying about the consequences, men felt liberated from norms requiring them to look after the women whom they had gotten pregnant.” To those social conservatives who don't like the idea of women spending their child-bearing years in the workplace, Fukuyama points out that the growing irresponsibility of males reinforced the need for women to arm themselves with job skills to not be dependent on husbands who are prone to disappear.

Fukuyama also confirms what anyone might gather from listening to an honest account of the dating scene these days: Contrary to the promises of radical feminists, women have been the big losers in the sexual revolution. One of the great frauds, he writes, is the notion that the sexual revolution is “gender neutral, benefiting women and men equally. … In fact, the sexual revolution served the interests of men.”

May I make a modest suggestion? If, as Pat Fagan of the Heritage Foundation suggests, the test of a first-rate sociologist is an ability to make accurate predictions about social behavior, then the most successful sociologist of the late sixties was Paul VI. And since Pope Paul was reading Love and Responsibility, by the future John Paul II, at the time he was writing Humanae Vitae, we can award that accolade to the current pope as well. Might it not be time for our social thinkers, who can no longer ignore the wreckage caused by the sexual revolution, to show some curiosity about why the Church teaches what it does about contraception?

What they will find is a body of thought that is both rich and profound. They will find that for good reason the Church teaches that sex and babies are not like Lego blocks. You cannot with impunity yank them apart when you feel like it. And they will find that John Paul II's prognosis in Evangelium Vitae is correct: The culture of death will not be reversed until society rediscovers that our fertility is not a thing to be manipulated but a gift to be cherished.

George Sim Johnston, a New York-based writer, is author of Did Darwin Get It Right?