The latest papal commotion about contraception surely has some people asking: “What’s the big deal?” They join the chorus that began when companies like Hobby Lobby went to court over being forced to cover contraception under Obamacare. Why in the world are people making such a fuss over contraception?
Radio personality Garrison Keillor used to tell the story of Father Emil, the pastor over at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility parish in Lake Wobegone. Father Emil gave an annual birth control sermon that began with, “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?”
Granted, Keillor was poking fun at the fictional Father Emil, but it makes a nice folksy kind of sense, doesn’t it? Sort of like, if you didn’t want to gain weight, why did you eat the whole package of Oreos?
We do know what causes pregnancy. If you’re not ready for pregnancy, it logically follows that it might color your decision to have sex.
But let’s be sensible! Why not just use contraception? Or why not eat the whole package of Oreos and then stick your finger down your throat to get them out of your system before they can make you fat? Same difference.
At any time before the 1960s, a woman would have asked herself some penetrating questions before she engaged in sex. Is this man committed to me? Does he love me? And most importantly, if I became pregnant, would he protect me and a baby?
Since social mores before the 60s generally kept sex within marriage, those questions had already been answered by the marriage vows.
But with widely available artificial birth control, those questions, and the resulting common sense answers, have mostly been lost. Since you can avoid pregnancy at a fairly reliable rate, you can have sex whenever you want, with whomever you want.
To whom would that be good news? Certainly the playboys and those whom therapists would now call sexual compulsives, men who are consumed by their need for sex. Contraception has allowed them to have more of what they desire. Isn’t it a great thing to empower addiction and the ability to use others as objects of self-gratification without responsibility?
No? Well, ok, but isn’t contraception good news for women who used to worry about pregnancy after an unwise or ill-timed sexual encounter? They were drunk, or needed comforting, or he was just so hot. Should they have to deal with lifetime consequences for just a moment of imprudence? With contraception, women are free to make all the poor choices they want! Isn’t that a great thing?
“Feminists say the pill set women free – in fact it robbed them of their right to say no,” wrote Peter Hitchens in 2001. “The balance of power between the sexes had been utterly changed. Now it is harder, not easier, for girls to choose not to have sex.” Isn’t that great news for our daughters?
Here’s a development that would never have been possible before contraception: 59% of women and 78% men interviewed in a 2000 study admitted to having had sex with someone they’d met the same day. Yay contraception, right?
OK, but what about committed, responsible married couples who simply want to postpone pregnancy for serious financial or emotional reasons? Contraception in these circumstances is surely a good thing.
But what if I said that contraception actually harms marriage, weakens the bond between spouses?
It‘s hard for us to envision the damage because we’re so accustomed to contraception. We have to go back to the beginnings of the contraceptive culture to see it in a little more contrast.
During the first decade of widely-available contraception, divorce rates doubled. The incidence of adultery seems to have nearly doubled, as well.
Dr. John Billings, a pioneer in natural family planning wrote: “When we say, ‘I do not want your fertility any more,’ or ‘I will not give you my fertility anymore…’ the withdrawal of this gift tends to destroy marriages.”
Contraception hurts marriages because it goes against holistic human nature.
The body speaks a certain objective “language.” A smile means a person is happy, a whimper indicates distress. And intercourse means, “I’m married to you and open to life.” That language is spoken by the body even if the person is thinking, “I don’t love you and don’t ever want to be a family with you.” That language of the body just is.
(See The Body Speaks for more about that.)
The results of intercourse are a deeper sense of union with one’s spouse (you can even read that language in the bonding hormones released by the body during sex) and the possibility of conception. These outcomes are reality, even if they are not intended by the couple.
When a couple contracepts, they negate the language inherent in the body. In effect, contraception says, “I want to enjoy and maybe even love you… but not all of you.” It makes the act of intercourse a lie. And lies poison a relationship over time.
There are, no doubt, many couples who have contracepted for a long time and surely some will report happiness in their marriage. But they will never know what they might have had.
That does not mean that couples should have unlimited children! Not by any stretch of the abdominal muscles. There is a way to limit or postpone pregnancy that is effective, licit, healthy, natural, free, moral and character-building, to boot.
(“Character-building” is what I call my run workouts when it’s raining or cold outside, when I hurt and don’t want to be running. Is it easy? No. Am I glad I did it? Yes. Does it make me stronger, faster and more lionhearted? Absolutely.)
The character-building way to postpone pregnancy is to find other ways to express love during times of fertility. We might call it periodic continence, or specifically “natural family planning” (NFP). Those who practice it report a rather wonderful thing: a deepening of their love when they are called on to be creative in its expression on certain days.
Long before the contraceptive pill became so widely available, Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian reformer who earned the admiration of the whole world, denounced contraception. Catholics have developed a hardness of hearing towards our own prophets of truth, but maybe we can still hear Gandhi who came to the same conclusions through simple observation and knowledge of human nature.
Let there be no doubt as to the economics, either. Gandhi would very likely have been able to “follow the money.” Self-mastery costs nothing, never appears on any corporation’s bottom line.
But approximately $20 billion per year (with a “b”) in the US is spent on the contraceptive pill alone, and that’s without counting all the side effects, strokes, and long-term cancer risks that result. Is it any wonder you don’t hear much about NFP? The pharmaceutical companies would hire an awfully big band to drown it out.
Artificial birth control is primarily borne by the woman, with all the ill effects to her health, fertility, moods, libido and long-term well-being. In contrast, NFP is a shared project of the couple and has no adverse side effects.
Even over the drumbeat of the profiteers, people are beginning to look for a healthier way to plan their families. A true sign of NFP paddling into the mainstream is this testimonial I found at Cosmopolitan Magazine’s website, of all the unexpected places:
“I had taken birth control pills to help deal with ovarian cysts and found that they also made me feel irritable and overly emotional. Practicing NFP means that I first took a course in tracking my fertility. Each morning, I take my temperature at the same time and record it in my phone on an app. The entire process takes about 30 seconds and over time has become second nature. I’ve been happy with NFP so far and am still sticking with it.”
Contraception is too big a topic to cover in one post, so more will follow. There are the dangers of contraception; the studies on the personal, economic and environmental cost of contraception are what converted me in the first place. (Spoiler: The contraceptive pill is a Grade 1 carcinogen, a substance that causes cancer, in the same category as tobacco. That might be worth talking about.)
Then let’s talk about the pure joy of families, much of which we’ve forgotten in our haste to pin a dollar amount on children and cast them on the liability side of the balance sheet.
Meanwhile, if you get on the train, I hear there are lots of cool things to do in Minneapolis.
Sheryl Collmer, M.T.S is the Director of Outreach for TOBET in Irving, Texas.