Part 3: Indefensible or Indispensable?

The following is the third part in a series on contraception. We invite you to read Part 1 and Part 2.

To recap from last week: A principal reason why the Catholic Church does not consider contraception a morally sound way to practice responsible parenthood is that it inserts into the intimate sexual relationship between spouses what Pope John Paul II once called "the body language of a lie." It therefore puts a source of division into the very act that is supposed to be bonding the couple together. Catholic author Jason Evert put it this way in his outstanding book, If You Really Love Me (Servant Books, 2008 edition, p. 148):

The use of contraception fosters a level of rejection between spouses. By sterilizing the act of intercourse, the woman is saying that she wants to make love, but will kill any sperm that come her way. The man is saying that he accepts everything about the woman except her fertility. He gives everything to her except his potential fatherhood. The language of sex should be that of [complete] self-donation, but that is impossible with contraception.

Now let's go further.

Besides beginning to alienate spouses from each other, contraception also begins to alienate them from their Creator. In other words, by using contraception the spouses are trying to take complete control of the transmission of human life. With their bodies, and sometimes in conscious intention, they are saying: "We want to fully determine ourselves the times and seasons when we will allow God to play His part in the conception of new human life." The use of contraception states that God can only be allowed to play His part at our convenience.

Now, we know that God has provided us with an indication of those times when the gift of new human life to a family is definitely not His will. Those times are the wife's natural, infertile period each month. Through Natural Family Planning (NFP), if need be, we can cooperate with the times and seasons which God has established by not engaging in the conjugal act during fertile periods.

Deliberately to frustrate the procreative potential of the natural, sexual act which God our Creator has established, however, is to try to wrest control of the gift of life from Him as much as possible. After all, God is supposed to be the third party in the love between spouses: the One who brought each of you into being, and, called you to come together in the first place. Contraception says to God, at the end of the day: "Thanks for everything, Lord; now we will tell You when we want to be open to You doing your part in bringing our children into the world."

"Now wait a minute," you might say. "Isn't that what NFP involves too? For NFP involves restricting ourselves to performing the conjugal act to the infertile period when we know very well that procreation is nearly impossible, precisely so that we can avoid, for the time being, conceiving more children. Surely, NFP involves the same intention (having fewer children) as using contraceptives, and usually has the same result!" Even with NFP, we only want God to act with us to create new human life when we want Him to!

But there is a big difference: NFP does not employ the same means to achieve that end. And sometimes the means you choose to achieve a good end makes all the difference.

Some people think that the reason the Church supports NFP is that the means of birth control employed are natural rather than artificial. So you hear them say that the Church is only opposed to artificial contraception. But that is not quite correct. Even when people tried to use natural means of contraception (as people did in ancient times, such as primitive barrier methods or contraceptive herbal potions) the Church was just as opposed to those methods as she is today to the modern manufactured or chemical (and in that sense, artificial) methods. Any form of contraception is wrong, natural or artificial, because it blocks the natural, God-given openness and potential of the conjugal act in which it is used to the procreation of new human life. And that is precisely what NFP does not do. Even if, for a time, and for good reason, spouses restrict their conjugal acts to the wife's infertile periods, they can still give themselves to each other in every act of conjugal love with complete self-donation, just as the Lord has created them to be at that time, fertile or infertile.

Thus, first, NFP does not involve spouses expressing to each other in their love-making "the body language of a lie." Their conjugal acts speak the body-language of complete self-donation: "I give myself completely to you, just as I am, and I welcome your complete self-gift too."

Second, NFP does not involve trying to wrest the control of the creation of new human life as completely as possible from our Creator. Rather, NFP involves listening to what He is saying to us about His will through the natural cycles He has created.

Think of it this way: What do we know about God's will for creating new human life? God never revealed that His will is for spouses necessarily to make love every day, or even every week. That is up to us. And He has revealed to us, through nature, particular days and weeks when we can know for sure it is not His will for new human life to be created (the woman's natural, infertile periods). Thus, by using NFP we are not putting God at our beck and call. Rather, we are harmonizing our will with His manifest will, as much as possible in the situation. In effect, we are saying with our bodies (and hopefully in conscious intention as well): "We know it is generally not God's will for conception to happen at certain, infertile times of the month, and we believe it is not His will for us to conceive more children right now, in our family circumstances. So we, as a couple are going to follow our Lord's manifest will in these two ways by not making love during the fertile periods of the month, unless and until circumstances change. But each time we make love we will be giving ourselves to each other completely, just as we are, in total loving self-donation."

Third, the Church denies that the "results" of NFP and contraception are usually the same. To be sure, modern methods of NFP that replaced the old "rhythm" method in the 1960s and 1970s (such as the Billings method, and the Sympto-Thermal method) when properly learned and practiced, have been found to have a pregnancy prevention rate of 98.5%, even according to the UN's World Health Organization, which makes NFP almost as effective as the Pill, and far more effective than the condom. But the use of contraceptives often has side-effects that are largely ignored or hidden by the media today, and which are thoroughly destructive.

For example, the medical side effects of the Pill are causing increasing concern to those engaged in medical research. In 2009, a study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center showed "a strong correlation between the use of oral contraceptives and a particularly deadly form of breast cancer. The study found that the connection was highest among women who began using oral contraceptives while they were teenagers" (Healing the Culture, "Current News," 2009). Jason Evert documents that 21 out of 23 recent studies of women who took the Pill prior to having their first child showed an increased risk of breast cancer. According to the drug information included in birth control pills, "the user may experience the following side effects: heart attack, blood clot, stroke, liver cancer, breast cancer, gallbladder disease, headaches, bleeding irregularities, ectopic pregnancy, weight gain, mental depression, yeast infection, changes to the curvature of the eye ... acne, partial or complete loss of vision, and more. Some of these adverse reactions are rare, and some are more common, depending upon the type of pill and the particular woman who takes it" (Evert, p. 160).

Known personally to this author is a non-Catholic young woman who almost died from pleurisy, which her doctor later admitted was almost certainly caused by the oral contraceptives she was taking.

Then there is the effect on the marital relationship itself of the use of contraceptives, whether the Pill or the condom or some other contraceptive method is used. Obviously, speaking "the body language of a lie" to each other in bed is not a good thing: It is a hidden cause of the severe limitation on mutual spousal self-giving that generally infects so many marriages today. NFP also requires the spouses - the male spouse in particular - to learn the virtue of self-mastery over their bodily passions for the sake of their families, since they have to abstain from sexual intercourse on a periodic basis. This also creates a pattern in marriage of times of abstinence and times of joining together among NFP users, which reduces marital sexual satiation and boredom. In fact, it has often been the reported experience of NFP users that "abstinence is an aphrodisiac." Using contraceptives, however, tends to make the woman feel that she must always be "available," and therefore sometimes feel "used" or "taken for granted." To paraphrase Germaine Greer, the famous feminist: with the Pill you can easily feel like a call girl.

For all these reasons, the divorce statistics reveal a stunning correlation between marital togetherness, and the use of NFP. The divorce rate in North America has hovered pretty close to the 50 percent mark ever since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which was, of course, facilitated by the spread and social acceptance of contraceptive use. Evert documents, however, that couples who use NFP have a divorce rate of only 1 to 3 percent! In fact, in one major study there were zero divorces out of 1,400 NFP couples. No doubt there are many reasons for this statistical correlation between NFP and divorce (e.g., that NFP users are more likely to be devout Catholics who do not believe in the morality of divorce), but given the sheer size of the statistical disparity between contraceptive and NFP users when it comes to divorce, one can hardly avoid Evert's conclusion (p. 145):

The striking correlation between NFP and strong marriages is an important indication of the close relationship between NFP and the way God designed marriages to work.

But the problem with contraception is even bigger than that. Much bigger. As big as civilization itself. Evert explains:

The love between a husband and wife holds marriage together. A strong marriage holds the family together. Strong families hold society together, and a civilization will stand or fall upon this. "The future of humanity," according to the Church, "passes through the family." If it can be shown that contraception compromises intimacy between husband and wife, invites selfishness into the marital act, and opens a door for greater infidelity, then contraception is a cancer to civilization itself.

As a matter of fact, this was one of the main points that Pope Paul VI was trying to drive home in his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968.

When the birth control pill was invented, and then began to become socially acceptable in the early 1960s, its advocates hailed it as the magic solution to a whole host of social problems. Some argued that "protected sex" would lead to a decrease in sexually transmitted disease, a decrease in teen pregnancy, and especially a decrease in abortion and child-abuse, because "every child would be a wanted child." It would also reduce the stress on marriages of having too many children, thus reducing the divorce rate. It would also lead to greater respect for women, who could now take control of their bodies and no longer be seen as mere baby-making machines (if that is indeed how they were seen).

Pope Paul VI, however, predicted that the spread of contraceptives would have precisely the opposite effects:

It will open a wide and easy road towards conjugal infidelity, and the general lowering of morality.... Also the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman, and ... may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of self-enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.

Thus, the Holy Father predicted that a sharp increase in divorce, abortion, and pornography would be characteristics of the new contraceptive culture.

The effects on divorce were, perhaps, the easiest to predict. What the spread of contraceptives introduced into western society was "the sexual revolution" of the 1960s.Contraceptives facilitated a vast increase in promiscuity, as the wall of social taboos against pre-marital and extra-marital sex came tumbling down. First of all, the spread of contraceptives to unmarried youths encouraged the formation of habits of extra-marital promiscuity that could easily be carried over into married life (and research shows that those who engage in pre-marital intercourse have a 50-70 percent greater likelihood of ending up divorced than those who practice premarital chastity). Meanwhile, contraception made extra-marital "affairs" less "risky" and more extra-marital affairs inevitably leads to more divorces. Within marriage itself, research shows that the fewer children in a family, the greater the statistical likelihood of that family suffering a divorce. There are several reasons for this, no doubt, but one of them is that couples with more children tend to work extra hard to make their marriages "work," if only for the sake of the kids. Finally, there is the alienation between the spouses in the marital act itself when it is infected with the body language of contraception, "the body-language of a lie." In short, contraception is a significant contributing factor to marital breakdown in the developed world, and family breakdown is clearly a major, contributing factor to the social decay we see all around us.

Next week we will look more closely at the societal effects of the spread of contraception, and the "contraceptive mentality." In particular, we will look at three "myths" associated with this issue (1) that the spread of contraceptives reduces the number of abortions; (2) that the spread of condoms helps prevent the spread of the deadly HIV-AIDS virus; and (3) that contraception is essential to the prevention of Third World overpopulation, poverty, and hunger.

In the meantime, consider this: Since the explosion in the use of contraceptives in the 1960s, has there actually been a decline in the rates of sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, abortion, child abuse, divorce, and pornography, as the advocates of contraception so confidently predicted? On the contrary, the rates of all of these social ills have risen, in some respects dramatically. Who then was the true social prophet at the start of this mess back in the 1960s: the contraception advocates or the Vicar of Christ?

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at

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