A look at ‘Humanae Vitae’ 50 years later
Fourth in a series on the anniversary
So far in this series, we have seen how the love-giving and life-giving purposes of sex are intimately linked because they mirror the inner life of God, who is love. We have also considered how contraception attempts to sever the connection between these twin purposes, and in so doing separates what God has joined. If this is the case, we should expect to see serious fallout in society when the practice of contraception becomes commonplace. Let’s look now at the consequences that Pope Paul VI warned the world about in “Humanae Vitae.”
The Holy Father predicted at the outset that contraception “would open wide the way for marital infidelity.” We saw in the first article in this series striking evidence that the diffusion of contraception in American society in the early 1960s facilitated much more adultery than before, and was the biggest factor that led to the doubling of the divorce rate in one decade. Lest we think that this was just a “blip” that occurred on our cultural radar screen in the ’60s, a 2014 article published by the American Psychological Association reported that rates of adultery in America remain high: “Infidelity is a common occurrence in marriages, and prevalence estimates for extramarital affairs in the United States have ranged from 20 percent to 40 percent.” (“Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice 2014,” Vol. 3, No. 1, 1-12).
Following on the heels of marital infidelity, Pope Paul VI feared a general lowering of moral standards in society. Once we start dismantling sex as God designed it, where do we draw the line? If sex is no longer linked to procreation, must it really be limited to marriage? And why confine such a pleasurable experience to adults? With sex untethered from adult responsibilities like bearing and raising children, can’t teens and even children partake of the fun?
In fact, Pope Paul VI was particularly concerned about the effect this dismantling of God’s design for sex would have on young people. “Not much experience is needed,” the Holy Father reflected, “to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.”
When contraception became socially acceptable and widely available, one of the main disincentives to sex outside of marriage disappeared overnight. The reduction in unplanned pregnancies that the proponents of contraception promised was offset by the far greater numbers of people lured into sexual relationships by the false sense of security that contraception provided.
More people having sex has inevitably led to higher rates of unplanned pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases, especially among young people because, to be highly effective, contraceptives have to be used correctly and consistently. The pill continues to be the most commonly used contraceptive in the United States, and while its perfect use-effectiveness is 98-99 percent, its typical use-effectiveness is only 91-93 percent, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the former research arm of Planned Parenthood. What this means is that, in practice, increased access to contraceptives such as the pill actually leads to increased rates of pregnancy, STDs and abortion, especially among young people. Recent studies in England have reaffirmed that increased access to contraception for teens leads to higher pregnancy and abortion rates, as well as a dramatic increase in STD rates among 16-19-year-old girls.
While there is no doubt that some people continue to promote contraception, sincerely thinking that it will avert the “need” for abortion, the facts paint a very different picture.
Contraception attempts to sever the link between sex and procreation which, if unsuccessful, can be definitively accomplished through an abortion. Twenty-five years after “Humanae Vitae,” St. John Paul II connected the dots between contraception and abortion in his beautiful encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” or “The Gospel of Life”: “It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation to abortion. But the negative values inherent in the ‘contraceptive mentality’ — which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act — are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro-abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected.”
Just a few years before St. John Paul II penned these words, a similar cultural connection between contraception and abortion was noted in a striking, even startling, way by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1992 Casey decision, which reaffirmed Roe v. Wade: “… in some critical respects abortion is of the same character as the decision to use contraception … for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their view of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.”
That many people do use abortion as a backup to failed contraception is demonstrated by studies which have found that among women who have abortions, over 80 percent are experienced contraceptive users, and over half say they were using a contraceptive in the month they conceived. In addition, the Guttmacher Institute has published data which clearly show that states like New York and California, which rank highest in access to contraception, also have the highest per capita abortion rates in the country.
Innocent, unborn children are the most obvious victims in abortion, but they are not the only ones. When God’s design for sex is dismantled, it is always women and children who bear the brunt. Pope Paul VI feared tremendously how poorly women would fare when contraception became the norm. In the next article, we will see how justified his fear was.
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