A look at “Humanae Vitae” 50 years later
Fifth in a series on the anniversary
Perhaps the most prophetic warning that Pope Paul VI issued in “Humanae Vitae” regarded the effect that contraception would have on women: “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
What we have learned in the last 50 years about the serious health risks associated with the most effective contraceptives vindicates Pope Paul VI’s concern for the physical well-being of women. While barrier methods of birth control had been around for ages, the “breakthrough” in effectiveness came when hormonal contraceptives were invented. The first formulations of the pill contained high levels of estrogen and were implicated in many reports of blood clots and strokes, some of which resulted in death. Present-day hormonal contraceptives utilize powerful synthetic steroids to suppress a woman’s natural fertility cycle and in so doing, subject her to health risks that are just as serious. Many people have never heard, for example, that in July 2005, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that, after a thorough review of the published scientific evidence, combined estrogen-progestogen oral contraceptives cause cancer (WHO, International Agency for Research on Cancer, Press Release No. 167, July 29, 2005). This classification of the combined pill as a Group 1 carcinogen put oral contraceptives in the same category as asbestos, arsenic, tobacco and mustard gas, among others.
A little over a year after the World Health Organization announced its findings, the prestigious medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings published an article which assessed the results of 34 studies conducted since 1980 to examine the possible association between oral contraceptive use and breast cancer risk in women younger than 50. The meta-analysis concluded that oral contraceptives are associated with an increase in premenopausal breast cancer risk, especially among women who use them before their first full-term pregnancy. In addition to increasing the risk of breast cancer, the pill has been implicated in several other serious health risks, including cervical cancer, blood clots, heart attack, stroke and increased risk of acquiring HIV and other STDs. In case we think that these kinds of adverse health effects are limited to the pill, consider the fact that dozens of deaths and hundreds of lawsuits have been linked to other hormonal contraceptives such as the birth control “patch” and NuvaRing.
As Pope Paul VI predicted, not only is a woman’s physical health placed at risk, but also her emotional equilibrium. While many women have experienced side effects such as mood swings and decreased sex drive while using hormonal contraceptives, the link between these pharmaceutical products and increased risk of depression has now been firmly established. In November 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Psychiatry) published a peer-reviewed study of more than one million women living in Denmark which found an increased risk for first use of an antidepressant and first diagnosis of depression among users of different types of hormonal contraception, with the highest rates among adolescents.
Beyond the serious and sometimes life-threatening physical and emotional health risks associated with the most commonly used contraceptives, what is equally concerning is the attitude towards women’s sexuality that the widespread use of birth control has spawned. More than a century before “Humanae Vitae” was written, the first wave of feminists had sounded the same alarm. They had an intuitive sense that contraception degraded the dignity of women and described it as “unnatural,” “injurious” and “offensive.” Like Pope Paul VI, the 19th century feminists feared that the use of contraception in marriage would relegate women even further to being regarded as sex objects by their husbands, expected to submit to every sexual advance without regard for their own condition, desires or reasonable wishes in the matter. As Mahatma Gandhi once remarked: “Man has sufficiently degraded women for his lust, and contraception, no matter how well meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her.”
With contraception as the cultural norm, sex has become largely untethered from the likelihood of pregnancy, and women are now more or less expected to be sexually available 24/7, whether within marriage or without. It is easy to see how this expectation has, as Pope Paul VI feared, reduced women even further to being mere instruments for the satisfaction of men’s desires. Surely the #MeToo movement has borne sad witness to the prevalence of sexual harassment in our culture, of men who grab and grope women to get what they want. It is not a stretch to see how contraception has contributed to this culture of men who see women as means for their own sexual gratification.
In his theology of the body, St. John Paul II emphasized that in the mystery of creation, the man has been entrusted in a particular way with the gift of the woman. One of the effects of original sin is that instead of a man sacrificing himself for the sake of a woman, he is tempted to sacrifice her for his own pleasure or ego or convenience. If a couple has a good reason to avoid a pregnancy, why shouldn’t a man submit himself to the rhythms of his wife’s monthly cycle and be willing to abstain from sex during the days of fertility, rather than subject her to the all the risks associated with the contraceptives that are as effective as natural methods of fertility regulation? As Dr. John Billings, who along with his wife, Evelyn, pioneered one of the first modern methods of natural family planning pointed out: “As a man, the abstinence involved during the fertile phase when it is decided to avoid pregnancy is a way of saying: ‘My love for my wife and my family is much greater that the desire I have for sexual intercourse, however strong that may be.”
In the final article in this series, we will take a look at how NFP can help spouses to grow in holiness and can foster the very virtues that make for a happy marriage.
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