Lisa Everett
Family & Pro-Life Office
May 15, 2018 // National

Was the Church right about contraception? A look at “Humanae Vitae” 50 years later

Lisa Everett
Family & Pro-Life Office

First in a series on the anniversary

It is probably safe to say that most people today consider contraception to be an indispensable modern convenience, and have a hard time imagining life without it. More than five decades ago, the proponents of the birth control pill promised that better marriages would result from fewer children and more satisfying sex lives, free from the fear of pregnancy. In stark contrast to this position stood the Catholic Church, whose leader, Pope Paul VI, after serious consultation, reflection and prayer, issued the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” on July 25, 1968.

In this landmark document, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the moral norm prohibiting contraception and instead recommended natural methods of fertility regulation as the path to happiness and holiness in marriage. Far from being a benefit to married couples, Pope Paul VI predicted that the use of contraception instead would lead to an increase in marital infidelity, a general lowering of morality in society, greater disrespect for women and coercive measures on the part of governments with respect to “population control.”

So which of these competing claims is true? Has contraception facilitated better and happier marriages, or is there strong evidence that it damages the relationship between spouses? And what about the alternative? Does the Church’s teaching somehow strengthen the love between spouses, or has the Church imposed on married couples a heavy burden that hinders their happiness? And have the dire predictions that the Holy Father made in “Humanae Vitae” come to pass, or did they amount to little more than papal “scare tactics”?

With the benefit of 50 years of experience to help us explore these questions, this series will attempt to do just that.                                                                      

In 1988, 20 years after “Humanae Vitae” was issued, the journal Research in Population Economics published a fascinating article by Robert Michael titled “Why did the U.S. divorce rate double within a decade?” An economist from the University of Chicago, professor Michael noticed in the course of his research that the divorce rate in the U.S. literally doubled from 1965 to 1976. After analyzing multiple factors that might have contributed to such a rise, including changes in state laws that made it easier to obtain a divorce, Michael concluded that the most significant factor by far — accounting for more than 50 percent of this dramatic rise — was the diffusion of contraception in American society.

When the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of Enovid as a birth control pill in May 1960, it was the first drug in human history to be given to a healthy person for long-term use — not for a medical, but for a social purpose. By 1965, more than 6.5 million American women were taking oral contraceptives. Michael discovered three reasons why the diffusion of contraception affected the divorce rate so dramatically. First, it is known that the presence of young children in the home exerts a protective effect on the marriage bond, and couples who used contraception had fewer children and those later in marriage. In fact, the total marital fertility rate in the United States fell from 3.42 children per married woman in 1961 to 1.63 children in 1974.

Second, women with fewer children entered the workplace in greater numbers, and their increased financial independence made it easier for spouses to go their separate ways when their relationship became strained. Third, contraception facilitated much more adultery than before. (See “Why Did the U.S. Divorce Rate Double within a Decade?” Research in Population Economics, Volume 6; pp. 367-399, 1988).                                                  

Regarding this last reason, the late Dr. John Billings of Australia, who along with his physician-wife, Evelyn, pioneered one the first methods of natural fertility regulation, once recounted that he saw firsthand as a young physician how contraception harmed marriages: “When we say, ‘I do not want your fertility any more,’ or ‘I will not give you my fertility anymore,’ we’re damaging the marriage. The withdrawal of this gift tends to destroy marriages. I was shocked to notice, from the earliest days of my work, to see how marital infidelity in one — or both — of the spouses often followed the introduction of contraception or sterilization.”

The central teaching of “Humanae Vitae” is that the love-giving and life-giving purposes of sex are intimately entwined in the plan of God. What the Church teaches about these two meanings is what Jesus himself taught about the bond between husband and wife: We must not separate what God has joined. When we intentionally suppress the life-giving potential of sex through contraception and sterilization, we inadvertently damage its love-giving dimension as well.                             

Why are the love-giving and life-giving dimensions of sex so inseparably connected in God’s design? Pope John Paul II developed his beautiful “theology of the body” largely to give an adequate answer to this question. We will explore his answer in the next article in this series.

Lisa Everett is the director for Marriage, Family and Pro-Life Ministry and the deputy secretary for Evangelization and Discipleship for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

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