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Contraception: the 'common ground' that devastates family life

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 27, 2009

[In his commencement address at Notre Dame, President Obama suggested that advocates and opponents of abortion should find common ground in a campaign to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Although he did not flesh out that suggestion, he clearly intended to suggest more aggressive promotion of contraceptives. That option should be recognized as unacceptable-- not just by Catholics, but by anyone attuned to the prescripts of natural law and indeed the realities of modern life.

More than a decade has passed since I published the op-ed below; it originally appeared in several US newspapers as the world marked the 30th anniversary of the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae. The fundamental argument has not changed, but I would contend that today the evidence is still more powerfully in support of my conclusion: that the widespread acceptance of contraception has had a devastating effect on American family life.]

A generation ago, American politicians debated about the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict, the problems of poverty and racism, and the challenges of the space program. But back in 1968, did anyone forecast that we would soon be talking about a general breakdown in ordinary family life?

Yes, someone did.

Some 30 years ago, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae an encyclical letter which upheld the time-tested Christian teaching that artificial contraception is morally wrong. In 1968, Pope Paul worried 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 of the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Today, in the midst of an epidemic of domestic abuse, thoughtful people ought to ask: Was Pope Paul right or wrong?

And if contraception became widely accepted, Pope Paul asked:

Who will blame a government which... resorts to the same measures that are regarded as lawful by married people ...? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.

Today the government of China stands accused of requiring abortions for women who have already fulfilled their one-child quota, the Peruvian government has sterilized illiterate women without their consent, and massive population programs funded by our own federal government have been accused of employing deception and coercion. Again, was Pope Paul right or wrong?

Many people forget— and many more are too young to remember— how radically the introduction of the birth-control pill changed popular thinking, and altered our approach to sexuality. Not long ago, moral leaders of EVERY description condemned contraception, and agreed that if the practice ever became widespread, it would inevitably lead to disaster.

Consider, for example, the words of Mohandas Gandhi:

There is hope for a decent life only so long as the sexual act is definitely related to the conception of precious life.

Or listen to Sigmund Freud:

Moreover, it is a characteristic common to all perversions that in them reproduction is put aside as an aim. This is actually the criterion by which we judge whether a sexual activity is perverse-- if it departs from reproduction as its aim and pursues the attainment of gratification independently.

In 1930, when the leaders of the Church of England broke from the previously universal Christian consensus, and allowed for the use of contraceptives, a Washington Post editorial lamented that the move "would sound the death knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality."

Gandhi, Freud, and the Washington Post were obviously not promoting a “Catholic” or “Christian” position. Their opposition to contraception was based on a simple, age-old understanding of human nature. In the 1960s Americans ignored such warnings, and plunged headlong into the sexual revolution. Now, with the casualties of that revolution visible all around us, are we still foolish enough to believe that THIS generation has understands human nature-- and in particular human sexuality-- better than all its predecessors?

Long after he helped to introduce the birth-control pill, Dr. Robert Kistner of Harvard Medical School began to understand the forces he had helped to unleash. "For years I thought the pill would not lead to promiscuity, but I've changed my mind," he confessed. "I think it probably has."

Once again, Pope Paul VI had foreseen the problem:

Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that men—--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.

The famous “Moynihan Report” of 1965 saw a crisis in family life among Black Americans, because 23.7% of black children were born out of wedlock. By today's standards, that statistic looks tame. In 1996-- despite the contraceptives that spilled off the shelves of every pharmacy-- that figure had soared to a catastrophic 70.4% for black children, and 25.5% for whites.

With divorce rates also climbing, more and more young children are growing up without the support of their parents. (Among married couples who do not use contraceptives, the rate of divorce is a negligible 2%.) In 1965 more than three-quarters of all American newborns came home to a married mother and father and (except when death intervened) remained in that household through childhood; by 1990 that figure had slipped below one-half. Few social scientists dispute the gravity of these trends. Children who grow up in a single-parent household are more likely to fail in school, more likely to experiment with drugs, more likely to commit crimes, more likely to spend time in prison.

In the past 30 years our federal government has invested $4 trillion in social programs designed to treat the consequences of a breakdown in family life: the nagging problems of poverty, illiteracy, and crime; the steady rise in drug abuse and sexual promiscuity; the frightening increase in child abuse and domestic violence. Can anyone possibly be satisfied with the returns on that investment?

Is there any limit to the amount of money we shall spend on government programs that treat the symptoms of family breakdown, before we finally admit the need to address the underlying disease? How many families will be broken, and how many young lives will be scarred, before we admit that the solution to family problems lies not in condoms but in chastity?

If contraception is a leading cause of family breakdown, then we are pouring fuel on the fire with condom giveaways, and exporting our problems to the Third World through family-planning programs. And if contraception is not to blame for the burgeoning crisis in American family life, can anyone offer a better explanation?

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