The Contraceptive Mentality
A "mentality" exists in a society when enough people react automatically to a situation without thinking of the long-range consequences. "Mentality" describes a pervasive—almost Pavlovian —mindset that is awake to the immediate benefit but asleep to the distant repercussion. An "inflation mentality," for example, occurs when people, thinking of their own immediate needs, demand higher and higher wages in order to keep pace with inflation, but in so doing, ensure the perpetuation of the very inflation they seek to offset.
A "mentality" is very difficult to correct because it is insulated by unconscious assumptions and preserved by sheer force of habit. A "mentality" is also very difficult to resist. Carl Jung offers a powerful example of this when he describes the slave mentality, which flooded ancient Italy and caused every Roman to become inwardly and unwittingly a slave. Because the Roman lived "constantly in the atmosphere of slaves," according to Jung, "he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology."1 Thus we refer, in our own time, to a "consumer mentality," a "cold war mentality," and a "contraceptive mentality."
Contraception is the prevention by mechanical or chemical means of the possible natural and procreative consequence of sexual intercourse, namely, conception. The purpose of contraception is to separate intercourse from procreation so that the contracepting partners can enjoy the pleasures of sex without the discomforting fear that their sexual activity could lead to the procreation of another human being. The "contraceptive mentality" results when this separation of intercourse from procreation is taken for granted and the contracepting partners feel that, in employing contraception, they have severed themselves from all responsibility for a conception that might take place as a result of contraceptive failure. Somewhat ironically, this practice of using contraception to relinquish responsibility for one's own offspring is, in the minds of many, consistent with "being responsible" and even with "responsible parenting."2 At any rate, the "contraceptive mentality" implies that a couple have not only the means to separate intercourse from procreation, but the right or responsibility as well.
Contraception Threatens Marriage
The first person to draw attention to the "contraceptive mentality" and offer statistical evidence to support its widespread existence was the Jesuit sociologist Stanislas de Lestapis. In his book, La limitation des naissances, published in 1960, de Lestapis provided sociological data that indicated the presence of what he termed a "contraceptive state of mind."3 In England, for example, the Royal Commission on Population noted that in 1949 the number of procured abortions was 8.7 times higher among couples who habitually practiced contraception than among those who did not. In Sweden, after contraception had been fully sanctioned by law, legal abortions increased from 703 in 1943 to 6,328 in 1951. In Switzerland, where contraception was almost unrestricted, abortions were alleged to equal or outnumber live births by 1955, and so on. Such figures offered compelling evidence for the claim that de Lestapis was advancing, namely, that more contraception does not reduce the incidence of abortion. In fact, the figures suggested that more contraception tends to establish a "contraceptive state of mind" which leads to absolving responsibility for children conceived, which, in turn, leads to more abortion.
In view of the figures de Lestapis noted, and those culled from several other sources, John T. Noonan, Jr., remarked in his widely acclaimed book on the history of contraception that "it was dangerous to create the idea that offspring were to be avoided."4
The historian Christopher Dawson, as early as 1933, had expressed his fear that widespread contraception would be a threat to marriage. He pointed to the need to re-spiritualize sexuality in order to preserve its true meaning.5 At that time, however, Dawson was regarded as an alarmist for expressing such views. Also in the 1930s, Dr. Paul Popenoe complained in his book. Modern Marriage, of real difficulties in marriage that were "intensified by an emotional propaganda, much of which was associated with the earlier years of the birth-control movement." He went on to say that:
For well over a quarter century, America was assailed with a propaganda painting the evils of large families, the dangers of child-bearing, the misfortunes of the "unwanted child" (without taking much trouble to inquire why he was unwanted) . . . From a good deal of modern discussion one would think that children were a misfortune; that the smallest number was a desirable number; that each additional child was for the mother a step toward the grave, for the father a step toward bankruptcy, and for both a step toward misery, (p. 248)
As time went on, a variety of thinkers sensed the gradual unfolding of the "contraceptive mentality" and voiced their own criticisms of it. Among these thinkers were such diverse personalities as the humanist philosopher-sociologist Max Horkeimer, founder of the Frankfurt School in Germany6 and the Catholic Cardinal Suenens of Belgium who confidently declared that "the instability of family life and the disturbing increase of divorces can, of course, be traced back to the corrosive and shattering effect of contraception."7
By the time Catholic scholars convened in Rome to discuss whether the Church should modify its teaching on contraception, the phrase "contraceptive mentality" had become a familiar one and its potential dangers to marriage and the family duly noted. The 1967 Majority Papal Commission Report, though urging Rome to grant moral approval for the use of contraception in certain well-specified instances, condemned the "contraceptive mentality" as a "way of life which in its totality is egoistically and irrationally opposed to fruitfulness."8 In that same year, Jesuit theologian Robert V. O'Brien announced that although the Church had no "pipeline to heaven" on moral questions it recognized that "the contraceptive mentality is symptomatic of a sick civilization."9
The expression "contraceptive mentality" or "contraceptive state of mind" is alternately described as the "contraceptive attitude"10 or "contraceptive morality,"11 or a feature of a "contraceptive culture."12 As British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe puts it: "the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need to be."13
A handy and reliable indication of the widespread adoption of a cultural attitude is the ease with which it is expressed both in folk humor as well as in popular art forms. The Jesuit magazine, America, joked that for many "progressive" Catholics, aggiornamento (a popular ecumenical term in the sixties) was the Italian word for contraception. In Sam Levenson's book, You Don't Have to Be In Who's Who To Know What's What, which is an informal anthology of prevalent cultural attitudes as seen through the revealing lens of folk humor, he records the following:
Fraternization without maternization is now a social doctrine that has been tightly compressed into a pill, the pill. Those who oppose the pill have compressed the words "pill age" into one angry word: "pillage." (p. 62)
A more brazen declaration of contraception's secure place in American society occurs in the 1973 movie Blume in Love when Blume (George Segal) rails at his girl friend (Susan Anspach) who insists that their love-making be non-contraceptive. "The only people who don't use contraception today," he screams, "are Catholics and rapists." Needless to say, there is little humor in this line for Orthodox Catholics (a 1968 comedy, Prudence and the Pill, centering around a mix-up in which aspirin is mistaken for the Pill, was much easier to laugh at) since part of its message indicates that there is less and less tolerance in a contraceptive culture for any group that does not endorse the prevailing contraceptive mentality.
There can be no doubt that contraception has become a dominant feature of sexual behavior in the Western world. In the United States, in 1975, 10 million American women were using the Pill (64 million annual prescriptions); 2 million were using the now outlawed Dalkon shield in 1974; while sales for condoms reached $150 million a year.14 By the mid-seventies, 40 million women throughout the world were using the oral contraceptive, to name but one form of contraception. In England, for example, a 1972 Report of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated that, "over 90% of married couples are believed to have practiced contraception in some form at some time in their married lives."15 Germaine Greer, the noted feminist, observed that in Australia mothers now put birth control pills in the morning tea of daughters aged as young as 12 or 13 years. In India contraceptive advice and information is delivered with cans of milk. In Canada 24 per cent of all women aged 18 to 44 were on the Pill by 1976. Clearly, the "contraceptive mentality" has achieved a nearly global acceptance and the push to make that acceptance even broader, especially among the young, continues.
The Thesis Is Indefensible
Dr. Carol Cowell, chief of pediatrics and adolescent gynecology at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, wants contraception advertised in places frequented by teenagers, such as fast-food chains, jeans stores, and record shops. Author Ed Le Shan says: "Birth control information and resources should be easily available whenever a teenager wants them—not from his parents but through the school health service or the family doctor." And Ellen Peck, author of the bestseller, The Baby Trap, believes that contraception should be regarded as natural, not artificial "and just casually part of a girl's tote-bag equipment or make-up paraphernalia."16 Currently, Planned Parenthood in the United States is vowing to sue the government, take its case to Congress, and even give up federal funding (which includes about $30 million annually from the Department of Health and Human Services) in its fight against a proposed governmental regulation to inform parents when teenagers receive contraceptive prescriptions.17
As the "contraceptive mentality" becomes better established it assumes the character of being natural and inevitable which, by contrast, makes any opposition to contraception seem more and more unnatural and incomprehensible. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that at the very core of the "contraceptive mentality" is a fear of something which is perfectly natural—babies. And some psychiatrists have already diagnosed this fear as pathological.18 The present "contraceptive mentality" makes this point difficult to remember since the popular cry to permit teenagers to use contraceptives when they fornicate is based on an understandable desire to reduce the incidence of teenage abortion. Yet the root problem, which has led to the present teenage crisis is the fear on the part of married couples that their acts of intercourse would be fruitful. It is indeed true, as Australian physician R. S. J. Simpson has pointed out, that "the acceptance of contraception carries with it the virtual certainty that soon you will have to face up to a wide range of individual, family, and community evils which are the inevitable consequence of the contraceptive mentality."19
Fruitfulness Is Feared
The anti-baby root of the "contraceptive mentality" was brought home in a surprising way a few years ago when G. D. Searle and Company was trying to market its anovulant contraceptive in Turkey. The chief obstacle it ran into was due to the fact that there was no word for contraception in the Turkish language. So the Pill was marketed to the Turkish people under the equivalent of the "have no baby" pill.
A more startling and direct illustration of the anti-baby essence of the "contraceptive mentality" was offered by Lise Fortier at the 1980 meeting of the National Abortion Federation. At her banquet address, Dr. Fortier stated that "each and every pregnancy threatens a woman's life" and that from a strict medical viewpoint "every pregnancy should be aborted."20 The "contraceptive mentality," which begins in the dissociation of intercourse from conception, logically and inevitably results in the dissociation of conception from life. As Malcolm Potts, the former medical director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, accurately predicted in 1973: "As people turn to contraception, there will be a rise, not a fall, in the abortion rate."21 It was an easy prediction to make in the light of what had transpired in other countries. To cite but one more example, Japanese research has shown that women who use contraception have six times as many abortions as other women have.22
There is virtual, universal agreement that abortion is highly undesirable. But repeatedly, opponents of abortions, who are themselves victims of the contraceptive mentality, defend the indefensible thesis that contraception will reduce abortion in the name of being logical and realistic. Tom Harpur, for example, the religion editor for the Toronto Star writes:
Surely to oppose abortion on the one hand while on the other fiercely opposing sex education and the very contraceptives which could prevent unwanted pregnancies, as many religious groups of varying persuasions do, seems an illogical—and often tragic —mistake.23
Similarly, in the United States, Marjory Mecklenburg, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Population Affairs, says that the Reagan Administration hopes that teenagers will avoid sex, but adds that, "if teenagers are sexually active, we want them contracepted safely and effectively."24 She ardently believes, as does Planned Parenthood, that contraception is the simple and sensible way to prevent unwanted teenage pregnancies and therefore eliminate the need for teenage abortions.
There is only one way to reduce abortion, and that is to reduce its cause, which is in the contraceptive mentality. And the contraceptive mentality can be reduced only by recognizing that procreation is good and by repudiating the attitude that endorses the violent negation of that good. It is surely illogical and unrealistic to try to establish a truly humane civilization where every human being has a right to live by beginning with the idea of reducing abortion, and remaining unconvinced that the natural and procreative consequence of sexual intercourse is a real good. We cannot restore the moral health of civilization merely by eliminating something that is bad; we can restore it only by loving and embracing what is fundamentally good. We begin to build a humane civilization not backwards from the charred remains of a burned-out civilization, but forwards from the realization that new life is a great good. The Russian existentialist philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev is right when he says, "If there were no child-bearing, sexual union would degenerate into debauchery."25 It is precisely the possibility of invoking new human life that raises sexual intercourse to a suprapersonal, transcendent level and gives to the married couple a focus for their commitment that is truly theirs and not something that belongs exclusively to one or the other.
Let us express it in another way. It is far more logical and realistic to revolutionize society by teaching men to be virtuous, since virtue is a perfection of something natural, than it is to effect the same revolution by being indifferent to virtue and trying to suppress the evil consequences of men's vices through technological interventions. This is not to say that virtue or civilized society come easily; in fact, their achievement demands the development and pooling of every gift men have (and then some). But it is to say that it is the only way that is logical and realistic. It was the essential insight of Huxley, Orwell, and others that the amoral technological approach produces a dehumanized social nightmare.
In reading the Westhoffs' book. From Now to Zero, in which they write lyrically about the
"'Perfect Contraceptive' Society"26 where contraception is "completely effective" and "completely acceptable," the sensible reader is not impressed with the authors' realism, but is puzzled at their apparent total unfamiliarity with real life and the nature of the human condition. Indeed, much modern sociology is indistinguishable from science fiction (bad science fiction, that is).
The realist looks at the reality of man and discovers that the separatist ideal of sterile sexual pleasure does not succeed in bringing about the happiness it promises because it fails to correspond to the inner syntax of sexuality that demands wholeness, integrity, surrender, and fruitfulness. No matter how gratifying a reciprocal sexual relationship may be, if the drama and mystery of procreation is not celebrated, at least symbolically, the partners will disappoint each other and will inevitably turn their attentions to others in the secret hope that the next time they will find a relationship that will provide the deeper fulfillment they seek.
At the same time, we are concerned about the difficulties of teaching or living by principles towards which the most influential powers of society are hostile. Yet these powers merely make things more difficult and do not, in principle, prevent us from distinguishing between the real nature of our sexual responsibilities, on the one hand, and the fraudulence of the current contraceptive mentality, on the other. And the clear distinction between reality and deception is sufficient to inaugurate a moral revolution.
The story is told of a team of fishermen that was concerned about its dwindling clam harvest. When the fishermen realized that their crop was being ravaged by starfish, they applied a plausible solution to the problem by hauling the predators onto their boats, chopping them in half, and tossing the severed remains back into the sea. Yet they were astonished to discover that the more starfish they bisected, the more clams they lost. Their critical error was a failure to understand the real nature of their enemy. Since starfish have the capacity to regenerate, the fishermen were actually increasing their problems all the while they believed they were reducing it. In effect, they had become their own enemies.
The story is a parable for fighting abortion. Since abortion thrives on the contraceptive mentality, we fight abortion realistically not by doubling our efforts to intensify the contraceptive mentality, but by working to eliminate it. But this first step—the realistic assessment of the enemy — is a step our society has not yet taken. Indeed, at the present moment most indications are that it would "rather be ruined than change. "27
1 Carl G. Jung, Contributions to Analytical Psychology, London, 1928.
2 See K. D. Whitehead, "The Responsibility 'Connection': Divorce, Contraception, Abortion, Euthanasia," International Review of Natural Family Planning, Vol. IV, No. 1; Spring 1980, pp. 62-66.
3 Stanislas de Lestapis, S. J., La limitation des naissances, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1960), pp. 63-5.
4 John Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A history of its treatment by the Catholic theologians and canonists (New York: New American Library, 1965), p. 616.
5 See Christopher Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture (1933). See also, The Dawson Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2; Fall 1981.
6 Horkheimer believed that the Pill transforms Romeo and Juliet into a museum piece, and that the price of the Pill consists in the acceleration of the loss of longing and finally the death of love. See Rudolf J. Siebert, New Concilium 121, "The Future of Marriage and Family," ed. Andrew Greeley (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), p. 45.
7 Leon Cardinal Suenens, Love and Control (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1960), p. 16.
8 "The Papal Commission Report," The Catholic Case for Contraception, ed. D. Callahan (Toronto: Collier-Macmillan, 1969), p. 159.
9 John Y. O'Brien, S. J., America, March 4, 1967.
10 See Wanda Poltawska, "The Effect of a Contraceptive Attitude," IRNFP, Vol. IV, No. 3; Fall 1980.
11 Elizabeth Anscombe, Contraception and Chastity (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1977).
12 See Patricia Koval, "Women in a Contraceptive Culture," Commonweal, 22 December 1967.
13 Anscombe, p. 5.
14 "Birth Control: New Look at the Old," Time, January 10, 1977.
15 Unplanned Pregnancy: Report of the Working Party of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, London, February 1972, p. 51.
16 Ellen Peck, The Baby Trap (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1972), p. 150.
17 Washington Post story carried by the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, April 19, 1982, p. 35.
18 Poltawska, p. 190: "it is a pathological fear: adults have basically no reason to fear a little child, especially since his arrival depends on their own decisions and actions. This fear occurs so often, however, that it must be recognized as an inevitable characteristic of the contraceptive attitude." See also R. Simpson, "Contraception: The Camel's Nose," IRNFP, Vol. 1, No. 3; Fall 1977, p. 237: "The contraceptive mentality is grounded in fear."
19 Simpson, p. 236.
20 Andrew Scholberg, "The Abortionists and Planned Parenthood: Familiar Bedfellows," IRNFP, Vol. IV, No. 4: Winter 1980, p. 308.
21 Scholberg, p. 298.
22 Poltawska, p. 188.
23 Tom Harpur, "Anglican Report urges birth control education," Toronto Star, Sat. June 12, 1982/H9.
24 The Review of the NEWS, March 24, 1982, p. 19.
25 Nicholas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 242.
26 Leslie and Charles Westhoff, From Now to Zero (Boston: Little, Brown and Co.), pp. 323-335.
27 W. H. Auden: "We would rather be ruined than change, We would rather die in our dread Than Climb the Cross of the moment And see our illusions die."
Dr. Donald DeMarco is an associate professor of philosophy at St. Jerome's College at the University of Waterloo. He studied theology at the Gregorian in Rome and earned his Ph.D. at St. John's University in New York. He is the author of Abortion in Perspective, Sex and the Illusion of Freedom and Today's Family in Crisis. His most recent book is The Anesthetic Society (Christendom, 1982). Born in Massachusetts, he resides now with his wife and five children in Kitchener, Ontario. He is a frequent contributor to HPR.
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