How Birth Control Changed America — For The Worse
Amanda, age 30 — I've changed her name and those of other women I interviewed for this story in order to protect their privacy — is a daughter of the sexual revolution. Her mother taught her that "sex was free, and successful motherhood could be accomplished through good intentions," she says. Sexual freedom and successful motherhood, Amanda learned, meant one thing: birth control. The message she received, she says, not only from her mother but from her teachers, her friends, and the entire culture around her was, "Sex means fun, and the consequences of sex have passed."
At age 16, Amanda was fitted for a diaphragm, and for the next nine years, she had sexual encounter after sexual encounter because "I was desperate for love and attention." She marched in Washington for reproductive rights. "Gee, this is so right," she thought at the time. "No one should be able to tell a woman what to do with her body. All women should have access to health care, birth control, and abortions. Anyone who can't see this is surely a misogynist."
Amanda, still single — although she did have a child out of wedlock about ten years ago — says she is now paying for the I-can-do-whatever-I-want lifestyle that sexual freedom had promised her. "Countless broken hearts and an unwanted pregnancy at 21 showed me several things that I wish that my mother and the feminists that I looked up to had told me: Modesty is important. Marriage is a sacrament. All life is sacred. And there are consequences to selfish and destructive behavior."
She sees magazines such as Seventeen on newsstands promoting carefree but "responsible" sex with the help of birth control to the newest generation of teenagers, and she wishes she could tell every reader that there is no "safe sex" outside of marriage. "There are also tremendous consequences to the continuous broken hearts that frequently result from shallow relationships," she says.
Amanda, born in 1970, is a walking example of the tremendous — and in many ways unexpected and unhappy — changes that widespread contraceptive use has wrought in the American way of life. As late as the mid-1960s, many states still banned the sale of birth control devices, which no Christian denomination had officially approved until 1930, when Anglican bishops voted to authorize their use by married couples. In 1965, five years before Amanda was born, birth control became a constitutional right for married Americans, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling (Griswold v. Connecticut), and a few years later, the high court (in Eisenstadt v. Baird) extended the right to the unmarried as well. The court rulings coincided with the invention of the birth control pill in the early 1960s, the first efficient and relatively easy-to-use form of mass-market contraception.
Breaking the Links
As political scientist Francis Fukuyama pointed out in his 1999 book, The Great Disruption, the pill, by breaking the link between sex and reproduction, also broke the link between sex and marriage in the minds of many young Americans, including Amanda's mother and, later, Amanda herself. The sexual revolution was officially on.
And because — again thanks to the pill and other new contraceptives — early marriage and childbearing were no longer automatic givens in the lives of most women, so was another massive social change of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the feminist revolution, "propelling millions of women into the workplace and undermining the traditional understandings on which the family has been based," as Fukuyama wrote. (Technological changes that transformed America's economy from industrial to information-based also encouraged the influx of women into the job force, Fukuyama noted.)
And then in 1973, when Amanda was two years old, the Supreme Court, invoking the same constitutional "right to privacy" that underlay its earlier decisions striking down prohibitions on the sale of contraceptive devices, allowed women nearly unlimited access to abortion in Roe vs. Wade. This effectively removed unexpected pregnancy as an incentive for marriage, an unprecedented development in the history of human social arrangements.
Melissa, now age 43 but an adolescent during the social sea change that Fukuyama describes, says birth control "had a huge impact" on her life. "I graduated from high school in 1976. As my social circle expanded after graduation, and we discovered that we could get into certain bars and drink with fake IDs, I learned very quickly that as long as I was careful to take my birth control pills and showed a bit of discretion when choosing sex partners, I was free to dabble in a new and exciting field."
Not surprisingly, the possibilities seemingly open to young women by their ability to control their fertility have made deciding not to have sex before marriage look like an eccentric choice to most. Take the case of Sarah, 23, single and currently in her first sexual relationship, except for one brief experimental encounter. She says that ever since her doctor put her on birth control pills to relieve menstrual cramps, the lure of seemingly consequence-free sex changed her attitude toward sleeping with the man she was dating. In an earlier long-term relationship, Sarah, who considers herself somewhat religious, had resisted the temptation to have sex with her boyfriend. But now, thanks to her knowledge that the pill is her safeguard against unwanted pregnancy, she has accepted the sexual dimension to relationships with men that she had earlier resisted.
Martha, 32, was raised Catholic, and she remembers that "the widespread acceptance and availability of contraceptives influenced some of my friends who were also Catholic to sleep with their boyfriends prior to marriage. I can remember at age 20 hearing that one friend had started taking the pill, and another was trying to find condoms large enough to accommodate her well-endowed boyfriend. I blush to recount these conversations now and wish I had had the moral fortitude to challenge my friends at the time. Both of these friends were fortunate enough to marry the men that they were sleeping with in college, but I know others are not so lucky."
The greatest change that the pill wrought, however — as Fukuyama also pointed out — was not in female but in male behavior. Incentives for men to either get married or stay married simply faded with the sudden mass availability of birth control. The divorce rate in the United States skyrocketed starting in the late 1960s, to the point that one out of every two marriages ended in dissolution. Only recently has it begun to drift slightly lower. Illegitimate births have soared, too, as men have increasingly viewed unwanted pregnancy as their female partner’s responsibility and accordingly declined to enter "shotgun" marriages.
Since men's ties to family life are precarious without strong external incentives to marry — at least in the view of Fukuyama and others — a variety of other social ills, from crime to many fathers' financial abandonment of their offspring, have flourished over the past three decades. The high abortion rate nowadays — 1.3 million annually — probably has much to do with men's desire to avoid responsibility for the children they conceive.
University of Chicago professors Leon and Amy Kass, in Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, a 1999 collection of essays about marriage and courtship, describe what their students told them the first day of an undergraduate seminar they teach: "The students were asked what they thought was the most important decision that they would ever have to make in their lives. Nearly all the students answered in terms related to self-fulfillment: 'Deciding which career to pursue,' 'Figuring out which graduate or professional school to attend,' 'Choosing where I should live.' Only one student answered differently, 'Deciding who should be the mother of my children.' For his eccentric opinion, and especially for this quaint way of putting it, he was promptly attacked by nearly every other member of the class, men and women alike."
Birth control's promise of years of Friends-style swinging singlehood for young adults of both sexes, and its (at least theoretical) guarantee against unwanted pregnancy for young women on career tracks, have led to delayed marriage and childbearing. The age of women giving birth in the United States keeps rising. In 2000, Massachusetts officially became the first state in which there were more babies born to women age 30 and older than to those under 30. Twenty years ago, there were nearly three times as many new mothers under the age of 30 than over 30. In Colorado, nearly 37 percent of the babies born in 1999 were to mothers 30 and older.
This trend has led to a fertility crisis in industrialized nations, to the point that the overpopulation-bomb warnings of the 1970s have given way to underpopulation concerns. The media have taken notice, in particular, of Italy, where the large family seems to have faded into history. A year 2000 wrap-up in the worldly Economist magazine noted, "As long as women enjoy earning their own money and men hate changing nappies, the long-run trend will surely be for people to have rather fewer children on average than the replacement of the human race requires. As a result, the 21st century will probably see for the first time in modern days, human numbers stop rising and begin to decline."
Many women, however, are still having children — although they’re having them in unusual ways. Madonna did it by conceiving two children out of wedlock when she was between husbands and unsure that she would have a permanent man in her life. Former model Cheryl Tiegs did it via a donor’s eggs and a surrogate mother’s rented womb. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein did it via numerous embryos implanted in her own womb, one of which finally "took." College-age women now read advertisements in their school newspapers offering $75,000-$100,000 for their "donated" eggs — the extraction of which is a procedure that, some studies have shown, may be the cause of their own infertility down the line. The mistreatment of human embryos in the course of many of these high-tech reproductive strategies is typically shocking, resulting in dozens of discards.
In many ways, racy water-cooler television shows like Ally McBeal and Sex and the City are way behind the culture. In an article in the January 2001 issue of Harper's Bazaar on the endless reproductive options that science now offers women, Juergen Eisermann, director of the South Florida Institute for Reproductive Medicine, commented, "I like to joke that the perfect gift for the female college student will be to have some of her eggs frozen and kept available for whenever she wants a family." It’s no joke, though. Ally can forget about finding her elusive Mr. Right. Who needs love and marriage, when technology can take care of the production of babies?
Not only has birth control torn apart traditional notions of family life, but it has taken a personal toll on young women like Amanda, who learn the hard way that when sex is readily available, people have a hard time making romantic commitments. The philosopher Allan Bloom noted this phenomenon more than a decade ago in his book Love and Friendship. "There is an appalling matter-of-factness in public speech about sex today," he wrote. "On television schoolchildren tell us about how they will now use condoms in their contacts — I was about to say adventures, but that would be overstating their significance." Bloom also decried the use of the passionless word "relationship" that most people nowadays use to describe their pairings. He wondered what had happened to the word "lover," with its connotations of erotic intensity.
Even Katha Pollitt, a columnist for the ultraliberal opinion magazine The Nation, recently bemoaned the fact that the promised post-pill paradise has yet to become a reality. "The Pill has changed a lot, but if you look back at what it was supposed to do — let women have guilt-free, carefree sex like men — it hasn't happened," she wrote recently. "It's not even working at the level of contraception. Look at the abortion rate in this country."
Despite the consensus that many of the consequences of birth control have been untoward and even tragic, the prevailing social attitude isn't revisionism but resignation: Heartaches and family disruption are the price to be paid for lifting traditional sexual restraints. Melissa, for example, now divorced and with three children ages 23, 20, and 15, says she has no regrets about buying into the contraceptive revolution of the 1970s. "The availability of birth control gave many of us a feeling that we had been given a new freedom, new territory to explore. Whether that's a good thing or not for anyone else isn't my place to say."
In fact, most Americans, even religious Americans, even Catholics, now consider birth control to be a right to which employers and the government should subsidize access. When former Missouri Republican senator John Ashcroft was being considered by the Senate for confirmation as attorney general earlier this year, the religious-freedom group People for the American Way (whose president, Ralph Neas, was raised Catholic and attended the University of Notre Dame) blasted Ashcroft for his presumably outside-of-the-mainstream positions, including his Senate vote to prohibit public funding of birth control for federal workers.
Says a Christian husband whose wife routinely uses contraception: "I think that God intends us to behave in ways that are relevant to our time. We no longer need twelve babies because half of them won't survive and the other six are needed to see us through our old age. I also hope that we have progressed past the image of women as childbearing vessels and think of them as people, too. My wife would be a lot less interesting if her life revolved around pumping out kids — if one could call that a life."
In a recent Internet discussion group for Christian married couples, Susan expressed similar sentiment: "I don't think using some type of 'family planning' or birth control means one can't also be trusting God to provide. I think God gave us brains and that he hoped we'd use them. I have a very hard time managing the two kids I have right now."
Neither are Catholic parents immune from this kind of thinking. When Laura, 32, suffered a miscarriage last year, another mother approached her at a play at their children's Catholic elementary school and expressed her empathy — as far as it could go. After "I'm sorry about your miscarriage," Laura reports her friend, a Sunday Mass regular, saying. Then, Laura recalls, she added, "You do know you can stop after three, don't you? I had my tubes tied. You should consider it."
This brave new world of fertility control is full of sad ironies. Deborah, 30, a mother of two, had her fallopian tubes tied during her first marriage; her then-husband had threatened to divorce her if she were to become pregnant again. The couple divorced anyway, and now she is married to a man who wants children as much as she wants more children. But they have to wait until they save enough to pay for a reversal of the tubal ligation that could eventually result in the birth of the new baby they yearn for — and Deborah knows that her biological time clock is ticking in the meantime.
Kathy Raviele, a Catholic physician practicing in Atlanta, points out that fertility problems are only the tip of the iceberg for many women who have bought into the contraceptive revolution. "In 1960, when the pill was first invented, the incidence of breast cancer was one in 25 women; today it is one in eight women," she says. A study published last fall in the Journal of the American Medical Association supports Raviele's supposition that there is a definite link between pill use and breast cancer. And according to the Physician's Desk Reference, women who took the pill as teenagers are at higher risk of developing breast cancer when in their 30s than women in the population as a whole.
Furthermore, partly because easy access to contraception has reduced women's fear of pregnancy, once the single greatest deterrent to promiscuity, the United States now has the highest incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in the Western world. Nor do contraceptives necessarily forestall all unwanted pregnancies as its users hope.
Pope Paul VI’s Predictions
Nearly all of these social and even medical consequences of the contraceptive revolution were foreseen with astonishing accuracy by Pope Paul VI in his anti–birth control encylical Humanae Vitae, issued in 1968, as the revolution was just beginning. Paul wrote that widespread use of contraceptives would lead to "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality," and that many a man would lose respect for the woman in his life and "no longer [care] for her physical and psychological equilibrium" to the point that he would consider her "as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion." Paul also prophesied that mass acceptance of birth control would place a "dangerous weapon . . . in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies." And it would mislead people into thinking that they had total control over their bodies. Hardly any of these predictions — from promiscuity, to avoidance of male reproductive responsibilities, to the destruction of human embryos as women who delay childbearing too long try desperately to get pregnant — have failed to come true.
In their book Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, the Kasses take a pessimistic stance, contending that the consequences of the massive changes in sexual and marital mores that accompanied the contraceptive revolution are here to stay. They argue that "the causes of our present state of affairs are multiple, powerful, and very likely largely irreversible." In The Great Disruption, Francis Fukuyama is more hopeful, anticipating that a "reconstitution of the social order" will eventually take place because people long to live in a society with standards for moral behavior.
If that reconstitution does occur, it will be partly because individual couples across the country will decide to opt out of the contraceptive revolution and to recover that linked triad of sex, marriage, and childbearing that is the essence of the sacred nature of human reproductive and family life. The linked triad whose rupture Pope Paul VI so accurately predicted in 1968 would also rupture the social fabric.
That would entail a radical shift in the attitudes toward sex, fertility, and childbearing, a counterrevolution. But some women may be ready for it. Amanda, who lived through the supposed post-pill paradise and found herself more harmed than helped, now says: "It seems as if our grandmothers didn't seem to suffer terribly from the lack of birth control in their lives. Why should the use of birth control be so sacred to us now? Have we really gained anything?"
Kathryn Jean Lopez is an associate editor of National Review and deputy managing editor of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com).
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