The Social Footprints of Contraception
by Janet Smith
The Church's teaching on sexuality that lies behind its teaching that contraception is intrinsically immoral is dazzlingly beautiful.
Many people whose understanding has been clouded by the corruption of our culture have difficulty understanding it. The Church understands sexuality to be an inestimable gift from God. This gift allows a man and a woman in a personal, profound, spiritual and physical way to express their deep desire to unite with another and to live out the essential human need to love and be loved.
Love Overflows into Life
God himself is a lover and is Love Itself. Love is a union, and the sexual union of spouses allows them to more fully actualize the love between them that unites them.
Furthermore, it is natural for love to overflow. In fact, all of creation is the result of the natural overflowing of God's love. The Trinity has no need of "others." It is three perfect persons who love each other perfectly, but they "naturally" explode with love and that love "naturally" leads to new life and new possibilities for love. Thus the whole universe is fueled by love.
Spouses are meant to image the love of God; they are meant to be committed unconditional lovers whose love overflows into new life. (That new life results is not always possible because of infertility, but the spousal relationship is the kind of relationship that is designed to foster love and life.) John Paul II spoke of spouses as being "co-creators" with God who assist God in bringing forth new human souls.
Spouses because they truly appreciate the gift of fertility understand that when they are not prepared to accept the gift of a child, they should abstain from sex when a pregnancy is possible; that is, they use natural family planning (NFP). NFP is a way of respecting the great gift of fertility.
Many studies and testimonies affirm the benefits of using NFP. The U.S. Bishops issued a fine statement about the meaning of sexuality and the value of NFP in their 2006 document, Married Love and the Gift of Life.
Consequences of Contraception
Our culture is accustomed to thinking of sex as just a form of recreation that has no inherently profound meaning. People rarely encounter the Church's teaching in its full glory and, when they do, they don't easily understand it. One method of helping people be open to the Church's teaching is to alert them to the bad consequences that contraception has for individuals, for the culture and even the environment.
The case is quite easily made that contraception has greatly contributed to the increased incidence of abortion, unwed pregnancy, divorce, and the poverty and trauma that comes with single motherhood. After all, contraception tremendously facilitates sex between partners who have no intention of having a baby.
All contraceptives have a failure rate and people fail to use contraceptives even when available. Presently, about one out of four babies conceived in the United States is aborted, nearly thirty-seven percent of babies are born to a single mother, approximately one out of two marriages contracted today is likely to end in divorce, and over eighty percent of children who experience long term poverty come from broken or unmarried families.
Who can calculate the harm done to babies born out of wedlock and to children impacted by divorce? The evidence is overwhelming that children born to parents who are married to each other and who stay married to each other have numerous advantages over children born out of wedlock or impacted by divorce.
Who can calculate the harm done to individuals who are in and out of sexual relationships? The biggest selling point of natural family planning should not be that it is as effective as any form of contraception (it is), or that it has no bad health side effects (it doesn't). Rather, we should proclaim from the rooftops that NFP is so good for a marriage that those who use NFP almost never divorce. Almost everyone who uses NFP has used contraception at some point and finds that the use of NFP improves both sexual relations and marriage.
The Chemistry of Attraction
To be added to the bad consequences of contraception are the effect of hormonal contraceptives on a woman's health and on male/female relationships. The health risks of the chemical contraceptives have been known for a very long time and range from weight gain to increased incidence of breast cancer, and even death from blood clots. More and more studies are showing the bad effect that contraceptives have on relationships.
In my talk "Hormones 'R Us" (mycatholicfaith.org), I report on some of the little known effects of chemical contraceptives.
We often speak of "chemistry" as being powerful between a male and a female who are strongly attracted to each other. The talk of "chemistry" is not an analogy; the attraction is truly based on chemical differences between males and females.
Males and females exchange hormones, called pheromones, and these are the cause of the chemical attraction between them. These hormones are received through the olfactory nerves. Many women testify that one of the things that most attract them to a man is the way he "smells." Some studies show that males and females who are more biologically compatible that is, those who are more likely to be able to reproduce with each other are more attracted to each other.
But hormones also affect our judgment and responses in other ways. What is important here is that women who are on chemical contraceptives have squashed the influence of their normal fertile hormones. Chemical contraceptives work by putting a woman in a state of pseudo-pregnancy. When pregnant, women don't ovulate. Researchers who invented the chemical contraceptives realized that they could "deceive" a woman's body into "thinking" that it is pregnant by giving it synthetic forms of the hormones that are present when a woman is pregnant. One problem with this scenario is that women respond to men differently when they are pregnant or on a chemical contraceptive and when they are not. And men respond to them differently.
Chemically Induced Choices
Consider the T-shirt study report in the marvelous book The Decline of Males by Lionel Tiger. This study involved two groups of females, one that was on contraceptives and one that was not. It also involved a group of males who had been rated for their "evolutionary" desirability. The women, who never met the men, smelled the T-shirts and on that basis identified which men they thought would make desirable mates. The non-contracepting females chose the evolutionarily desirable males, the contracepting females chose the losers!
The website nbc10.com has a fascinating video called "The Divorce Pill" that features research showing that women on the pill often choose to marry men who are not suitable spouses for them. This is of special concern since most women of child-bearing age in the United States use chemical contraceptives, especially during their years preceding marriage precisely when they are choosing a mate.
One amazing effect of chemical contraceptives is that they reduce the amount of testosterone that a female produces and for females as well as males, testosterone is the source of sexual desire. Thus, women on chemical contraceptives find their sexual desire is reduced; when they go off the chemical contraceptives, it may never return to the level it had before that they began using chemical contraceptives.
So we have an interesting phenomenon: women are choosing their mates not under the influence of their own more reliable fertile hormones but on alien synthetic hormones. When they go off chemical contraceptives, they may find they have a higher sex drive, but they are not much interested in the men they are with!
Contraceptives not only step all over relationships, they also leave a considerable carbon footprint. Consider that NFP has a zero carbon footprint: it burns nary a fossil fuel, whereas the amount of energy needed to produce, transport, distribute and dispose of contraceptives is astronomically high. Indeed, studies have suggested that divorce has a huge carbon footprint, since divorces generally double the need for housing, etc.
Moreover, the estrogens in contraceptives have a lethal effect on some elements of the environment. For instance, they have been shown to destroy the fertility of some groups of fish.
Not only is the Church's teaching on contraception based on an understanding of sexuality that is sublime, it is also eco-friendly: friendly to a woman's internal eco-system, friendly to the "ecology" of the culture and of relationships, and friendly to the environment.
Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics, Beginning Apologetics 5: How to Answer Tough Moral Questions Abortion, Contraception, Euthanasia, Test-Tube Babies, Cloning, & Sexual Ethics, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right. She has published many articles on ethical and bioethics issues. She has taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas. Prof. Smith has received the Haggar Teaching Award from the University of Dallas, the Prolife Person of the Year from the Diocese of Dallas, and the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. She is serving a second term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family. Over a million copies of her talk, "Contraception: Why Not" have been distributed. Janet Smith is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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