This week I attended a Symposium commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the famous papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae, at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington DC. The conference featured an all-star list of speakers including Janet Smith, Helen Alvaré, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and other experts. I read Paul VI’s encyclical cover to cover the day before as preparation and expected a lot of discussion of the different philosophical and theological aspects regarding contraception. In fact, I expected a debate over the six arguments against contraception which Janet Smith gives in chapter four of her excellent 1991 book, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, still the best listing and explanation of the arguments that exist.
However, the reality is that far more time was given to science and medicine and to practical, cultural and sociological aspects of the question than to philosophical/theological arguments. My own formal medical training is minimal, but the conference offered me a deeper realization: If we were to republish Janet Smith’s work and call it Humanae Vitae: Two Generations Later, it would be a far more interdisciplinary work today than even a decade ago. Mary Eberstadt noted that although the arguments against contraception are always objectively right, it doesn’t mean they are always easy, as unrestrained sex is a strong motivation.
Here I would like to focus on speakers at the conference this week who dealt with the other aspects of the debate: medicine and science, practical realities, and cultural or sociological issues. As this article comes from my notes, some quotes will be indirect and some will rely on the speaker’s authority, though lacking a proper citation.
Medical and Scientific Changes
In the 50 years since Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, medical science has developed in myriad ways. However, people proposing contraception as a panacea often have no idea of the deeper understanding of fertility and related issues that is now available through science. The medical experts at the conference offered many salient points about new methodologies and problems with contraception.
First, several speakers noted the significant development of Fertility Awareness methods. “Fertility Awareness” is the medical term for those methods of avoiding or postponing pregnancy based on knowledge of a woman’s fertility cycles: these generally correspond to the methods the Church finds acceptable and groups under the title, “Natural Family Planning” (NFP).
Kathleen Raviele, M.D. noted that the contraceptive pill is often given as a single remedy to all women’s concerns but avoids dealing with the real problems women have. It fails to help women identify underlying issues. As an example, she said there are three drugs approved to reduce period bleeding, but most OB-GYNs skip these and go straight to birth control rather than treat the heavy bleeding.
Deacon William Williams, M.D. of the Catholic Medical Association spoke about how contraception interacts with other health issues. He showed, for example, how respiratory problems increase when a woman smoke and use contraception, as opposed to smoking alone. He noted that these hormones increase inflammation, which can interact negatively with a large number of medical conditions.
Suzanne N. Hollman, PsyD, from the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, witnessed to the psychological effects of oral contraception on women. She noted that research in this area is rather limited as much of it focuses almost exclusively on dealing with the “problem” of women going off the pill. She explained that 1 in 4 women will experience mood dysregulation in life, and oral contraceptives tend to increase this risk. These issues often arise in adolescence, and starting young women on the pill at this time complicates the situation. Unfortunately, she complained, few consider what effects the pill might have on women’s psychological well-being.
Michael Hanby, Ph.D., spoke about the dangers of technology both at the beginning and at the end of life. If we can make babies in a petri dish, he said, the logical corollary is that those babies belong to the parents as property rather than being entrusted to their care as precious gifts, a natural result of the marital act. Our technocratic culture risks reducing the awe and wonder of science to a mere engineering feat.
On the practical level, the experts examined the “reasoning” for contraceptive campaigns: much of which remains faulty or shows the dark side of humanity.
Although presented as a way to prevent abortion, the celebrated author Mary Eberstadt noted that contraception has obviously increased abortion rates. This is probably because contraception changes how people relate to sex, considering it just a recreational activity rather than an intimate marital union.
Eberstadt also explained how those churches which have relaxed sexual teachings to “keep up with the times” – as Humanae Vitae dissenters argue Catholics should – have suffered a much steeper drop in membership than the Catholic Church. For example, she remarked that the US Episcopal Church today marries one quarter as many as it did in 1980.
In the international realm, Teresa Collett, JD, noted that contraception is a form of “ideological neo-colonialization”. Developed nations make contraception a requirement of aid to poorer countries, yet these cultures prefer funding for schools or job creation rather than birth control. She noted that as cultures develop economically, infant mortality drops and a wider social safety net develops beyond the family. Both economic and cultural development naturally reduce births by changing reasons to have children on the individual level rather than imposing it from on high.
Helen Alvaré, JD, further addressed the question of contraceptive colonialization noting that several US government memos in the early 1970s revealed the malicious underbelly of international contraception in the form of population control programs. The memos reveal that the Nixon Administration wanted to keep the poorer countries small (in terms of population) to prevent civil unrest and to make it easier for American interests to extract their natural resources.
Alvaré noted that population control even happens in the US where IUDs and other long-term contraceptive methods are pushed on Medicaid patients, who are generally poor and from minority groups, in order to prevent them from having too many children. The Nigerian pro-life leader, Obianuju Ekeocha, who could not attend the conference, has also explored such themes effectively in her recent book Target Africa: Ideological Neo-colonialism of the Twenty-first Century, where she coined the above term “ideological neo-colonialization”.
Social and Culture Issues
The conference speakers also addressed several cultural and sociological issues such as human dignity, new technology and Fertility Awareness, environmental issues, medical education, and children as part of the marriage.
In his keynote address, Archbishop Chaput noted that Christianity taught the ancient world human dignity: “Classical civilization lacked the sense of human dignity… Christians offered something new that everyone – men and woman, Jew and Greek – had innate dignity.” Christians were unique in the early centuries after Christ in opposing contraception, abortion, and exposure (leaving undesirable children out to die).
The Archbishop noted that our culture is returning to a form of neo-paganism in denying human dignity as Christianity has always taught it. He pointed to a revival of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism in denying our reality as body/soul unities. He used excellent analogies to point out two practical realities of our day: “Our young people are drowning in pornography,” he said, and noted that contraception is like our society’s “chemical corset.” In this perspective, contraception is not the primary issue but the result of rejecting the Christian vision of human dignity. In other words, contraception is not a No in isolation but is a rejection of the larger Yes to marital love that is inherent in the marital covenant.
Modern Technology and Environmentalism
It was evident to the conference speakers that modern technology actually changes the debate in favor of Fertility Awareness in several ways. A medical doctor at the conference noted that her younger female patients are generally aware of the date of their last period far better than women were twenty years ago. In fact, most know by checking some tracking app on their smartphones! There are now over 1000 menstrual tracking apps. One of these apps is even approved by the European Union’s equivalent of the FDA.
Richard Fehring, Ph.D., pointed out that the increase in tracking apps and online courses is greater than the decrease in paper charting and in-person classes. The anonymity and facility of these technologies might be an easier place for women to discuss such topics. Even if a given app is not designed for Fertility Awareness, it helps women to be better aware of their cycles, which can help them to be more accepting of Fertility Awareness education.
In modern times, there has been a major change in our awareness of the environmental impact of technology, yet that is not always reflected evenly across culture. John Garvey, President of CUA, began the conference by noting that we have a culture set on raising eco-friendly children, but we fail to raise them in the “friendliest” environment possible: namely, the natural family.
Teresa Collett expanded on the environmental impact of contraception: she noted that some international organizations claim that it is “necessary” for environmental sustainability, a claim that is contradicted by reality. For example, much of the estrogen residue in the urine from oral contraception affects our waterways once it is pumped through our sewers. This is causing sexual differentiation problems in fish (i.e., hermaphroditism) and might even be causing negative health effects in men who drink too much water laced with estrogen.
Marguerite Duane, M.D., spoke of the almost complete absence of Fertility Awareness education in medical schools today. She gave numerous anecdotes, but I’ll focus on the statistics she used to bolster her point. 85% of medical students thought that physicians should learn about Fertility Awareness, yet 70-80% had no knowledge of any modern method of Fertility Awareness in their medical training. Fertility Awareness (NFP), is highly effective with an unintended pregnancy of about 2% rate, but most physicians only hear about an outdated 24% effectiveness rate, which is based on a survey using pre-scientific methods. Two-thirds of OB-GYN residency programs do not have any staff with adequate knowledge of Fertility Awareness methods. 60% women express interest in using fertility-based awareness methods after hearing about them, yet few doctors will even mention them.
As a side note, several speakers noted that so-called “gay marriage” comes as a natural consequence of taking babies out of the sexual and marital equation. John Garvey cited a passage from Justice Roberts’s dissent in the 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell as evidence of this connection.
Finally, Christopher Kaczor offered some staggering statistics about worldwide divorce rates: childless couples divorce at a rate of 39% while the rate is 19% for couples with two children and only 3% for couples with four or more children. These statistics show that becoming a parent does indeed have a direct impact on a couple’s marriage and is not extrinsic to spousal love.
Humanae Vitae – Conclusion
In 1991, when Janet Smith wrote her monumental work reconsidering Humanae Vitae after one generation, she relied primarily on arguments from philosophy, theology, and natural law to support the Church’s teaching. This recent conference considered Humana Vitae 50 years later – essentially two generations – and proved that her arguments stand the test of time. Today, however, our defense of Church teaching is more multi-faceted with arguments from many other fields.
We have seen time and again throughout history, that science has vindicated Church teaching even if it initially disagreed with it. The issue of contraception is no different. The generation that has passed since Smith’s work has shown that science supports arguments that were primarily philosophical back then. While chastity is never an easy choice, science supports the Church’s argument that contraception is never a good choice.
William Williams delivered perhaps the best line of the conference, with which I will conclude: “Fertility is not a disease to be treated but a blessing to cherish.”