The Contraceptive Imperative

You don’t have to go out of your way today to be confronted with the subject of contraception. In November, 2012, the United Nations Population Fund issued its annual report entitled “By Choice, Not by Chance,” describing contraception as a global “right” for women, and calling for the removal of all social and financial obstacles to access to its presumed benefits. In the very same month, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists publicly called on the federal government to permit over-the-counter sales of birth control pills.

If you are surprised at the notion of a medical society recommending wider and indiscriminate distribution of powerful drugs without prescriptions or any other controls, you should know that, again in the same month of November, 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics also issued a statement, this one favoring providing children of all ages with so-called “emergency contraception.” This is the term used to describe steroid-based “morning-after” drugs which can prevent a human embryo from implanting in the mother’s womb, and which thus can constitute a form of early abortion. The method is dishonestly labeled “emergency contraception” probably in order to escape criticism from opponents of abortion who do not object to merely “preventive” birth control methods.

Since it is now taken for granted that children today will be initiating sexual activity at younger and younger ages, it is thought that they must urgently be in possession of suitable “protective” means. This is apparently the belief not only of the American Academy of Pediatrics alone; for in December, representatives of some forty other organizations followed up on the Academy’s November statement by calling on the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to permit the sale of morning-after pills to minors over the counter.

All of these calls for wider and easier distribution of contraception (and abortion-inducing drugs) followed closely upon a national election in which one of the political parties produced campaign ads accusing the other party of conducting a “war on women.” The “war” in question seems to have consisted mostly of supposed efforts to deny to women access to contraception. Prominent in what turned out to be a winning political strategy was the highlighting of a single young woman student at the high-tuition Georgetown Law School, Sandra Fluke, who attained that much talked-about “15 minutes of fame” by complaining that her student health insurance did not provide her free contraceptives in support of her permissive lifestyle.

How this constituted any real problem—when both supermarket and convenience- store shelves today are replete with low-cost condoms and other contraceptive devices, and when both Walmart and Target sell birth control pills for less than 10 dollars a month—how this constituted any problem was not explained, probably because, generally speaking, nobody asked for any explanation.

Those who were particularly identified as conducting the alleged “war on women”—including especially the Catholic Bishops of the United States—seemed to consist mostly of those who had publicly declared their opposition to the federal government mandate which the Department of Health and Human Services had put in place the previous January under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.” This HHS mandate required that the health insurance required by Obamacare to be carried henceforth by nearly everybody had to include free coverage of, yes, contraception (and sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs as well). The mandate obviously takes the alleged needs of a Sandra Fluke seriously!

If you live in the United States today, then, you can hardly avoid being almost constantly confronted with the subject of contraception. It’s “in your face,” as the saying goes.

A Once Unmentionable Subject
This has not always been the case. Formerly, and up until quite recently, contraception was practically an unmentionable subject. It was not talked about in polite company—or in almost any other kind of company. To acquire any of the then mostly barrier methods of contraception, you had to be of age and to ask the druggist surreptitiously to bring your purchase out from behind the counter. In 1930, Pope Pius XI issued an entire encyclical, Casti Connubii, deploring and morally condemning contraception, though without so much as mentioning the word itself. (This same encyclical also contained one of the strongest defenses of Christian marriage in all the literature of the Church.)

Contraception only came to be frankly and openly discussed with the advent of the birth control “pill” in the 1960s. In fact, a Catholic physician who had been involved in the development of the new oral contraceptives, Dr. John Rock, published a widely ballyhoo-ed book with the provocative title, The Time Has Come. The aim of the book was to convince Catholics that, with the successful development of oral contraceptives, the Church’s ban on birth control would simply have to go. In retrospect, and in the light of what became the practical abandonment of the Church’s teaching against contraception by so many Catholics, the book proved to be quite prescient: the time evidently had come!

As most people are aware, however, the Church’s teaching against contraception was not modified as a result of the development of the birth control pill. It is of some interest that the papal birth control commission that was named by Blessed Pope John XXIII was established in order to determine whether the new oral contraceptives fell under the Church’s long-established prohibition of any artificial interference with the human generative process. Ironically, a majority of the members of the papal birth control commission itself ended up deciding that the Church’s teaching against birth control could and should be dropped  Such was the climate in the early 1960s.

Having anxiously weighed and examined the whole question, however—and, as it happened, also enjoying the assistance of the Holy Spirit—Pope John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, concluded in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, that oral contraceptives did fall under the Church’s prohibition, and that each and every marriage act had to remain open to the transmission of life, as the Church had taught for centuries. The teaching could not be changed because it was true. But in reaching this conclusion not only against the expectations of his own commission, but of practically everybody else in the world, the pope once again never actually mentioned the word “contraception.”

Still, contraception was the issue, and the pope’s decision that the Church’s prohibition of its use had to stand proved to be one of the epochal decisions of our era. It meant that the Catholic Church would continue on her traditional way, although not without considerable dissent and disorder in her own ranks. Statistics soon showed, in fact, that contraceptive practice by Catholics was virtually the same as that by non-Catholics. The Church’s teaching had thus ceased to be heeded by many of the children of the Church. Oddly, many Catholics even seemed to be proud that they no longer followed the teaching of the Church!

More recently, during the 2012 presidential campaign, prominent women such as Melinda Gates and Caroline Kennedy, pointedly self-identifying themselves as “Catholics,” called for the acceptance of contraception before mass-media audiences—as if being Catholic today somehow entailed siding with the world against the Church.

Meanwhile, the world had long since become what we have already seen above: where in the course of the single month of November, 2012, contraception was declared by the United Nations to be a “women’s right”; where at least two medical societies loudly and publicly favored the distribution of  birth control pills and devices to all and sundry, including children;  where a victorious political campaign boasted of its active provision of birth prevention procedures, gaining a majority of women’s votes thereby; where well-known Catholics publicly favored and praised these same procedures; and where the U.S. Government deliberately left in place against vigorous Church protests a legal requirement known to be a violation of the religious liberty of the members of America’s largest single religious body.

This, then, is what our world has come to; it is a world exhibiting what we may call “the contraceptive imperative.” Contraception must henceforth be universally accepted and available, gratis, to all. The idea that there might possibly be any objection to it, say, on moral grounds, must be firmly rejected, if not indeed laughed to scorn. It is thought that anyone who might possibly object, say, the Catholic bishops or the Catholic faithful, surely cannot be serious.

Few Voices Raised Against Contraception
In actual and sober fact, however, few voices are being publicly raised today against contraception as such. For more than a generation Catholics have been very reluctant to speak out against it in spite of the Church’s plain teaching about it. Today’s secularists are generally given a free pass to go on touting its claimed benefits while critics remain mostly silent. Those who do venture to say anything against it usually confine their criticisms to its known harmful physical effects, such as the pill’s increased risk of heart disease or cancer, or the greater risk of sexually transmitted diseases for those relying on contraceptives in support of a promiscuous lifestyle. Hardly anybody today ever publicly dares to contend that contraception just might be morally wrong, which is what the Church teaches.

Even in the case of the HHS contraceptive mandate, few feel called upon to argue against contraception as such. Rather, most people (including most Catholic bishops), primarily stress that the mandate is a violation of the religious liberty of Catholics. Many even go so far as to assert that “it’s not about contraception.” Of course, it is a violation of the religious liberty of Catholics; and it must indeed be opposed on that basis, as the Church rightly is opposing it. But it also is about contraception. It represents a government attempt to impose the contraceptive imperative on the entire country, as Pope Paul VI warned in Humanae Vitae, and it must be opposed for that reason as well.

For the Church has not ceased to teach that contraception is morally wrong. This was once the teaching of all of Christianity. It remained in place virtually universally for centuries until, in 1929, the Church of England broke ranks and allowed its use in “hard cases”—a shift that was followed with unseemly haste in the next few years by nearly all organized Christian bodies (with the notable exception of the Catholic Church).

Soon contraception came to be allowed nearly everywhere, not just in hard cases but in all cases. This was bound to happen, for if contraception is not somehow intrinsically wrong (and hence might legitimately be employed in hard cases), why not in all cases? It follows. The Catholic Church virtually alone proved unable to accede to this logic. The great 1930 encyclical, Casti Connubii, was the answer of Pope Pius XI and the Catholic Church to the general abandonment nearly everywhere of the traditional teaching that had previously obtained universally within Christianity.

In Humanae Vitae, besides warning about the kind of government coercion which has come about with the HHS mandate, Pope Paul VI also predicted an increase “in conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality” and a loss of respect for women—consequences which leap to the eye in such cases as today’s marriage break-ups or “hook-up culture.” As the original enabler of the sexual revolution generally, contraception is responsible for these consequences.

So isn’t it about time that Catholics got beyond today’s almost ritual disclaimer in the case of the HHS mandate that “it’s not about contraception”? How much worse does it have to get before some people finally begin to notice that it is bad? The whole issue is about contraception as much as it is about religious liberty, and we need to summon up the courage to say this plainly.

It is time that the contraceptive imperative got branded as the grave menace to any civilized and moral society that it manifestly is.

Kenneth D. Whitehead


Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

  • Bill Russell

    Pope Paul VI fell silent on contraception after “Humane Vitae.” Astonishingly, he never wrote another encyclical, and he did not mention ‘Humane Vitae” at all for the next ten years. This has to be an instance of neglected teaching unique in the Church’s history and a moral failing whose consequences are now a universal tragedy.

    • Ford Oxaal

      The caving in of the faithful on sexual morality is a great apostasy. And the bait came gift-wrapped, compliments Satan — right in your face. Just crack open an Epistle randomly, and you will find how dangerous the flesh is. In our time, the flesh has won the day. (Not to mention, there’s a lot of it in our portly ‘society’) “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (I John 1:8-10)

    • musicacre

      I kind of disagree; Pope Paul VI suffered a vicious and unrelenting attack after he refused to agree with all the apostate experts. The media went into feeding frenzy mode to give unconditional support to the dissenters, esp. in the States, and boxed the Pope into a corner. The apostate priests became overnight sensations, thanks to the press, and ever after, derision and contempt have dominated any comments on those who try to be faithful to the church on this issue, in word or practice. The moral failing is all the bishops around the world who were given an incredible tool from the Pope, but dropped the ball. THEY dropped the ball. The Pope is a teacher, not a militia; he has to count on the zeal and faithfulness of his bishops. Maybe we need to know what THEY are afraid of, if not God.

    • WBC

      Paul VI was viciously attacked from within and from without after Humanae Vitae. And one must recall that he had a lot on his plate, including the intrigues of the post-conciliar apostates who did their best to destroy the Church. But he did what was right and preserved the Church against this terrible sin. He could do no less. John Paul II expanded on the encyclical (and much more) in Evangelicum Vitae.

      The real scandal is that the Church in the United States does so little to teach married Catholics about natural family planning. The prohibition against artificial birth control is rarely discussed in this country and an alternative is rarely mentioned even in marriage preparation programs. Thus, Catholic women routinely use the pill and other methods without even knowing that there is a viable alternative.

  • John

    Here here. Excellent article!

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  • Fernando

    You don’t become Assistant Secretary of State for Education if you are intellectually mediocre: Thank you for this great and lucid article, Sir!

  • TheodoreSeeber

    It never ceases to amaze me that those who deny God, who claim the universe is random and people should have free will, are the ones who most want to use choice to kill chance and freedom.

    • Ford Oxaal

      You mean they are really control freaks? Yeah, I think I know what you mean. This is how liberalism morphs into totalitarianism — the political wheel of fortune keeps spinning around.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        It is deeper than just liberalism morphing into totalitarianism. Below the secular freemasonry that is common in the United States, we are faced with a great war of philosophy between chaotic atheism and ordered theism; whether control belongs rightly with man or with God. Chaotic Atheism, based in the interpretation of the Heisenberg Principle that at the base of the universe there is NO plan, leads human beings to attempt to control their lives in other ways; usually in “sexual freedom” or “fiscal freedom” in the United States. Both are abuses of what we Catholics would call authentic free will; they are not the freedom to follow God in obedience of His Will, rather they are Original Sin writ large, the utter denial of even the existence of God’s will.

        And so, in the end, where the superficial effect is liberalism morphing into totalitarianism, what we are really talking about is the Original Sin of Disobedience, that no matter how hard we try we can’t seem to excise from the human soul.

        From that standpoint, contraception on the left is only matched by usury on the right; BOTH are dissent from authentic Church Teaching. Those who don’t dissent against Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae dissent instead against Centesimus Annus and Caritas in Veritate. America was born in rebellion against God’s Kings, and continues in rebellion against God’s Church today.

        • Ford Oxaal

          One wishes the secular conversation were less between atheistic progressivism versus Darwinian capitalism, and more between dignity of life issues, and the natural law aspects of free enterprise — or something like that.

  • Gil Bailie

    Thanks again for a marvelously comprehensive piece. Have a blessed Christmas.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Am I alone in finding an eerie similarity between the “Truce of 1968,” as George Weigal calls it, when the Congregation for the Clergy decreed that Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington should lift canonical penalties against those priests whom he had disciplined for their public dissent from Humanae Vitae and the “Peace of Clement IX” during the Jansenist controversy?

    In both cases, after the Church had been riven by a decade-long dispute, a papal document was issued that was intended to be definitive.

    In both cases, the original quarrel was immediately forgotten and argument raged over the scope of papal authority to decide the question. In the Jansenist case, peace, of a sort, was achieved, when Pope Clement IX brokered an agreement that neither side would argue the question, at least, from the pulpit.

    The “Peace of Clement IX” lasted for about 35 years and ended in 1705 when Clement XI declared the clergy could no longer hide behind “respectful silence.” Eventually, in 1713, he issued Unigenitus and demanded the subscription of the clergy to it. There was enormous resistance, with bishops and priests appealing to a future Council (and being excommunicated for their pains, in 1718). As late as 1756, dissenters were still being denied the Last Rites.

    Will the “Truce of 1968” end in a similar fashion?

    • musicacre

      Interesting. They can only hide in their caves for so long. God WILL call them eventually and ask them what they have done with their talents.

  • Charles Cosimano

    You can point it out all you want but expect to be ignored.

  • Craig

    Good call. This was not about Religious liberty (my opinion).

  • Prof_Override

    Speak less, say more.

    Having old white dudes ranting and rambling about this issue is the height of paternalistic nonsense. Stay out of the discussion, you don’t belong, it’s not your issue. The fact that you think you have any say on this topic proves that you are truly a legend in your own mind.

    • Augustus

      What does race have to do with the morality of contraceptive use? Are you saying that minorities are better off by contracepting themselves into oblivion? That sounds pretty racist, don’t you think? So men are not allowed to speak about contraception on the basis of biology, not reason? That sounds pretty sexist, don’t you think? Are you saying that “paternalistic” men are somehow causing harm to women by insisting that the human race not contracept itself into extinction? How is it good for women to disappear from the face of the earth? Are you saying that child birth is a disease that should be prevented? How ingenious! Now there’s a prescription for a bright future.

      • Prof_Override

        Thanks for proving my point, and oh yeah I forgot the angry part of angry white guy. BTW – I’m a middle aged white guy who just doesn’t happen to be angry and doesn’t feel that it’s my divine right to impose my morality on others. Smile God loves even you.

        • Augustus

          Since you think that vigorous disagreement to your irrational blather is a sign of anger, then I proudly wear your irrelevant ad hominem attack as a badge of honor. Now that we’ve put aside that pointless logical fallacy, let’s try to make some sense out of your senseless assertions. It was YOU who brought up the issue of race as if being white had anything to do with the moral question at hand. If you think that race isn’t relevant, then why did you bring it up? Are you just compelled to mouth baseless liberal cliches for lack of a coherent argument? It was YOU who brought up gender as if being a male disqualifies someone from making a moral argument on logical and rational grounds. That is sexist. If you didn’t mean to be sexist, then why bring it up, unless out of force of habit you mouth irrational liberal cliques that have no relevance to the subject under discussion? These are red herrings. You raised race and gender because you don’t have an argument. The fact that you refused to back up your baseless assertions with reason is an acknowledgment of the fact. The fact that you are white only makes the charges even more ridiculous. What is a “middle aged white guy” doing telling anyone what they can or can’t believe? Based on your own “philosophy” you have no basis upon which to judge the moral soundness of anyone, including the author of the above essay. And your final logical fallacy–the straw man argument–perfectly applies to your baseless charge that the author is “imposing” his morality regarding contraception. Find in the article where the author is advocating an imposition of law? Did you even read the article? Regarding your general assertion, every half-thinking person knows that a society can’t function without imposing morality. Every law is an imposition of morality. By forcing the Catholic Church to pay for other people’s contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs, Obama is imposing his “morality” in the same way that you falsely claim the Church is doing to others. This is a classic example of projection which the political left is famous for. And your liberal cliques won’t be able to disprove that.

          • Prof_Override

            Mr. Whitehead anthropomorphises “the Church” and ” the government” and all other sorts of non-corporeal intellectual concepts as though they are living breathing entities. You seem to be in total support of this … unusual behavior. As the T-shirt says, “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one.” This is irrational behavior. It’s similar to watching Sponge Bob and considering him to be a real person/creature. “The church” can’t teach, or oppose, or support or anything else – it’s nothing but a thought form in your head. It doesn’t eat or sleep or breathe, because it isn’t real. Keep the conversation to real people dealing with real issues – the rest is just an angry white dude bloviating about how “the world” is doing him wrong.

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