Birth Control is Not Healthcare

Dr. Malcolm Potts, first medical director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, in a piece late last month in the Los Angeles Times¸erroneously blames the Vatican for denying the Little Sisters of the Poor the alleged health benefits of hormonal contraception.  In fact, the Little Sisters of the Poor are challenging in court their real oppressor, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is mandating that employers violate their consciences by providing all of their employees’ contraceptive, abortifacient and surgical sterilization coverage in their health plans.  We are grateful that the Sisters are taking this courageous stand for religious liberty, which may, in the long run, benefit all persons who believe in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Although the positions of the Vatican are always based on sound science and truth, the challenge by the Sisters to the HHS mandate is their own initiative. Indeed, their decision has much more to do with religious liberty than the flawed arguments contained in Dr. Potts’ column.

For starters, when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical, Humanae vitae, he did so after reviewing both the majority and minority reports of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control of 1966.  Humanae vitae is a profoundly prophetic document since it foresaw the inevitable societal abuses of women and the family from the widespread use of contraception, including high rates of divorce and illegitimacy.  All one has to do is go to Planned Parenthood’s own website to see the statistics on unplanned pregnancies.  This is especially true for college age students who are the “beneficiaries” of the HHS mandate.  In fact, the “rates of unintended pregnancy and unintended pregnancy ending in birth [is] highest among women ages 18 to 24.”

Paul VI was faced with some incredibly flawed reasoning by the majority opinion that favored a reversal of Church teaching. For example, the majority thought “it is natural for man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature.” What the report is actually advocating here is the human control of female fertility through chemical mutilation of a natural healthy function of women.  Dr. Potts speaks of the dated “rhythm” method, as if that is all science has to offer women who truly want to work with their natural reproductive functions, not mutilate them as if they were to be despised. Furthermore, Dr. Potts describes the beauty of the female reproductive cycle in a disparaging way by claiming that women must endure “the hormonal turmoil of hundreds of menstrual cycles,” as if our feminine nature is violative of women, when in fact female nature is exploited, mutilated, and abused when their reproductive system is violated with harmful chemicals.

Dr. Potts correctly cites how Humanae vitae permits the use of hormonal or surgical treatments that are “therapeutic means considered necessary to cure organic diseases even though they have a contraceptive effect.”  In fact, the USCCB’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services states: “Procedures that induce sterility are permitted when their direct effect is the cure or alleviation of a present and serious pathology and a simpler treatment is not available.”  Thus there is no moral reason to deny such medications to the Sisters or their employees if there was a genuine medical need.

Let’s look more closely at the medical facts.  If Dr. Potts’ position is that all women should be taking oral contraceptives, why are they not being prescribed them by their physicians, regardless of their sexual behavior?  It is because there are risks associated with the use of birth control drugs documented by the National Cancer Institute. These dangers call for a prudential use of such hormones.  The Institute reports that: “Overall … the risks of endometrial and ovarian cancer appear to be reduced with the use of oral contraceptives, whereas the risks of breast, cervical, and liver cancer appear to be increased.” In fact, concerning breast cancer, it continues: “The risk was highest for women who started using oral contraceptives as teenagers.” Yet, our government is espousing access to these high dose hormones to all women of reproductive age, especially young women.  Furthermore, it is well documented that hormonal contraceptives pose other substantial threats to all women, including myocardial infarction, cerebral-vascular accidents, deep venous thrombosis, and pulmonary embolism.

So while Dr. Potts ignores these substantial threats to women’s health through the use of oral contraceptives, he also is misstating the true source of the oppression on women, including the Little Sisters of the Poor. The threat comes from a government determined to force upon all persons, including those who have a true understanding of the gift of human reproduction, its own perverse view of female sexuality, and in so doing violate the sacrosanct constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.  Thank you, Little Sisters of the Poor, for your courageous stand on behalf of all women.

Marie T. Hilliard


Marie T. Hilliard, Ph.D., RN, is the Director of Bioethics and Public Policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. She holds an MS in Maternal Child Health Nursing, an MA in Religious Studies and a degree in Canon Law.

  • Objectivetruth

    Excellent article, Dr. Hilliard.

    Pope Paul VI prophesies in Humana Vitae 46 years later have definitely come true:

    1. Contraception would lead to conjugal infidelity.

    2. Contraceptive practice would lead to a “general lowering of morality.”

    3. Contraception would lead men to cease respecting woman in their totality and would cause them to treat women as “mere instruments of selfish enjoyment” rather than as cherished partners.

    4. And finally, widespread acceptance of contraception by couples would lead to a massive imposition of contraception by unscrupulous governments.

    His fourth prophecy was the only one I questioned coming to fulfillment until the HHS mandate. Kathleen Sebelius’ horrifying 2013 Good Friday memo from her desk at the HHS declaring pregnancy a “preventable disease” has even taken Pope Paul’s fears in 1968 to demonic depths that even the Holy Father did not foresee.

    • TheAbaum

      I wonder if your extrapolation and reminder of HV gives any of the pseudo-Catholics any pause in their relentless calumnies of PP.

  • lifeknight

    Thank you for a great article.

  • AcceptingReality

    One has to wonder if Dr. Potts, and all the influential people striving to advance the use of contraception, are heavily invested in the pharmaceutical companies that produce such drugs. If they can force the ever expanding sale and use of the drugs their portfolios grow in value, too.

  • In the novel “Jurassic Park”, the mathematician Dr. Ian Malcom, during a rant about modern life in America, exclaims “We live in a world of frightful givens!”. True indeed. This is a shining example of one of those frightful givens. It is a given, in our poisoned culture, that contraception is a form of health care, as is abortion. Few question these established “rights”. How did we get here? St. Thomas tells us that the secondary precepts of the natural law can be blotted out “either by evil persuasion…, or by viscous customs and corrupt habits”. The only thing more remarkable than the moral degradation that the West has undergone, in so short a period of time, is that, even after all of this has taken place, there are still some within the Church who question that the Church is necessary to safeguard the morals of our society.

    Thank you Dr. Hilliard for a finely written article.

  • Jim

    Don’t forget the cosmetic companies, as well, have investment in this.
    Thank you for a great article.

  • Contraception is not health care, but providing insurance coverage for a man’s boner pills IS?

  • Objectivetruth

    Study from the Mayo Clinlc showing connection between oral contraceptives and breast cancer (see link below). Here is a cut and paste from their conclusions (“OC” is “oral contraceptives”):

    “Consistent with the recent International Agency for Re- search on Cancer classification of OCs as group 1 carcino- gens, this meta-analysis suggests that OCs are associated with an increase in premenopausal breast cancer risk, espe- cially among women who use OCs before FFT”

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  • aimer

    I’ve never used hormonal birth control. I have two children currently, we may have more if God wills it. We have used NFP because our youngest was dealing with a serious illness and having a new baby when we were living in the hospital, not a good idea. I’ve never used birth control and yet have never been unexpectedly pregnant, don’t have any STDs and both of my kids are from the same father – my husband. I get regular WOMENS HEALTHCARE by getting pap smears, breast checks, etc. and it’s all free.