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, 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.

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