Republicans, the Pill, and the War on the Family

Why did Republicans do so well in the 2014 elections? Among the reasons emphasized by pundits and operatives on both sides of the political aisle has been the ability of Republican candidates to counter effectively the charge that they would escalate the so-called “war on women.” A key example cited by both left and right has been the Colorado Senate race in which the Democratic incumbent, Mark “Uterus” Udall, tried to label his Republican opponent, Cory Gardner, as an extremist on women’s issues centering on abortion and contraception. The story is that Mr. Gardner made a brilliant move by running away from his previous support for a Personhood law (which would grant full legal, human rights to the unborn) and calling for legislation making the birth control pill available over-the-counter without a prescription. It is highly doubtful that such a policy will “win” any votes for otherwise conservative candidates. One thing is certain, however: The attempt to bypass, yet again, the proper role of families in guiding their children’s moral and medical choices as they reach maturity will harm our most important institution and undermine development of free and responsible adults.

Mr. Gardner is not the only Republican to seize on over-the-counter oral contraceptives as a sure means of inoculation against the “anti-woman” charge—Thom Tillis, the new Senator from North Carolina, and Louisiana Governor (and probable Presidential candidate) Bobby Jindal also have backed the idea. But Mr. Gardner’s switch is particularly important because it has been lauded as crucial to his victory. He announced support for this “reform” in an op-ed piece in the Denver Post. Here he likened the birth control pill to Advil, Pepcid, and other medications that have been “proven safe.” Under these circumstances, he argued, it is foolish to impose the extra costs and especially the extra time and trouble involved in seeing a physician to get a prescription for an oral contraceptive. Politicians, he argued, should stop playing politics and instead “make life easier for women” by approving the uncontrolled distribution of the pill.

It is always dangerous to be seen as opposing “making life easier for women.” For decades now we have allowed feminists to pose as the true and only representatives of “women” taken as an abstraction defined by internal plumbing. It should be obvious that such a view degrades women in general, and specifically those women who happen not to see themselves as feminists (more than three-quarters of American women according to a poll by the leftist Huffington Post). Nonetheless, elections, speaking engagements, and even jobs regularly are lost by those—male or female—foolish enough to get on the wrong side of the feminist narrative. What is more, most Catholics are highly aware that those who agree with the official position of the Church on artificial contraception (that it closes a couple morally and spiritually as well as physically to God’s gift of life, robbing sex of its true, full nature, and bringing a separation where there should be full union) are a minority even within their own faith. But this issue is too important to allow Mr. Gardner’s tactic to pass, as it has, as a mark of genius instead of yet another substantial retreat in the very real war against the natural family.

In discussing Mr. Gardner’s proposal, one should begin by at least mentioning the not-so-small problem that some forms of the birth control pill actually are not contraceptives, but abortifacients (they do not prevent conception but rather prevent the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall, causing an abortion). It also is worth mentioning that the pill has side effects and complications (increased risk of cancer and heart attack being only the most obvious) that Mr. Gardner fails to take into account. And we should remember that the “over the counter” battle is not limited to the contraceptive pill, for there has been a very real and powerful push for dispensing the so-called “morning after” pill over the counter. A move like that advocated by Gardner can only increase pressure for free availability of that “other” pill that induces abortions, often with significant complications.

Most important, however, is the effect Mr. Gardner’s proposal would have on the family. Mr. Gardner is proposing further marginalization of the family as an institution in American law and public life. Once again, a supposedly conservative public figure is proposing to increase “choice” at the expense of families, their right to self-government, and their ability to form the characters of their young members.

It appears that most “conservative” proponents of over-the-counter birth control pills see themselves as making a rather brilliant tactical move. If available over-the-counter, the pill almost certainly would no longer qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). This would short-circuit “the Hobby Lobby Problem.” By this I mean the troubles some Republicans have with defending the rights of employers to uphold their religious beliefs in designing the health insurance they provide to their employees. Hobby Lobby may have won its lawsuit to be allowed to not subsidize abortifacients, but the issue is not going to go away anytime soon—so why not simply take contraception off the table by putting it on the drugstore shelf? Unfortunately, this rather craven attempt to side step an important issue of religious freedom is ill-considered. Where minor children are concerned, the “solution” Mr. Gardner proposes is less one of simply allowing for free markets than one of pre-empting the natural and necessary role of parents in important decisions. One should consider, here, court decisions striking down laws requiring parental consent for teenagers to undergo abortions. In both instances the government is cutting parents out of crucial, life-altering decisions in the name of “choice” where the choice makers are children operating in precisely the kind of morally compromised, stress-filled environment where parental guidance is most needed.

To make the pill available over the counter is to eliminate the role of the family in the crucial decision of minor children to become sexually active. True, other forms of contraception are available over the counter. But, while the decisions involved are important, it is not a small step but a giant leap from purchasing a pack of single use contraceptives (condoms) to placing oneself on medication to be sexually available at all times. Some may see the result as liberating. Certainly many young men find it liberating to have young women easily and consistently sexually available and, especially in the era of “hooking up” culture, many young women may experience similar feelings of liberation. But it is short-sighted and dismissive of central facts of human nature to deny that the decision to “go on the pill” is crucial to a person’s identity and character.

Obviously, the fact that a young woman has chosen to take oral contraceptives does not mean that she has chosen to be “available” for sex to anyone at any time. Protestants, who generally have no theological issue with contraception in and of itself, can see it as fully consistent with married life. But it clearly is a commitment to availability for sex. And this life-altering decision is not one the government should place squarely on a minor child’s shoulders by placing the relevant drug next to the Advil and the Pepcid.

Even those who see no non-hygiene related issues with premarital sex and contraception should recognize the importance of the decision involved—and also the importance of maintaining the role of a minor child’s family in making it. Sadly, availability of the pill can be a means of avoiding difficult discussions about sexual morality and too many parents believe that chemistry and a lesson in “tolerance” from a teacher can make for an easier and better life without the need for messy discussions about the conduct involved.

Our society already places far too much pressure on women to excel in every aspect of life simultaneously. To push down to minor children the decision whether to take oral contraceptives in a world filled with sexual imagery and the identification of maturity and success with sexual activity is deeply unfair and unwise. It is based on the false notion that the chemical changes brought about by the pill can make sex “safe” both biologically and emotionally, that sexual conduct will not affect one’s character and life prospects so long as one (almost) never can get pregnant. It also increases the pressure for all Americans, but especially young women, to face life’s choices alone, lest they be labeled cowards or, even worse, “prudes.”

A nation of dis-embedded individuals, separated from their families in making important decisions, but subject to outsized demands from a heartless consumerist mass culture (and, in the case of young women, the demands of hormonal adolescent boys) is not truly free, but merely abandoned. This is not the stuff of ordered liberty or of people capable of exercising it.

Over-the-counter pill proponents may claim that a simple “not available to minors” rule will solve all these problems (if they even admit that they exist). Unfortunately, as we know from our experience with tobacco and alcohol, such rules are destined to fail in short order. The drug store clerk is no substitute for the family doctor, let alone parents. It is long past time to call a halt to further sexualization of our children and to re-embrace the role of the family in character formation. Until we do, families will further erode, leaving our kids alone to face an unmerciful popular culture and politicians who seek to gain and maintain power by “making it easier” for the culture of death to claim another generation as its victims.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared December 5, 2014 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a screen shot of a Planned Parenthood video ad critical of North Carolina U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis for a proposal permitting over-the-counter birth control. 

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • St JD George

    What makes me the most furious in this whole debate is the dishonesty by the pushers and that they have an accomplice in the media defending the un-affordable care act. Access to birth control has never really been a problem for those that want it, and we all know that plenty of people who call themselves Catholics use them against church teachings. What is really at the root of all this is the lasting legacy of Margaret Sanger’s influence who felt that some lives were not worth living. Now it has grown to encompass the free love culture who have lost all sight of what God’s purpose for love, sex, marriage and children are. I don’t know if the genie can ever be put back in the bottle on this one because we need to tackle root cause fundamentals first, like loving God. A good first step though is to tell truth to lies, and point out that the real war on women is stripping them of the femininity and the beauty and sacrifice (in love) of motherhood.

    • guest

      Beware of an overemphasis on the importance of motherhood to the exclusion, or minimizing of fatherhood. Both parents need to shoulder the responsibilities in equal measure. I remember a time when the mother tended to be criticized more than the father if children did not turn out well. At one time this made me a bit wary of having children, but I did happily overcome this fear, eventually. That being said, it should also be remembered that women want to be valued for all they can be, not for motherhood alone. This increases the value of their femininity and enriches society.

      • St JD George

        You know I am in total agreement with you. The only reason for singling out is because of a certain group that claims there is a war on women and mocks motherhood as a lowly profession with contempt. In my opinion there is no nobler profession and the real war is being waged by those don’t appreciate. Parenting of course is a team effort. I know not all families are blessed to have the mother and father present, and in many cases that is better until one outgrows the addictions and abusive behavior that is harmful to the family. There is also the unfortunate of a deceased spouse. Truly it is God’s plan for every child to be raised in a home with a loving mother and father.

  • AcceptingReality

    For me, the discussion begs the question, “is it better to be conceived and then aborted or to never have been conceived at all?”. The answer should be obvious but you’d never sell that truth in the political arena.

    • Becky Chandler

      The answer is not obvious at all. Empirically there is no evidence
      that contraception decreases abortions, in fact just the opposite as
      anyone who has read Humane Vitae already knows. Blessed Pope Paul VI
      prophetically predicted many other bad consequences of contraception
      than just unwanted babies. And why does it morally or conceptually
      matter at all how humans intervene in God’s design and determine
      whether a person should come into being and live – abortion is just

      • Daniel P

        The problem here is that you seem to be measuring this according to utilitarianism — which outcome is better? But that doesn’t matter. For a Catholic, the better *outcome* may be a baby conceived and then aborted — but that does NOT make abortion somehow better than contraception. Ending a life is a significantly worse sin than preventing a life.

        They’re not at all equivalent, but they’re both seriously wrong.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      “Better… never to have been conceived at all” poses something of a logical conundrum – Better for whom? What does “better” mean as applied to a non-existent person?

      There is much wrangling amongst philosophers and logicians over the status of counter-factual hypotheticals, of which this is an instance.

  • JP

    Speaking of the Pill, birth rates, and Catholics, here are some very disturbing statistics from the just completed CDC report on 2013 US birth rates:

    1)There were 380,000 fewer live births in the US compared to 2007. That’s a drop of 10%

    2)The 2013 stats show that the birth rate amongst women 15-44 was 62.5 births/1000 women, which equates to a Total Fertility Rate of 1.86 children per female (The TFR takes the age of the women into account). A society needs a TFR of 2.1 children/female to sustain their population without immigration.

    3)We now have fewer mothers under 30 than at any time in history. This would seem contradictory, as younger women are more fit to have children, and can produce more children than women over 30. According to the CDC the birth rates have dropped for both the 25-29 cohorts, as well as the 15-19 age cohorts. The birth rate dropped about 13 births/1000.

    Women now ages 31-35 and 39-45 are having more children than women 15-35. When one takes into consideration that the 39-45 age cohort will more than likely be able to have only 1 child, it shows how drastically births in the US have fallen.

    These trends if continued will more than likely bump up our median age above 40 by 2025, if not sooner. In 1972, our median age was 24. According to most polls, American Catholics use artificial birth control as frequently as the rest of the population. NFP couples, at best, represent 4% of Catholic Couples, while those who use no methods to regulate births at about 2%. That is, about 96% of Catholics use some form of birth control. This trend obviously shows up in our statistics.

  • St JD George

    You don’t mind do you Bruce if I interject some Papal news stories that aren’t related to your fine article … since there is no other to discuss under. These two left me a little befuddled today. The daily climate changing maybe not so much so since he has said as much in the past (still disheartening to see him drink the kool-aid), but dogs going to heaven, really (actual quote “paradise is open to all God’s creatures”)? The context was to console a little boy who lost his dog which is commendable of course, but another instance where the blogosphere is now spinning out of control with nothing less than “where do mosquitoes go”. Probably as much at fault for not letting a simple moment of tenderness go unnoticed, but he must also realize that he is the Pope and that people do pay attention to his words. Clarity and consistency with the church’s teaching certainly must be viewed as a virtue.

  • Becky Chandler

    The Church did not start unraveling with Vatican 2 or the new
    mass, but with the outright rejection of Humanae Vitae. It was that
    rebellion against not just papal authority, but dogma, fundamental
    morality and Natural Law ,which created the present crisis. Catholics
    – the hierarchy, priests, theologians, teachers, the laity and
    politicians — should not be ashamed,but rather start speaking out
    often and loudly in support of Humanae Vitae.

    • Joe

      Here lies the problem. The problem is not a lack of obedience to Church teaching (HV) among the faithful, but rather foremost, a lack of faith and trust in God that the teachings of the Church will bring a more abundant life. Raising a numerous family takes a lot of courage, and “not everyone is doing it” these days, like they did in the 50s. I have no doubt that many Catholics “caved” once it became widely availble.
      If the Church expects married couples to follow Church teaching, then its pastors AND LAITY must fearlessly profess and provide clear, conciese, and compelling reasons to do so, especially personal witness from married couples themselves. Birth control is so routine and prevalent, and it’s not by accident that it is used by large numbers, Catholic faithful or otherwise. This needs to become the evangelization mission of the laity, to promote the truth about Catholic marriage and family.

      • Harry

        Humanity was made in the image of God, Who instituted marriage at the same time, telling the parents of the human race to “Be fruitful and multiply.” The love between two persons becomes a third person. This is a reflection of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the love between the Father and the Son. Human sexuality in marriage is an essential aspect of humanity reflecting the image of God. This explains why the Prince of this world not only assaults the image of God in the innocent child in the womb, but also assaults the image of God in marriage and family.

        With that in mind, who do you suppose is ultimately behind “the pill” (which often acts as an abortifacient)?

        The ubiquitous rejection of God’s plan for human sexuality in contemporary society has proven to be an unmitigated disaster in more ways than one can explain is a short post. Let me just say that the rejection of God’s authority over one area of our lives inevitably leads to a total rejection of God’s plan and an abandonment of the faith. And we wonder why so many are leaving the Church.

      • Becky Chandler

        What the massive rebellion against Humane Vitae did was to make lack of faith and trust on any subject not only acceptable, but routine and all teachings of the church optional.

      • guest

        My parents had 3 ( out of 5) nfp babies. This did not bring them the more abundant life. In fact, 3 unplanned children added to their de facto divorce, causing great discord and general misery in the family. No money increased the general misery. Every couple is not called to many children. My mother admitted she wanted to stop at 2 all her life. My father just complained about all he had to do because of us. True story.

  • Why did Republicans do so well in the 2014 elections?

    Because they were thought to be an alternative to Obama. After yesterday, we can see that is not true.

    • St JD George

      Yeah, it was rather shocking wasn’t it … but maybe not in retrospect. Sadly, he is my congressman and I did vote for him … though my only other real choice was to not vote.

  • Rob B.

    Cody Gardner is my senator. I voted for him with a hand clamped firmly over my mouth and nose because Planned Parenthood seems to be scared to death of him. That shouldn’t have to be the bar by which we choose our leaders…

  • lazypadawan

    1. This story illustrates why we shouldn’t expect politicians, even ones we like, to “save us.”

    2. I dislike the idea of over-the-counter birth control pills not only because of Catholic teaching, but because they mess with the natural functions of a woman’s body, something Advil, Claritin, or whatever else does not. The use has to be monitored by a doctor. Too weak and the woman gets pregnant. Too strong and she ends up a chubby psycho. I’ve seen many ads on t.v. for ambulance chasers looking for victims of side effects caused by a litany of estrogen-based birth control. Now we’re going to sell that at Target to anyone who wants it? Dumb idea.

    The way I see it, unless there’s another medical reason for it, estrogen-based birth control is purely for the lifestyle convenience of the person taking it. For the most part it’s as optional as liposuction, therefore nobody other than the individual should pay for it.

    • Rob B.

      Absolutely! To market the pill as a “medication” like aspirin or Tylenol is absurd to say the least.

    • St JD George

      Save us, they are drowning us in debt like a slow boil. $1T in new debt added each year under this admin and now $18T, climbing like the space shuttle to the space station at breakneck speed.

  • Ruth Rocker

    I’m surprised we haven’t heard proposals to even bypass the drugstore and put the pill in the public drinking water. That way, no one would be excluded.

    The idiocy of these people is staggering. Do they not realize that there is a SIGNIFICANT difference between sodium naproxen and hormone laden birth control pills? The first one is only going to relieve your headache or body aches and the other is going to warp your body chemistry at least as long as you take it.

    The real war on women is being waged by the feminists. The most hard core of these persons are not pro-women, but violently anti-men. By warping the argument to make it look like the big bad men are oppressing the poor defenseless woman, it gives them a scapegoat.

    I took the pill after my son was born, but it was for medical reasons, not so I could engage in sex whenever, wherever and with whomever I wanted. And my doctor strongly advised me after a few years to stop taking it to give my body a rest.

    And the legacy of idiocy just gets longer and longer.

  • JRDF

    Great cartoon suggestion: A twenty-something female in a Wholefoods selecting Hormone-free dairy products. Then same 20-something in Drugstore buying a pack of birth control pills.

    oh the insanity of it all

  • JP

    On the birth control front, the war is at least temporarily lost (maybe for a generation; maybe forever). Few in the Catholic Church (and that includes Conservative Catholics), and even fewer outside see any real problem with The Pill. I would venture, most Bishops would like nothing more than the Church to change its long standing prohibition against birth control.

    But, we should ponder our future, and what the world will look like very soon. While we don’t have fertility rates as low as Germany and Japan (they have reached the point of no return, and both nations will soon begin losing population), we can at least see what we can expect. Germany allows immigration (mostly from Turkey), and Japan does not. In Japan, there is a growing shortage of doctors and nurses who can care fro so many geriatrics. This had a tragic consequence during the earthquake and Tsunami. Many of those who died were the elderly, who could not be moved to safer ground in time before the waves came crashing down. Furthermore, Japan has had a stagnant economy mainly because local demand for goods and services has plunged. An older society consumes and produces less, than a younger one. Deflation and not inflation is Japan’s problem. If it wasn’t for their export markets, Japan would have seen a precipitous decline in its standard of living long ago. But, what happens if the export markets to North America and Europe dry up? Both continents are aging, and South America is not far behind. Germany finds itself in similar straights as Japan. Things are a bit more complicated as Germany belongs to the EU, and it has dominated the EU for over a decade. Additionally, Germany continues to enjoy decent trade with North America. Out consumer markets continue to fuel much of Germany’s GDP. However, even with its local dominance and trade with North America, Germany barely remains above recession; its unemployment amongst its 18-30 year old demographic is between 11-15%.

    The sad reality is simple; the consumer market world wide is drying up as North America, Europe, Japan, and Russia steadily age. There are just not enough consumers for everyone. And the US, by far the largest consumer market is approaching a median age of 40 years old. Since 1972, the US has enjoyed only 5 years where its TFR (Total Fertility Rate) was at or above replacement levels. And as we are finding out, illegal immigrants have neither the sustained numbers nor the income to support our economy. If anything, they are a drag. And after one generation, Hispanic fertility rates are no better than Caucasians. For 6 straight years, the US birthrate has been at or below historic levels – last year it sank to 62.5 births per 1000 females.

    The long standing Church teaching against birth control has a long and convincing theological history. But, there is also the economic argument against birth control. Since, neither our bishops or the Vatican are willing to teach and correct Catholics on this issue, it will be the economic ramifications that will provide us some very painful lessons.

  • 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 Vitæ 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?

  • WSquared

    Part of the problem is that those in the Church who back and live “Humanae Vitae” often communicate it as “the Church sez ‘NO,’ darn it, and ‘no’ means ‘no’!”

    A far better tactic might be: “pff! We don’t need no steenkin’ pill!” and to be ready with an explanation as to how enabling “HV” actually is. For one, it’s also not just about sex and birth control, and yet just about everyone, Catholics included, has reduced it to those things. And anyway, why do we need technology to do what we should be doing for ourselves, and which God’s grace actually does make possible? Furthermore, is science to be respected or merely exploited and consumed? Note how many people presume to care about how great science is only because it makes their iPad–or whatever– work or supposedly makes things more convenient for them.

    We also have a culture where most people, religious or not, sort of take it for granted that the only “realistic” options are providentialism or the pill. This is not what the Church teaches, and yet, far too many Catholics are content to thoughtlessly pick up what the culture throws down, whether they lean “conservative” or “liberal,” “traditionalist” or “progressive.” To reduce motherhood to the biological plane is materialism, is contrary to Catholic teaching that man is matter and spirit, and not either/or, and it plays right into the hands of our opponents who assume a separation of the two in the same vein that they assume a separation between faith and reason. Why are we letting them get away with that crap?

    The result is that too many Catholics cannot effectively address any “war on women” rhetoric, when the teachings of their Church’s Magisterium actually CAN: this whole “war on women” rubbish is just asking to be targeted with the writings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI taken together. That we have the same tired discussions on NFP and family size in Catholic circles should be our first clue that we are dropping the ball. Benedict XVI wrote some of the most beautiful words about women– that a woman is not reducible to a merely biological destiny– I have ever read. And yet, Benedict’s words are silenced whenever Catholics reduce almost any and all discussion of Joseph Ratzinger to the liturgy. Ratzinger’s writings on the liturgy meshes coherently with everything else he wrote, and he does not deserve to be truncated.

    A lot of women want to know that they can use their talents and have a family, if that’s what God calls them to, and Catholics should be sending them the message that the Catholic Church gives them every encouragement, and that the Magisterium backs them. “HV” will not stop them in any way, if that’s what they’re afraid of, and it will actually enable them to balance what everybody else tells them is impossible: the examples of St. Gianna Beretta Molla and Dr. Elizabeth Anscombe should’ve told us that working will not bar a woman from canonized sainthood, and a big family will not bar a woman from academic brilliance. How something like that might pan out depends on the woman, and it looks different for everybody. These are women who were born in the 1920s or thereabouts, and they clearly figured out what so many modern American Catholics have not. Besides, how exactly does the pill and abortion make it easier for a woman to balance both work and motherhood, fitting whatever work that God gives her into motherhood, understood both spiritually and biologically? Doesn’t the pill and abortion make it harder, in that it convinces everyone to treat a woman’s fertility as an inconvenience? Shouldn’t any claim to help women help the whole woman? We should be asking those questions more loudly if we aren’t already.

    Obedience to the Magisterium involves a range of right behavior, just as disobedience involves a range of wrong behavior. And American Catholics also shouldn’t just be pointing to rejection of “Humanae Vitae”– not until they are prepared to address Americanism in the same conversation.