To be Serious About Contraception

What is a faithful Catholic to do about contraception in a culture awash in them? Are we to make them a political issue, as some kind of prophetic cri du cœur?

Should we launch a campaign to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court decision that made married contraception a constitutional right, or campaign to overturn Eisenstadt v. Baird, which gave singles the same right? Should we make overturning Griswold and Eisenstadt a litmus test for presidential candidates?

And once Griswold and Eisenstadt are overturned we are faced with the formidable task of convincing our fellow Americans that they ought to be banned, as they could be before Eisenstadt and Griswold, though rarely enforced.

Keep in mind that the US has almost the highest use of contraception in the world, only one percentage point behind China where your house gets bulldozed if you have a second child. Our contraception rate is only one percentage point behind that highly motivated society. Keep in mind also we live in a post-Obamacare world where contraception is now free for all paid for by you and by me.

I would put an “Overturn Griswold … and Eisenstadt” bumper sticker on my car. After all they were devilish decisions that not only took away the right of states to say no to contraceptives but also introduced the concept of a general right of privacy into our constitutional language, which was the open door through which abortion officially marched and through which gay marriage might also waltz. Such a bumper sticker might not change anything but it would certainly start a conversation.

And maybe that is the best way we should proceed on this nettlesome issue, by conversation.

How do you talk someone out of her contraceptives? In the Casey decision upholding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court claimed that women had come to order their lives according to having access to abortion. We know this is far from true, given that most women don’t ever have one. But I am not so sure we could make the same claim about contraception. It may very well be that a vast majority of women, including Catholic women, have ordered their lives around it.

So how do you talk someone out of her contraceptives? And going even further, how do you talk them into a ban on contraception altogether?

Do we start with Scripture? Be fruitful and multiply? Do we start with papal encyclicals? Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae? One of the amazing things about Humanae Vitae is how prophetic it was. Paul VI, whom I consider a saint for holding firm on contraception, predicted it all, the bitter sexual caldron that is our contraceptive society.

As we know, however, citing of Scripture and encyclicals are of highly limited value even when talking to Catholics. Catholics, those who know the Church’s teaching and who violate it anyway, will not be much swayed by a reiteration of that teaching.

And while evangelicals may respond to Scripture, they certainly would not respond to encyclicals, and most of them cannot find anything in Scripture against contraception. And going to seculars, citing Scripture and encyclicals would have an impact but only a negative one.

We might think about taking a page or two from the pro-life playbook that has been so successful in changing hearts and minds on abortion these past 40 years or so. What has changed America on abortion more than any other thing has been science and medicine. The persistence of pro-lifers kept the issue alive but things really began to change with rapid development of ultra-sound imaging, and then the partial birth abortion debate.

Two images have seared themselves into American brains.

The image of baby in utero, recognizable as one of us, as one of our family, the first picture of baby put up on the fridge. That is what ultra-sound gave us, a glimpse at someone, not something, who is not a blob of tissue at all.

The other image is that drawing held up by Rick Santorum in the Senate chamber, the baby being drawn out of the birth canal with menacing scissors right there to snip her spinal column. Francis Kissling, longtime head of Catholics for a Free Choice, said the intransigence of the abortion crowd, their dead-end support of that grisly procedure, caused her movement to lose “moderately pro-choice Catholics.”

I cannot imagine a hard case like partial birth abortion that would instantly change people’s minds on contraception. But then, who could have imagined partial birth abortion as a bright line until a clever pro-lifer discovered the procedure, named it, got those drawings made and orchestrated a masterful political takedown that changed millions of hearts and minds.

I do know that we must speak to our fellow citizens in the language they know, a secular voice speaking in the scientific idiom. Better yet, let’s find seculars who agree with us and have them speak.

And say what? That contraception is bad for women and that it destroys marriages? We have the data for both claims. There is a higher divorce rate for couples who use contraceptives than for those who do not.

More than that, can we show that the contraceptive pill has a second hand smoke effect? Does it really affect our water supply when contraceptive women urinate? Are the fish in some rivers really and truly mostly female because of it? You hear that but can we prove it? Let’s get that study done. Your right to contracept ends where my body and the bodies of my children begin. If this could be shown, what vistas of public policy restrictions lie before us? What lawsuits are waiting to the filed? What confidence in the miracle pill shattered, at least for some?

And then there is the issue of the younger generation and their seeming longing for all things natural. There is nothing quite so wonderful and natural than using NFP in order to find and cooperate with your wife’s fertile period. Pumping chemicals into your body to shut down an entire bodily system ought to draw the attention of a Whole Foods woman. Are we really making that case to her? Are we talking to her where she lives? Are we telling that story on college campuses?

Another way to change hearts and minds is by stories. We live in a scientific age but also a confessional age, an age of story. I have in my hand the story of a young woman who collapsed and died from using a contraceptive device called the NuvaRing. The story is told in Vanity Fair—nothing more secular than that—by Marie Brenner, no friend of ours.

An ER doctor asked the dying Erika’s mother Karen “if she used birth control.” Note he did not ask about the NuvaRing but about “birth control.” Are pulmonary embolisms so common in young women that doctors automatically ask about birth control as the cause? If so, then everyone needs to know. Who is telling that story?

And what about infertility? Women who have spent their teens and twenties contracepting may wake up married in their thirties to discover they cannot conceive. They proceed to spend thousands and thousands of dollars hyperovulating to get enough eggs to use IVF and then that fails. Is there a connection between early contraceptive use and later infertility? It makes sense that if one shuts down her reproductive system for years that it might have such an effect. We need to know. Even more, they need to know. Where are the studies?

And last, there is this, which will not be solved by science. It is the abundant lack of generosity now bred deep in the human heart that says no to life. It takes a generous heart to have another child. To some it is easy to have this generosity and to them it does not seem generous, only natural. But for others, once this generosity of spirit is bred out, how do you get it back in? How do you get it back in when you don’t even know it is gone?

The thing is, nothing I have said here is not said by many of us. But what I do not see is a Movement, like the pro-life movement, one that will move this forward, indefatigably, year in and year out, in blistering summer and blasting winter, never to give up. I don’t see that, do you?

One day we may be able to hold politicians to account for contraception. Until then we have an enormous amount of work to do. That is, if we are really serious.

(Photo credit: Paul VI and Cardinal Wojtyla / CNS file photo.)

Austin Ruse

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Austin Ruse is a contributing editor to Crisis Magazine. He is the author, most recently, of No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic (Sophia Institute Press, 2021).

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