Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"The Pill" --and a World Gone Upside Down

Paul VI--the Pope who decided
against the Pill in his encyclical
letter, Humanae Vitae
Someone recently brought to my attention an essay on “how the Pill changed everythying.”  George Weigel was the essay’s author but at first I could not remember that and so I googled  “the pill changed everything.”  Lots of articles came up, most in praise of the Pill and its changes to better the lives of women.  Weigel’s article was not so generous in its laudatory remarks about contraceptive pharmaceuticals.  I personally have mixed feelings about the effects of the Pill, but my primary purpose as a historian is to note them and let the reader make his or her own judgments.  That is not to say that I am objective—no one is every truly objective and every historian has his or her bias, especially on an time as crucial to our modern world as the Pill.  We need to be aware of our biases and to try to be as transparent about them as we can—or at least to let our readers be aware of them so that the reader can compensate in making his or her evaluation.
      Ironically the main scientist in developing “the pill” was John Rock, a Catholic obstetrician and gynecologist.  Rock wanted to develop a method of contraception that worked within the Catholic Church’s concept of using the natural fertility/infertility cycle so that women could make a choice in becoming pregnant while remaining sexually active.  To be honest, Rock had always pushed the boundaries in regard to birth control.  Actually, as a scientist and academic (he was a professor at Harvard) he did not support Church teaching on contraception.  As early as 1931 he signed a petition advocating the legalization of birth control (which at that time was illegal in Massacusetts) and in 1949 he co-authored a book teaching methods of contraception.  Moreover he was a pioneer in the fields of freezing sperm and of in vitro fertilization.  He was, however, a practicing Catholic, he had founded a clinic to teach the rhythm method, and he attended Mass and received the sacraments regularly.  His motivation in developing the Pill was to make available a means of contraception that worked within the boundaries of Catholic moral teaching—i.e. a “natural” method, a method that employed the feminine fertility cycle to cause or avoid pregnancy.  
     Well, the Pill did cause a stir when it first became available in the’60’s and the Church had to consider it independently of previous papal teaching which condemned contraception that did not follow “natural” methods.  The Pill, with its interdependency on the ovulation cycle, was a complex issue that had not been anticipated by previous papal teaching.   Shortly before his death, Pope John XXIII convoked a commission to study the issue.  Paul VI enlarged this commission to 58 members, including married persons, men and women, in addition to scientists, theologians and bishops.  That alone was a remarkable choice—not for centuries had laity been given such a significant voice in developing Church doctrine.  In 1966 the commission issued its report to the Pope suggesting that hormonal contraceptives might be acceptable.  A minority of the commission who disagreed issued a report forwarding a contrary argument.  In the end, Paul VI went with the minority report. 
     I am not anxious in this entry to write about Humanae Vitae. We will do that at some other time.  What I am writing about is the Pill.  Even though the Pill was rejected by the official levels of the Catholic Church, it has been embraced by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  All studies show that at least in the developed world there is no substantial difference in the percentage of Catholics who use the Pill (or now other means of contraception) than in the general population.  But contraception is only part of the consequences of the Pill.
     The Pill became the occasion where Catholics began making their own decisions regarding everyday questions in their lives rather than unquestioningly following Church authority.  I don’t think it was just the Pill.  There were other questions of the day in which many rank and file Catholics were not willing to follow the lead of the hierarchy but were starting to think for themselves.  The Church’s embracing of a fairly radical “social justice” agenda in the 1960’s put the hierarchy ahead of the average American lay Catholic when it came down to questions of economic justice, peace, and even civil rights.  As Catholics climbed into the ranks of the professions and rose into economic and political power, their opinions became quite independent of the magisterium.  Even today on questions of distributive justice or of the death penalty most American Catholics reject Church teaching  
      But even more serious than encouraging Catholics to think independently of the Church’s magisterium, the Pill has broken the connection between sex and reproduction and this has made us redefine the purposes of sex.  This affects not only questions of family planning, but of the very nature of sexual relationships. Americans—and probably most people in the developed world, no longer acknowledge that there is an inherent connection between sexual intimacy and reproduction/ family life.  This works various ways.  With sex and reproduction no longer two sides of the same coin we are not only very open to in vitro fertilizaiton or even surrogate parenthood, but genetic engineering.  At the same time that we are willing to create life by design, we have lost our scruples about destroying life that is somehow or other defective or even superfluous.  And then, since we have changed the nature of sexual relations from essentially reproductive to purely recreational, we are far more encouraging of non-committed sexual relationships.  We now find that the majority of American households are “non-Traditional” and in this we are “behind” Europe.   Only a generation ago the heir to the British throne had to marry a woman who had no previous sexual experience.  That same heir’s son was able to live with his fiancée before their marriage without any social stigma.  But then the Brits have always been loony.  More to the point, here in America there is no social stigma whatsoever to a couple’s living together before marriage and the attempts of some clergy to require couples to live apart for six months before the wedding leads only to deceit and ridicule.  And then there is the issue of same-sex couples and—since sexual intimacy is no longer linked to reproduction—why not?  
     Traditional Christian morality has been turned upside down by “the Pill.”  Now, despite the tone of the above paragraph, I am not sure this is all bad. That is not to say that I agree with the new morality—because I don’t.  It isn’t morality at all. It is just making one’s life choices without much moral reflection.  But the situation invites us to construct a moral framework from the ground up.  In fact, the situaiton not only invites us to give serious thought to today’s complex questions and to build anew a moral framework on the foundation of the Gospels, but it requires us to do so.  The old answers aren’t working.  It doesn’t mean that the new answers will be all that different, only that they must be rethought and expressed in ways that are consistent with the modern sciences—both the physiological and social sciences—if the Gospel is to have credence in our contemporary world. 

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