On Sunday our nation celebrated Mother’s Day. It’s highly fitting that we stop, at least one day a year, to express our gratitude to and for our mothers, because so often so many children can take their mothers for granted the rest of the year. It’s also a day to contemplate the inestimable good of motherhood, which is always less appreciated than individual mothers.
Ironically and sadly, this year’s celebration of Mother’s Day took place on the fiftieth anniversary of what is the very antithesis of motherhood, the birth control pill, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for sale on May 9, 1960. Despite attempts by certain feminist groups to rejoice over the first half-century of the pill, this jubilee is one of false gold, for women and for all of society.
Back in 1960, it was noted that Enovid, the name under which this oral contraceptive was then marketed, was the first medicine ever invented to be prescribed regularly to people who were not otherwise ill. But that was only partially true, because the pill precisely treats pregnancy as a sickness and therefore motherhood as an evil to be medically prevented.
At its deepest level, the pill facilitated a revolution in the self-understanding of many women, as they severed the maternal meaning of their existence (and not just their bodies) from their femininity, and did so in particular in the very act by which that maternal meaning is most powerfully and naturally expressed. This is a false feminism, really an anti-feminism, one that is exposed in all its misogyny when placed in the context of Mother’s Day. The cause of women is not advanced by seeking to eliminate the maternal meaning of a woman’s existence, but by rejoicing in it, promoting it as a true good, and working to transform society to see motherhood — and the children by whom motherhood is relationally constituted— as a blessing, not a curse.
The pill harmfully alters not only a woman’s self-understanding, but also the meaning of sexual relations, and does so in a way that does further damage to the woman. The deepest meaning of sexual relations is that it is a mutual exchange of total self-gifts expressed in body language. A man and a woman, totally committed to each other not just ephemerally but for the rest of their lives, become one flesh in a loving union that far exceeds physical contact, but is open to a permanent one-flesh union in a child, who is a tangible fruit of the love they have for each other and a means by which that love grows. The pill, like all contraceptives, by seeking to prevent this permanent one-flesh union, also hinders the ability of sexual relations to “make” or produce any real love at all.
Contraceptive sex essentially makes mutual pleasure — which has always been a divinely-intended fruit of love-making — the fundamental purpose of sexual relations, instead of love and life. When that occurs, spouses (and non-spouses) basically begin to use each other, and each other’s bodies, for pleasure. This behavior will eventually corrode whatever genuine love may be present, for using another as a means to one’s own gratification is the opposite of love, which involves willingly sacrificing oneself and one’s pleasure for the other’s true good. In changing the meaning of sexual relations, the pill has hurt women and facilitated their becoming “sex objects” to be used — used not just by sweet talking lustful trophy hunters or by boyfriends desiring pseudo-one-flesh union before committing to the one-flesh union of marriage, but also by their husbands. Hedonistic sex hurts both women and men, married and unmarried, but it disproportionately makes women suffer, since men are more prone to treating others as objects. The pill makes it easier for the man to succumb to this temptation to hedonistic sex. Unlike the condom — which is a tangible reminder to a man of his putting a barrier not only between him and the woman, but also between sex and the maternal meaning of her femininity and the paternal meaning of his own masculinity — the pill and all its derivatives, because of their hidden mechanism in the woman’s body, can seduce the man into thinking that there’s nothing fundamentally awry, unnatural or wrong in what he’s doing. It facilitates his becoming a luster rather than a true lover, a taker or consumer of the woman rather than a self-giver. Every honest woman must recognize that this is not good for women.
When the pill was released in 1960, there was initial confusion in Catholic circles as to whether its use was moral. Unlike physical prophylactics (condoms or animal-skin sheaths), oral or vaginal spermicides, or even withdrawal — all of which had been condemned by the Church from the first centuries — many wondered whether the mechanism of the pill (preventing ovulation and extending the woman’s “infertile” period indefinitely) would give it a different moral quality. It took eight years for the Church to examine and debate the morality of the pill, but in 1968, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, taught definitively that the use of the pill as a contraceptive by married couples is sinful in every case, because, like all contraceptives, it separates the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act.
In that encyclical Paul VI prophesied that if the use of the pill became widespread — in 1968, it was still restricted to married couples, and its use was not yet all that extensive — it would have disastrous consequences. He specified four, which are very important for us to look at retrospectively, especially as they affect women.
The first was that it would facilitate conjugal infidelity, because now husbands and wives could cheat with a much lesser fear of the consequence of conceiving a child out of wedlock. The statistics since then have shown both that adultery has skyrocketed and that husbands cheat at a far worse rate than wives. This has clearly taken a severe toll on women as individuals, spouses and mothers, and destroyed many families as well.
The second prediction was that there would be a general lowering of sexual morality as a result of the pill. How can anyone dispute that this has occurred? Unlike the condom, which always has a notable failure rate not to mention non-use rate in the heat of passion, the pill made sex without fear of conceiving children more realistic for all those outside of marriage, even for precocious pre-teens. The pill changed the culture of sexuality far more than the condom and has served the interest, fundamentally, of immature boys (chronologically or psychologically) who are desirous of sex but not interested in responsibility for a woman and children. Women have been disproportionately hurt again.
Third, Paul VI foresaw a loss of respect for women. “It is also to be feared,” he wrote, “that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” So many marriages suffer precisely because the husband treats his wife as such an instrument; this has only grown with the possibility of his having sex solely for pleasure without openness to love and life.
Finally, the pope anticipated that the pill would be a dangerous weapon in the hands of those in authority. In this, he has proven right again. Beyond the forced sterilization policies of some nations and other countries’ mandating that female Olympians be on the pill if they wish to compete, many business authorities also have an implicit policy in favor of the pill. Some of the pill’s greatest defenders say that it has enabled women to achieve far greater advances in education and in the professions than they ever would have had prior to the pill, when a pregnancy might have interrupted their upward trajectory. Greater educational and work opportunities for women are indisputably good, but these goods have come at too hefty a cost. Rather than transforming educational and professional establishments to be more welcoming of the intrinsic maternal identity of adult women, the widespread use of the pill has basically set up a situation in which women who want to get ahead are basically compelled to use the pill and sacrifice motherhood (or sacrifice marriage and sexual relations altogether) in order to compete with their pill-popping female colleagues. At the level of their spiritual life, such “victories” are also clearly and obviously pyrrhic: Jesus once said that it’s not worth it to gain the whole world and lose one’s soul in the process (Mt 16:26); some pill-using women have tragically been sacrificing their souls not for the whole world, but for an academic suffix or new job title.
Women clearly deserve better. The last fifty years have shown that the pill is not a panacea, but a poison. The question for us is: in a culture that’s more addicted to sex than junkies are enslaved to narcotics, and where the sex addicts and pushers dominate much of television, the internet, public school health curricula and university student life offices, will we — women and men both — have the courage and insight to admit that we have a problem, stop taking the pills and get help for the underlying addiction? Will our culture recover, all 365 days of the year, a true respect for women and for motherhood, without which it cannot thrive or long survive?