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The Contraceptive Imperative

By Kenneth D. Whitehead

You don’t have to go out of your way today to be confronted with the subject of contraception. In November 2012, the United Nations Population Fund issued its annual report entitled “By Choice, Not by Chance,” describing contraception as a global “right” for women, and calling for the removal of all social and financial obstacles to access to its presumed benefits. In the very same month, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists publicly called on the federal government to permit over-the-counter sales of birth control pills.

If you are surprised at the notion of a medical society recommending wider and indiscriminate distribution of powerful drugs without prescriptions or any other controls, you should know that, again in the same month of November, 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics also issued a statement, this one favoring providing children of all ages with so-called “emergency contraception.” This is the term used to describe steroid-based “morning-after” drugs which can prevent a human embryo from implanting in the mother’s womb, and which thus can constitute a form of early abortion. The method is dishonestly labeled “emergency contraception” probably in order to escape criticism from opponents of abortion who do not object to merely “preventive” birth control methods.

Since it is now taken for granted that children today will be initiating sexual activity at younger and younger ages, it is thought that they must urgently be in possession of suitable “protective” means. This is apparently the belief not only of the American Academy of Pediatrics alone; for in December, representatives of some 40 other organizations followed up on the Academy’s November statement by calling on the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to permit the sale of morning-after pills to minors over the counter.

All of these calls for wider and easier distribution of contraception (and abortion-inducing drugs) followed closely upon a national election in which one of the political parties produced campaign ads accusing the other party of conducting a “war on women.” The “war” in question seems to have consisted mostly of supposed efforts to deny to women access to contraception. Prominent in what turned out to be a winning political strategy was the highlighting of a single young woman student at the high-tuition Georgetown Law School, Sandra Fluke, who attained that much talked-about “15 minutes of fame” by complaining that her student health insurance did not provide her free contraceptives in support of her permissive lifestyle.

How this constituted any real problem—when both supermarket and convenience-store shelves today are replete with low-cost condoms and other contraceptive devices, and when both Walmart and Target sell birth control pills for less than 10 dollars a month—how this constituted any problem was not explained, probably because, generally speaking, nobody asked for any explanation.

Those who were particularly identified as conducting the alleged “war on women”—including especially the Catholic bishops of the United States—seemed to consist mostly of those who had publicly declared their opposition to the federal government mandate which the Department of Health and Human Services had put in place the previous January under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.” This HHS mandate required that the health insurance required by Obamacare to be carried henceforth by nearly everybody had to include free coverage of, yes, contraception (and sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs as well). The mandate obviously takes the alleged needs of a Sandra Fluke seriously!

If you live in the United States today, then, you can hardly avoid being almost constantly confronted with the subject of contraception. It’s “in your face,” as the saying goes.


This has not always been the case. Formerly, and up until quite recently, contraception was practically an unmentionable subject. It was not talked about in polite company—or in almost any other kind of company. To acquire any of the then mostly barrier methods of contraception, you had to be of age and to ask the druggist surreptitiously to bring your purchase out from behind the counter. In 1930, Pope Pius XI issued an entire encyclical, Casti Connubii, deploring and morally condemning contraception, though without so much as mentioning the word itself. (This same encyclical also contained one of the strongest defenses of Christian marriage in all the literature of the Church.)

Contraception only came to be frankly and openly discussed with the advent of the birth control “pill” in the 1960s. In fact, a Catholic physician who had been involved in the development of the new oral contraceptives, Dr. John Rock, published a widely ballyhooed book with the provocative title, The Time Has Come. The aim of the book was to convince Catholics that, with the successful development of oral contraceptives, the Church’s ban on birth control would simply have to go. In retrospect, and in the light of what became the practical abandonment of the Church’s teaching against contraception by so many Catholics, the book proved to be quite prescient: The time evidently had come!

As most people are aware, however, the Church’s teaching against contraception was not modified as a result of the development of the birth control pill. It is of some interest that the papal birth control commission that was named by Blessed Pope John XXIII was established in order to determine whether the new oral contraceptives fell under the Church’s long-established prohibition of any artificial interference with the human generative process. Ironically, a majority of the members of the papal birth control commission itself ended up deciding that the Church’s teaching against birth control could and should be dropped. Such was the climate in the early 1960s.

Having anxiously weighed and examined the whole question, however—and, as it happened, also enjoying the assistance of the Holy Spirit—Pope John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, concluded in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, that oral contraceptives did fall under the Church’s prohibition, and that each and every marriage act had to remain open to the transmission of life, as the Church had taught for centuries. The teaching could not be changed because it was true. But in reaching this conclusion not only against the expectations of his own commission, but of practically everybody else in the world, the pope once again never actually mentioned the word “contraception.”

Still, contraception was the issue, and the pope’s decision that the Church’s prohibition of its use had to stand proved to be one of the epochal decisions of our era. It meant that the Catholic Church would continue on her traditional way, although not without considerable dissent and disorder in her own ranks. Statistics soon showed, in fact, that contraceptive practice by Catholics was virtually the same as that by non-Catholics. The Church’s teaching had thus ceased to be heeded by many of the children of the Church. Oddly, many Catholics even seemed to be proud that they no longer followed the teaching of the Church!

More recently, during the 2012 presidential campaign, prominent women such as Melinda Gates and Caroline Kennedy, pointedly self-identifying themselves as “Catholics,” called for the acceptance of contraception before mass-media audiences—as if being Catholic today somehow entailed siding with the world against the Church.

Meanwhile, the world had long since become what we have already seen above: Where in the course of the single month of November, 2012, contraception was declared by the United Nations to be a “women’s right”; where at least two medical societies loudly and publicly favored the distribution of  birth control pills and devices to all and sundry, including children; where a victorious political campaign boasted of its active provision of birth prevention procedures, gaining a majority of women’s votes thereby; where well-known Catholics publicly favored and praised these same procedures; and where the U.S. government deliberately left in place against vigorous Church protests a legal requirement known to be a violation of the religious liberty of the members of America’s largest single religious body.

This, then, is what our world has come to; it is a world exhibiting what we may call “the contraceptive imperative.” Contraception must henceforth be universally accepted and available, gratis, to all. The idea that there might possibly be any objection to it, say, on moral grounds, must be firmly rejected, if not indeed laughed to scorn. It is thought that anyone who might possibly object, say, the Catholic bishops or the Catholic faithful, surely cannot be serious.


In actual and sober fact, however, few voices are being publicly raised today against contraception as such. For more than a generation Catholics have been very reluctant to speak out against it in spite of the Church’s plain teaching about it. Today’s secularists are generally given a free pass to go on touting its claimed benefits while critics remain mostly silent. Those who do venture to say anything against it usually confine their criticisms to its known harmful physical effects, such as the pill’s increased risk of heart disease or cancer, or the greater risk of sexually transmitted diseases for those relying on contraceptives in support of a promiscuous lifestyle. Hardly anybody today ever publicly dares to contend that contraception just might be morally wrong, which is what the Church teaches.

Even in the case of the HHS contraceptive mandate, few feel called upon to argue against contraception as such. Rather, most people (including most Catholic bishops), primarily stress that the mandate is a violation of the religious liberty of Catholics. Many even go so far as to assert that “it’s not about contraception.” Of course, it is a violation of the religious liberty of Catholics; and it must indeed be opposed on that basis, as the Church rightly is opposing it. But it also is about contraception. It represents a government attempt to impose the contraceptive imperative on the entire country, as Pope Paul VI warned in Humanae Vitae, and it must be opposed for that reason as well.

For the Church has not ceased to teach that contraception is morally wrong. This was once the teaching of all of Christianity. It remained in place virtually universally for centuries until, in 1929, the Church of England broke ranks and allowed its use in “hard cases”—a shift that was followed with unseemly haste in the next few years by nearly all organized Christian bodies (with the notable exception of the Catholic Church).

Soon contraception came to be allowed nearly everywhere, not just in hard cases but in all cases. This was bound to happen, for if contraception is not somehow intrinsically wrong (and hence might legitimately be employed in hard cases), why not in all cases? It follows. The Catholic Church virtually alone proved unable to accede to this logic. The great 1930 encyclical, Casti Connubii, was the answer of Pope Pius XI and the Catholic Church to the general abandonment nearly everywhere of the traditional teaching that had previously obtained universally within Christianity.

In Humanae Vitae, besides warning about the kind of government coercion which has come about with the HHS mandate, Pope Paul VI also predicted an increase “in conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality” and a loss of respect for women—consequences which leap to the eye in such cases as today’s marriage break-ups or “hook-up culture.” As the original enabler of the sexual revolution generally, contraception is responsible for these consequences.

So isn’t it about time that Catholics got beyond today’s almost ritual disclaimer in the case of the HHS mandate that “it’s not about contraception”? How much worse does it have to get before some people finally begin to notice that it is bad? The whole issue is about contraception as much as it is about religious liberty, and we need to summon up the courage to say this plainly.

It is time that the contraceptive imperative got branded as the grave menace to any civilized and moral society that it manifestly is.

Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. His most recent book is Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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