50th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae: What Has Changed?

Since Pope Blessed Paul VI published his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) on birth control in 1968, almost everything has changed.

The world has gone from the sexual revolution to the hook-up culture. Europe, Russia, and China give birth to so few babies that experts now call this population implosion a "demographic winter." Pornography has spread through the Internet. Families are falling apart or never form at all. In the United States, less than a third of children now grow up with married biological parents under the same roof.

What does all this have to do with Humanae Vitae? Several things seem clear enough.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when the birth control pill and other forms of contraception became socially acceptable, their advocates hailed them as the magic solution to a whole host of social problems. They argued that contraception would lead to a decrease in sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy. They argued that abortion and child abuse would become rare - because "every child would be a wanted child." Birth control, they argued, would reduce marital stress caused by too many children, and thus reduce the divorce rate. Contraception would also lead to greater respect for women, who could now take control of their bodies and no longer be seen as mere "baby-making machines." Women finally could have fulfilling careers, uninterrupted by the "slavery" of child-bearing and child-rearing.

Pope Paul VI, however, predicted that the new contraceptive culture would have precisely the opposite effects, including a sharp increase in divorce, abortion, and pornography.

The effects on divorce were, perhaps, the easiest to predict. With the spread of contraceptives came the sexual revolution and a vast increase in promiscuity, especially pre-marital and extra-marital promiscuity. Contraception made extramarital affairs less "risky," and more extramarital affairs inevitably leads to more divorces. Incidentally, research shows that those who engage in premarital intercourse have a 50-70 percent greater likelihood of ending up divorced than those who practice premarital chastity.

Within marriage itself, contraception reduced the birthrate in most families in the western world to fewer than two children per couple. Research shows that the fewer children in a family, the greater the statistical likelihood of that family suffering a divorce. One reason for this is that couples with more children tend to work extra hard to make their marriages work, if only for the sake of their children.

Finally, contraception has proven itself an alienating factor for married couples. Instead of being bound in unconditional love - offering themselves as self-gifts to their spouses - couples who use contraception protect themselves from their own fertility. Pope St. John Paul II famously called this "the body-language of a lie."

In all these ways, contraception became a major contributing factor to marital breakdown in the developed world. The social decay we see all around us (crime, drugs, child abuse, etc.) stems, in large part, from this breakdown in the family.

Some argue that contraceptives negate the need for abortion. But that's not true for several reasons. The first: because contraception fails more often than people think. The condom is only about 93 percent effective. For the first year of use for young women under the age of 20, the pill has an annual failure rate of 8-13 percent (one study has it at more than 20 percent for teenage girls).

Secondly, the effects of contraceptive failure are magnified by the exponential rise in sexual promiscuity brought on by contraceptives. Moreover, some forms of contraception act as hidden abortifacients (that is, they chemically induce abortions, with or without their users' knowledge). That said, it's no wonder we lack statistical evidence to support the notion that increased contraception use leads to a reduced abortion rate.

In short, since the explosion in the use of contraceptives in the 1960s, we haven't seen a decline in the rates of divorce, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, child abuse, and pornography, as the advocates of contraception so confidently predicted. On the contrary, the rates of all of these social ills have risen, in some cases dramatically.

Who then were the true social prophets at the start of this mess back in the 1960s: the contraception advocates, or the Vicar of Christ?

As for women and their career opportunities: Paul VI did not teach that every married woman must have as many children as possible and thereby limit themselves to a life of childcare. Families have legitimate reasons for limiting the number of children, and the Church does not oppose "responsible parenthood." Married couples can take moral steps to avoid having more children for whom they can reasonably care. Natural Family Planning can achieve the same end - limiting the number of children conceived by a married couple in difficult circumstances - without any of the moral, medical, and social ills endemic to artificial birth control.

For his teachings on contraception in Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI was widely denounced and ridiculed, especially by western academic elites. Turns out, 50 years later, he was right all along.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers.

He was right
In section 17 of Humanae Vitae, Pope Blessed Paul VI made the following controversial predictions of what would happen in society as a result of widespread contraceptive use:

1) An increase in marital infidelity.
2) A general lowering of moral standards.
3) A loss of respect for women. (Man would "reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.")
4) Governments would coerce people into using contraception and intervene in citizens' sexual relationships.


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