Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
May 24, 2010
The pill broke its many promises
Fifty Years ago, scientists heralded this chemical birth control as keeping women from being slaves to biology
NANCY FRAZIER O'BRIEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
Fifty years ago this May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave its approval for the use of a combination of the hormones progesterone and estrogen that the pharmaceutical company Searle said would prevent pregnancy 99.7 per cent of the time.
Known simply as "the pill," it was a development that was heralded as the liberation of women from male domination that would lead to fewer divorces and a steep decline in the number of unwanted pregnancies and in the number of abortions.
But statistics show just the opposite.
"It's very easy to find summaries from that time of everything that was promised," said Helen Alvare, an associate professor of law at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Va.
"There would be greater equality for women; they would no longer be essentially slaves to their biology," she added. "(The pill) was supposed to reduce unwanted births and the number of people looking for abortions and to increase the well-being of children, because only wanted children would be born."
But it didn't turn out that way.
In a talk called Contraception: Why Not? that has been reprinted or downloaded more than a million times since it was first delivered in 1994, moral theologian Janet Smith said "it was not a stupid expectation" in the 1960s "that contraceptives would make for better marriages, fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer abortions."
"But I think the cultural evidence today shows absolutely the contrary," added Smith, now a professor of moral theology who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney chair in life ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Plenty of statistics prove her point:
By the mid-2000s, one-third of white births, 70 per cent of black births and half of Hispanic births were to unwed mothers.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy says more than three million of the 6.4 million pregnancies in the United States annually are unplanned; about 1.2 million of those result in abortions each year.
The Guttmacher Institute says about 54 per cent of women who have abortions used a method of contraception during the month they became pregnant.
The belief persists, however, that the pill has had a positive influence on the lives of children, families and especially women. Fifty-six per cent of respondents to a CBS News poll in early May said they thought the pill had improved women's lives, although men (59 per cent) thought so more than women (54 per cent) did.
Half of the respondents also thought the birth control pill had improved American family life, but opinions differed widely depending on the respondents' religion. Only 38 per cent of Catholics and 41 per cent of white evangelicals thought the pill had improved family life, but 52 per cent of mainline Protestants thought so.
Alvare, who served for many years as the U.S. bishops' chief pro-life spokeswoman, believes that the achievements women have made toward obtaining equal treatment with men have "nothing to do with the chemicals they've swallowed."
Even though women today might have "access to places and positions that once belonged to men," that "isn't a full measure of women's equality and dignity," she added.
"They are now in all the places where men were, but they have never been seen more as sex objects than they are now."
PILL DESTROYS LOVE'S PACKAGE
The major disconnect caused by the arrival of the pill has been a loss of "the idea that men and women make babies," Alvare said. "In any literature today about sex, it seems that unprotected sex makes babies" or even that technology can make babies apart from any human connection.
"That whole package of love, the intimate sharing of life was broken apart by the pill," she said.
And as technological advances in artificial reproduction are made, "the idea that God plays a role in procreation" is lost in favour of the idea that "technology does or the failure to use it does," she added.
The Catholic Church's teaching that artificial birth control is morally wrong was reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1968 in the encyclical Humane Vitae (Of Human Life).
Writing recently in a blog for the National Post, Canadian writer Barbara Kay said the pill "coincided with, and arguably caused, the greatest paradigm shift in relations between the sexes in all of human history."
In the 50 years since its arrival, Kay said, "we have hardly even begun to take an honest cultural measure of what has been gained and what has been lost in the transition."
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