Part 4: Indefensible or Indispensable?
Robert Stackpole Answers Your Divine Mercy Questions
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (May 12, 2010)
The following is the fourth part in a series on contraception. We invite you to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
For our final installment on the issue of contraception, I promised to reflect on several prevalent "myths" regarding the alleged social benefits of the widespread availability and use of contraceptives. I will end this series with some words about how the message of Divine Mercy relates to all this. Of course, I realize that in just four short articles I could not possibly answer every question that every one of our readers may have about the Church's teachings on this matter. However, if you will kindly send your unanswered questions and concerns to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I will do my best to fashion a follow-up article in the weeks to come, incorporating as many answers to your questions as I can!
Meanwhile, please excuse the detailed discussion of sexual matters in this present article: there is simply no other way to expose the mythology surrounding this issue without facing some disconcerting facts about human behavior.
Myth #1 : Contraception reduces the number of unwanted children conceived, and therefore reduces the number of abortions.
The truth, however, which seems to be borne out by the statistics available, is that the spread and social acceptance of contraceptive use vastly (even exponentially) increases sexual promiscuity in society, which in turn increases the number of unwanted pregnancies, and therefore may actually increase the number of abortions! As Catholic ethicist Janet Smith observed:
Most abortions are the result of unwanted pregnancies, most unwanted pregnancies are the result of sexual relationships outside of (or prior to) marriage, and most sexual relationships outside of marriage are facilitated by the availability of contraceptives.
It is hard to make a hard and fast statistical case here, because we do not actually know for sure the number of "back-street" abortions that were performed each year in America before contraceptive use became widespread in the 1960s and before abortion was legalized in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision back in 1973. However, given that back-street abortions were both illegal and medically very dangerous, it is extremely unlikely that the number of back-street abortions performed per annum before 1973 came anywhere even close to the number of unborn children legally put to death per year in America since that time. Thus, almost everyone admits that the real abortion rate in America has dramatically increased in the U.S.A. since 1960: but contraception advocates claimed that precisely the opposite would happen!
So, does contraception really reduce the abortion rate? Think of it this way: Suppose in a given small town there were 1,000 annual acts of non-contracepted sexual intercourse per year resulting in 200 unwanted pregnancies and 100 abortions. Then spread contraceptives all over the town: now there may be 3,000 acts of (mostly) contracepted sexual intercourse per year, much of it pre-marital and extra-marital sex; even if, for the sake of argument, the contraceptives employed are working effectively to prevent pregnancy 95 percent of the time (a realistic figure, since the method effectiveness rate of the condom is actually lower than that), you would still have 150 unwanted pregnancies in that town per year and about 75 abortions. In fact, the number of abortions per year probably would be much higher in that town if you factored in that more of the unwanted pregnancies would be the result of an increase in extra-marital sex facilitated by contraceptives (and children conceived out of wedlock are much more likely to be aborted), and the fact that in a sexually promiscuous society people do not always use contraceptives in the heat of passion, or use them properly, especially youths. In fact, young people who use the Pill and think they are effectively contracepting are often in for a surprise. Jason Evert explains (with supporting documentation, p. 160):
For the first year of use for women under the age of twenty, the Pill has an annual failure rate of 8 to 13 percent. One study that followed sexually active teenage girls on the Pill found that 20 percent of them became pregnant within six months!
All of the factors stated above can help us to understand why the spread of contraception since the early 1960s has evidently been accompanied by an increase, not a decrease, in teen pregnancy rate and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases: products of the culture of extra-marital sexual promiscuity ushered in by the social acceptance and spread of contraception (augmented, of course, by promotion of fornication, and the spread of pornography and soft-porn by the media and entertainment industry).
Sadly, the actual abortion rate would be even higher in our hypothetical town if you took into account another factor: the little known fact many contraceptives sometimes act as an abortifacient (in other words, they chemically induce abortions), without their users even knowing it. Catholic theologian Christopher West puts it this way in his book Good News About Sex and Marriage: Answers to your Honest Questions about Catholic Teaching (Servant Books, revised edition, 2004, pp. 127-128):
Many people are unaware that the IUD, the pill, and other hormonal contraceptives such as Depo-Provera and Norplant can at times act not to prevent conception but to abort a newly conceived human being.
Chances are you know someone who got pregnant when on the pill. So obviously the pill doesn't always prevent ovulation. In fact, hormonal contraceptives are believed to have two "backup" mechanisms, should ovulation not be prevented: (1) they prevent sperm from reaching the egg by changing the consistency of the cervical mucus; and (2) they change the lining of the uterus so that a newly conceived child cannot implant in the uterine wall and dies (and it is believed that the IUD works almost exclusively this way). Of course, few doctors are telling their patients this.
In short, there is no evidence that the spread of contraception reduces the abortion rate. Some pro-abortion advocates admit that it actually increases the abortion rate. Jason Evert writes (and documents, p 149):
The research institute of the nation's largest abortion provider admits that most women who receive abortions had been using birth control during the month they became pregnant!... . The sex researcher Alfred Kinsey said, "At the risk of being repetitious, I would remind the group that we have found the highest frequency of induced abortions in the group which, in general,, most frequently used contraceptives." Even the former medical director of Planned Parenthood admitted in 1973: "As people turn to contraception, there will be a rise, not a fall, in the abortion rate."
Why would an actual increase in the abortion rate be caused by the spread of contraception? Perhaps, in part, it is due to the general "contraceptive," "anti-life" mentality that the Church believes is thereby introduced into society. Evert writes (p.149) "Since contraception treats pregnancy as if it were a disease, many people conclude that abortion must be the cure."
An especially insidious aspect of this anti-life mentality is actually hidden in the idea that widespread use of contraception can insure that "every child will be a wanted child," and therefore less likely aborted or abused. On the contrary, the mentality that contraception really fosters in society is that every child should be a planned child, and a planned child is not necessarily an authentically loved child. There is a big difference between the relatively self-centered attitude that turns to a child and says, "I wanted you and loved you right from the start because you fit into my life plans," and the attitude that says, "I wanted you and loved you primarily because you are a child of God and a gift from God — whether you were planned or not! You evidently fit into His plans!" Is it any wonder that a society that generally insists, and tries to insure that every child is a planned child has few qualms about resorting to abortion as a back-up contraception method in order to make sure that unplanned children are not born? And is it any wonder that the same society experiences an evident increase in child abuse when life gets tough, and original "plans" change, and children and their needs no longer neatly fit into those plans?
Myth #2 The spread of condoms (so-called "protected sex") helps prevent the spread of the HIV-AIDS virus.
Indeed, the Catholic Church is sometimes held responsible for the deaths of millions in the Third World from AIDS because it has resisted the spread of "protected sex" in Catholic areas to combat the spread of this terrible disease. But the truth is that because the condom has an especially high failure rate compared with most other forms of contraception, and because the spread of condoms greatly increases sexual promiscuity and facilitates extra-marital sex throughout society, there is no evidence that the widespread distribution of condoms is an especially effective way to block the spread of AIDS. Jason Evert recounts and documents the evidence for us (pp. 199-200):
For over a decade Botswana has relied upon widespread availability of condoms in order to combat AIDS. Campaigns for abstinence and fidelity were not emphasized. Instead, billboards about "safe sex" lined the streets, while schoolchildren learned songs about condoms. According to The Washington Post, "The anti-AIDS partnership between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and drugmaker Merck budgeted $13.5 million for condom promotion — 25 times the amount dedicated to curbing dangerous sexual behavior. But soaring rates of condom use have not brought down high HIV rates. Instead, they rose together, until both were among the highest in Africa. ...
However, there is a clear example of an African nation turning back the epidemic of AIDS by other means. In the late 1980s Uganda was viewed as the worst nation in the world in terms of HIV/AIDS infections. In 1991, 22 percent of people in the country were infected with HIV. By 1999 the number had dropped to 6 percent. Ugandan President Yoweri Musaveni insists that their unique success among African countries is due to their behavioral approach. He said: "In comparison with other countries per capita expenditure on condoms, we spend far below other developing countries, which emphasize the use of condoms in their fight against the disease." Instead of placing their primary emphasis on condoms, they emphasized abstinence and faithfulness first. As a result, they have experienced the greatest decline in HIV in the world. According to the Journal of International Development, it was "the lack of condom promotion during the 1980s and early 1990s [that] contributed to the relative success of behavior change strategies in Uganda." ... Between 1980 and 1995 casual sex in Uganda declined by 65%.
Evert notes that since those early successes, under pressure from foreign AIDS experts Uganda began to rebalance its anti-AIDS strategy more toward the use of condoms, and that as a result, some of that success has been reversed. But it stands to reason that an emphasis on pre-marital chastity and marital faithfulness would have the most dramatically positive results, since it is almost impossible for HIV-AIDS to be sexually transmitted more widely throughout the population when people have only one sexual partner throughout their lifetime. In short, God's plan for marriage and sexuality actually works better than any plans man can devise.
Evert also points out that in the Philippines, a devoutly Catholic country, a very low rate of condom use (about 4 percent) goes hand in hand with a very low rate of HIV infections. He compares it with the approach taken in non-Catholic Thailand (p. 205):
To appreciate the wisdom of the Filipino approach to halting the spread of HIV, contrast their efforts with the "safe sex" program implemented in Thailand. Both countries reported their first case of HIV in 1984. By 1985 there were 135 cases in the Philippines and 112 in Thailand. The World Health organization predicted that by 1999 85,000 people would die of AIDS in the Philippines, and 70,000 in Thailand. In an effort to prevent this tragedy, Thailand enacted a "one hundred percent condom use program" and promoted widespread availability of condoms. Meanwhile, the Filipino government backed the Church's plan to prevent the epidemic. By 2005 Thailand's HIV rate was fifty times as high as the Philippines (580,000 vs. 12,000). ... The British Medical Journal noted that [worldwide] "the greater the percentage of Catholics in any country, the lower the level of HIV." ... In the Philippines over 80 percent of the population is Catholic, and only .03 percent of the population has HIV!
All of this might remind our readers of the huge "flap" in the press last year when the Pope stated to the people of Africa that the use of condoms would not help prevent the spread of AIDS. He was widely pilloried in the secular media for such "ignorant" talk. Meanwhile, he was defended by a non-Catholic senior research scientist at Harvard University, who once summed up the results of his research this way: "Twenty years into the epidemic and there is no evidence that more condoms leads to less AIDS. ... Over a lifetime, it is the number of sexual partners [that matters]. Condom levels are found to be non-determining of HIV infection levels."
Myth #3: The widespread use of contraceptives is necessary in Third World countries to prevent the kind of rapid population growth that causes them to sink ever more deeply into poverty.
It is ironic that some people still have this fear when the spread of contraceptives in First World countries has actually contributed to the opposite problem. An anti-life mentality in North America and especially in Europe, Russia and China, has led to population implosion, not explosion; in other words, the birth rate has fallen below replacement level (that is, below two per couple) resulting in an aging population, and what has been called by social scientists "demographic winter." Thus, there will be fewer and fewer young people in the future economically to support the aging populations of these countries.
Meanwhile, it is simply not true that rising population is the key factor that keeps a country in poverty. It is all too easy for western governments (encouraged by the powerful lobbying of the international drug companies that manufacture and sell contraceptives, of course) to avoid their moral obligations to help their Third World neighbors with fair terms of trade, and significant levels of aid — or at least relief from the crippling burden of debt those poor countries assumed when they were under the rule of communist or right-wing military governments — and tell them, in effect, "It is really your fault that you are so poor, because you have too many babies. So buy our contraceptives and spread them around and all will be well!"
Again, the number of babies being born in a country is actually an inadequate indicator of wealth or of wealth creation potential. Most of the countries that are now First World countries actually became wealthy during periods of their own steady population growth. Among them are countries like Japan and the Netherlands, presently two of the most overcrowded nations in the world! The point is that the economic growth and growth potential of a country depends far more on the type of economic system and resources that they possess: do they have free markets and a free flow of goods and services, or is their country burdened by high taxes, government corruption (bribery and cronyism), and reams of red tape? Do they have natural resources to draw upon, and proper aid and investment from developed nations to enable them to do so? Does their culture encourage hard work and achievement or inhibit it? Add up all such factors, and the key question becomes: are the citizens of the country now, or at least potentially, net producers rather than net consumers? If they are net producers right now, then population growth will actually increase the wealth of the country, not decrease it! If they are potentially so, then that is where the main efforts should be focused, and certainly not on spreading contraceptives, with all the moral, medical, and social problems that come in their wake.
Of course, this is not say that poor countries should not at all be concerned about population growth that proceeds too rapidly, before these other matters can be sorted out. But the ends do not justify the means: as St. Paul once wrote, we must not do evil that good may come of it (Rom 3:8). Families in Third World countries that need to limit the size of children that they have can be taught NFP instead, which costs almost nothing to practice once it is learned, and is in harmony with dignity of the human person and the truth about marriage and sexuality in God's plan in a way that contraception is not.
I remember one time making this argument to a non-Catholic friend of mine, and his reply was priceless: "Oh come off it! If we lived in a Catholic world, instead of two or three children on average per family the world would probably average four or five, and then we really would have a population explosion on our hands!" My reply was simple (I think the Holy Spirit helped me out in an emergency!): "In a devoutly Catholic world, we probably would have four or so children per family, as you say, because being open to a generous number of children is a virtue in the Catholic way of life. But then again, so is celibacy, and in a devoutly Catholic world, of those four or five children per family, I will bet at least one or two will hear the call of our Lord to be a priest, brother, or sister — thus preventing the population bomb you fear from ever really going off. You see, the Lord's plan really does work in the end, so much better than our own techno-utopias!"
A Final Word About Contraception and Divine Mercy
There is nothing in St. Faustina's Diary about this issue because she died well before the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the worldwide spread of contraceptives that accompanied, and to some extent caused it. But can we have any doubts about what the Lord would have said to her about this if she had lived to see that day? After all, what does our merciful Lord intend to do now about a world that almost everywhere totally disobeys His plan for marriage and sexuality, as taught to us in Scripture and Tradition, and by the successors of St. Peter in the See of Rome?
The answer is simple: He intends to have mercy on us, if we will let Him.
As long as we are clutching our own, secular solutions to our family and societal problems, there is precious little He can do for us, and His "tough love" (which is still an expression of His mercy) will permit us to reap the bitter harvest of pride and disobedience. But when we have had enough of feeding on those rotten fruits, that is, living by the Frank Sinatra philosophy ("I did it MY WAY"!"), then His compassionate Heart will receive us back, and enable us to start afresh with forgiveness and grace, so we can finally do it HIS WAY. And this applies to individuals as well as societies. You may have been using contraceptives for many years. In fact, this series of articles may be the first time you have ever heard someone make the case that maybe the Church is right about this matter after all. What can you do? Just go to confession, and pour your heart out to Jesus in repentance and trust. As He promised to Sister Faustina, so it will be for you too: "My Mercy is greater than your sins, and those of the entire world!"
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at email@example.com.