Last week United States health officials released the results of a survey of what some would call "reproductive behaviour", conducted in 2002. The National Survey of Family Growth revealed a striking decline in contraceptive use over the last decade, the New York Times reported. Among sexually active women who said they were not trying to get pregnant, the percentage not using contraception in 2001 increased to 11 per cent from 7 per cent in 1994.
No survey of this type appears to be complete without an income and ethnicity analysis. Reaction has therefore focused on the fact that the trend is most pronounced among women in lower-income brackets, Hispanic and black women, exposing them to "unintended pregnancies" which are often ended by abortion. All the same, non-use of contraception had risen by three percentage points to 10 per cent among women on higher incomes.
Predictably, the trend is causing consternation among birth control advocates, who publicly blame reductions in public funding and privately, perhaps, give vent to exasperation with what they see as the sexual irresponsibility of certain sections of the community. And there are more basic fears. A lengthy essay in the New York Times magazine by Russell Shorto paints a scenario in which the public support of contraception which has been taken for granted in recent decades is reversed by a Catholic-led, conservative Christian revival.
The evangelical revolution
You don’t have to be at the cutting edge of the culture wars to dislike contraception, any more than you need to be poor, brown or irresponsible—a lot of women find reason enough in what it does to their health—but it helps if you are Christian.
Conscientious objection to contraception was, for some decades of last century, an almost exclusively Catholic phenomenon, and for a diminishing number of Catholics at that. But a younger generation of Catholics is proving more open to their Church’s teaching on this matter and they have been joined by a growing number of evangelical Christians. There are several reasons behind this movement: the link between abortion and contraception; damage done to marriage and the family by the sexual revolution; a return to the Biblical sources and Christian history; and the inspirational teaching of the late Pope John Paul II.
For many Christians prior to Roe v Wade, contraception had become the ethically simple matter of swallowing a pill. R Albert Mohler Jr, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in March 2004: "When Pope Paul VI released his famous encyclical outlawing artificial birth control, Humanae Vitae, most evangelicals responded with disregard—perhaps thankful that evangelicals had no pope who could hand down a similar edict."
That attitude changed, Mohler notes, following the Supreme Court decision which created a right to abortion: "The evangelical conscience was awakened in the late 1970s, when the murderous reality of abortion could not be denied." Evangelicals began to line up with Catholics in defence of the unborn, and as they did so they had to confront the fact that some contraceptive methods, including the pill at least some of the time, are abortifacient. They also had to revisit the meaning of marriage as found in the Bible and a history which revealed that no Christian church accepted contraception before 1930, as well as face up to the fact that the pill was behind the collapse of sexual morality.
Among the first to go along this path were Presbyterian theological students Scott Hahn and his wife Kimberley. Involvement in the pro-life movement brought them into contact with Catholics who practiced natural family planning and led them to a thorough study and reflection on the question. The outcome, described in their famous apologia, Rome Sweet Home, was the conviction that the Catholic teaching on contraception was biblical. They changed to natural family planning for a while, and then decided to leave the timing of pregnancies entirely to God, who, incidentally, saw fit to give them six children. Before long they became Catholics.
One thing young couples like the Hahns saw clearly was that contraception in general is anti-child. The collapse of the birth rate in the West during the 1970s was evidence enough of that and plainly at variance with the biblical vision of children as a "blessing from the Lord" and of God’s role in procreation. "Converts" from contraception necessarily embrace the possibility of a large family and their enthusiasm is captured in ministries with names like Quiver-Full.
Theology of the body
Yet there is more to the evangelical rejection of contraception than the Bible’s command to increase and multiply. Behind the notorious Catholic "ban" on contraception both Catholics and other Christians have rediscovered a rich theology of the body first expounded by Pope John Paul II in the early years of his pontificate and gradually being unpacked for the Christian community by enthusiastic scholars.
Kimberley Hahn wrote about it under the title, Life-Giving Love. Evangelical couple Sam and Bethany Torode called their book on the subject, Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception. The central—and at first sight very daring—idea is that the marital embrace open to new life reflects the inner life of the Christian Trinity. This life is one of total self-giving, which is the true meaning of love. Contraception ruins the image of God in marital sex and at the same time wrecks the bodily language of love.
Not all evangelical Christians go this far in their criticism of contraception. At an organizational level, anyway, the tendency is to accommodate contraceptive methods that are not definitely abortifacient. Focus on the Family’s Dr James Dobson, for example, believes there is nothing morally wrong with the prevention of fertilization and he is unconvinced as yet that the pill sometimes acts after fertilization. Albert Mohler takes a similar line and finds the Catholic distinction between "natural" family planning and "artificial" birth control "strange".
All the same, the radical faith implied in doing without contraception (speaking only of married couples, of course) and the degree of intimacy it promises the couple resonates with many young Christians.
Kimberly Zenarolla, director of strategic development for the National Pro-Life Action Centre, describes herself in Shorto’s New York Times piece, as one of "a group pf young professionals who are living the countercultural message of chastity to its fullest expression". A recent convert to Catholicism, she says it was the church’s teaching on contraception that converted her. "We believe that the sexual act is meant to be a complete giving of self. Of course, its purpose is procreation, but the church also affirms the unitive aspect: it brings a couple together, By using contraception, they are not allowing the fullness of their expression of love. To frustrate the procreative potential ends up harming the relationship."
Another indication of how wide the new theology of human love is spreading:Catholic philosopher and teacher Janet Smith recorded a talk, Contraception: Why Not?, some years ago. Over 700,000 copies have been distributed.
Ethics, numbers and the future
So it happens that a sexual ethic considered destined for extinction not so long ago has taken on new life, reshaping not only private lives but the public sphere. Faced with sex education that teaches teenagers how to have sex "safely" with the help of condoms and pills, a new breed of parents and religious leaders have gained official recognition for an abstinence centred education that encourages the young to save sex for marriage.
Confronted with a campaign to "reduce abortions" by making "emergency contraception" (which may cause an early abortion anyway) freely available from pharmacists, they have—successfully so far—urged their political representatives to oppose the move. Pro-life pharmacists are refusing to sell such medication including, in some cases, ordinary contraceptives. Other bioethical issues connected with IVF and research using human embryos are also vigorously debated thanks to a morally sensitized public and some politicians, including the US President, who refuse to leave their ethics at the door of the debating chamber or the Oval Office.
All this worries custodians of the reigning ethic. "Whether it’s emergency contraception, sex education or abortion, anything that might be seen as facilitating sex outside a marital context is what they’d like to see obliterated," complained William Smith, vice president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, to Russel Shorto.
Such worries are really futile. Ultimately in a democracy the success of an ethos depends on the numbers living it. On that basis, as the self-styled "progressive" commentator Phillip Longman keeps pointing out, a more conservative future seems guaranteed.
For, while William Smith and his friends fume about agendas for "putting sex back in the box", they are not reproducing themselves. Those who have liberated themselves from contraception are, on the whole, more than reproducing themselves. It will be interesting to see how the czars of the contraceptive movement get out of this particular box.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet
(1) "Contra-Contraception," by Russell Shorto, New York Times, May 7, 2006.