Humanae Vitae in Light of the War Against Female Fertility

It is startling for those living in a society that so relies on contraception to learn that, for nearly two millennia, every Christian denomination prohibited the use of contraception, even within marriage. This common front first cracked in 1930 when, at the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Church made a limited exception for the use of contraceptives by husband and wife.[1] Within the half-century that followed, the pro-contraception view mutated from an anomalous exception into the dominant strain of conventional opinion.

Accordingly, dissent from the Catholic Church’s prohibition of contraception is common coin, even (or perhaps especially) among Catholic theologians. Stephen Pope, a Boston College theologian, told a television reporter, “I would say the encyclical [Humanae vitae, affirming the Church’s teaching on contraception] was one of the worst things that happened to the Catholic Church in the twentieth century.”[2] In fact, it is easier to find a theologian who dissents from this teaching than to find one who agrees. Such birth-control boosterism is especially predominant among theologians who matured in the hothouse of dissent in the 1960's, 70's, and 80's. I call these “old-school theologians,” in contrast with those (usually younger) theologians who embrace Church tradition as expressed by contemporary, post-conciliar papal teaching. It might even be argued that the average Catholic young adult appreciates the Church’s teaching on sexuality, marriage, and “the theology of the body” more deeply than does the average Catholic theologian.[3]

Many points are pressed by old-school Catholic theologians against Church teaching, some of them taken straight out of the secular feminist, anti-Catholic handbook. First, to reject contraception is to indulge in anti-woman bias. Thus, Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar, insists that the Church’s teaching on contraception must reflect a “pervasive sexism.”[4] In other words, the Church forbids contraception because she just does not like women that much; whatever recent encyclicals make explicitly clear, these theologians (and anti-Catholic feminists) believe that the Church does not respect women’s freedom or equality. If she did, she would obviously allow women to contracept.

Second, these theologians argue that the Church narrowly focuses on the physical act of sex itself (claiming “physicalism”) and neglects to attend to the attitudes present in the relationship as a whole, such as a couple’s “general” openness to children. The old school holds that the Church should overlook what happens in individual acts of sexual intercourse and instead focus on what they take to be “good [for] the relationship [as a whole].”[5]

In addition, there is the cliché that the Church is simply “against” sex. The old-school theologians assert that the Church and the celibate males making up her hierarchy are deeply suspicious of sexual pleasure and the hearty enjoyment of it by married couples. Complaining about Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” Johnson writes, “I would welcome from the pope some appreciation for the goodness of sexual pleasure—any bodily pleasure, come to think of it!”[6] Rosemary Radford Ruether goes so far as to make the upside-down charge that the Church’s alleged negativity concerning sexual pleasure is the cause of pornography.[7]

Lastly, many theologians agitate for Church endorsement of contraception simply because a majority of Catholics (in the white, wealthy populations of Europe and the U.S.) state that they approve of contraception, in percentages roughly similar to non-Catholics.[8] Those who cite this fact generally do not go on to make the explicit argument that might (or, at least, superior numbers among bourgeois sectors of the world) makes right. Perhaps a straightforward assertion of this strategy of Church-governance-by-poll-numbers might strike too many Catholics outside the individualistic West as being incompatible with larger truths about what it means to be Catholic.

In truth, it is not the Church that maintains an anti-woman, anti-sex bias. Rather, the Church is the incomparable witness to the dignity of women, as well as to the full reality of sex. I will show this by providing the too-often absent historical context for the debate about contraception, as well as offer data regarding the damaging effects of contraceptives. I will then elucidate the reasoning behind the Church’s teaching. We will see that the pro-contraception attitudes that most contemporary people have internalized are not eternal truths. Rather, as with any ideology, these conventional attitudes have a history. The happiness of women and girls, indeed of all society, depends on a critical evaluation of these attitudes.

The contraceptive mindset cannot avoid scapegoating women’s bodies as the cause of both personal and societal problems. By contrast, the Church, with critical and prophetic clarity, points out that it is selfish desire, not the female body, that is the source of our problems. It is only this latter approach that presents viable ways of actually meeting the real challenge of female oppression.

The Mindset of the Original Birth Controllers

Much of the theological debate surrounding contraception takes place in a breathtaking vacuum of historical ignorance. While the story of explosive dissent over contraception has been told many times, it is usually framed in parochially Catholic terms: Pope John XXIII convened a commission to study birth control, and its advisory report to Pope Paul VI was leaked in 1967. The majority of the commission voted to change the Church’s teaching on contraception, making its case in the “Majority Report,” as well as in a rebuttal to the commission’s minority paper (the “Majority Rebuttal”). The Pope rejected the majority’s recommendations and issued Humanae vitae (“On Human Life”) in 1968, which reaffirmed traditional teaching but unleashed a firestorm of protest and dissent.[9]

What is missing from this account is the larger historical context: why was there such a revolution in elite and public opinion about birth control, and what initiated it? The Catholic debate would not have been possible if it were not for the widespread reexamination of the morality of birth control in America beginning in the 1920's.

In order to understand this history of contraception, necessary for a critical appraisal of the now-dominant contraceptive ideology, one must understand Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), the American birth-control pioneer.[10] Sanger was a committed Neo-Malthusian. The Neo-Malthusian movement followed the now-discredited population theories of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who erroneously argued that population growth would inevitably outpace food production. The “neo” part of the movement involved promoting population control not through sexual abstinence, for which Malthus had argued, but through contraception. Neo-Malthusians were also eugenicists. Eugenics is the belief that some people (the “unfit”) are genetically inferior and should not perpetuate their “subpar” genes by having children. Opinion varies about who counts as “unfit”: for example, the Nazis insisted that Jews were unfit, while others (such as Sanger) never evinced anti-Semitism. But all eugenicists agree on three categories of “unfitness”: the poor, the physically disabled, the non-white, and the mentally or intellectually disabled. Neo-Malthusians tied together Malthus’s population control with eugenics. One of the Neo-Malthusian eugenic slogans was “Quality, not quantity”—that is, eugenic quality, not population quantity.

Sanger developed a worldview that I call the “ideology of control,” which promoted three types of control: birth control, population control, and eugenic control. All of these were put in service of Sanger’s other passion, an untrammeled pursuit of sexual pleasure. Sanger insisted that women would be liberated through a free-ranging sex life coincident with eugenically limited reproduction. She was not the only, or even the first, person to link these concerns, but she was the most important because she institutionalized them in her powerful organizations.[11] She founded America’s first birth-control clinic in 1916, the earliest incarnation of the organization now called the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The extent to which eugenic control conjoined with sexual libertinism prompted Sanger’s promotion of birth control is seen in her 1920 book, Woman and the New Race. Its opening line declares: “The most far-reaching social development of modern times is the revolt of woman against sex servitude.”[12] This “sex servitude” is the biological slavery of women to their reproductive systems.[13] Moreover, “involuntary motherhood” was bad not just for individual women but for the whole world. As a good Neo-Malthusian, Sanger saw the single greatest cause of society’s ills—tyranny, war, famine, injustice—to be the fertility of women, which leads to over-population.[14] If over-population is the world’s central problem, birth control becomes the central solution, one that also leads women to a new freedom. (And Sanger’s concern wasn’t some generic over-population; it was the over-production of the “unfit”: Sanger claimed that “birth control was nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.”[15])

Let us be precise: what oppresses women, according to Margaret Sanger? Misogynist attitudes or social structures? The lack of basic civic rights, such as the right to vote? No, the answer is much simpler and more chilling: the female body. Thus Sanger places the blame for female oppression squarely on . . . women themselves.

Sanger’s equation of contracepted sex with freedom and world progress has an even darker and harder side to it. Sanger uses the language of freedom (“voluntary motherhood”), yet her ideology of control assumes that free choice in reproduction extends only one way, namely, to the choice against children. Woman and the New Race makes explicit the limits of Sanger’s support for freedom. “As [woman] has unconsciously and ignorantly brought about social disaster, so must and will she consciously and intelligently undo that disaster and create a new and a better order. The task is hers. It cannot be avoided by excuses, nor can it be delegated.”[16]

In fact, Sanger called the use of contraception by women a “duty.” Through birth control, she argued, women would free themselves from “sex slavery” and prevent society from having to bear the burdens of their children. They owed it to society.[17] Sanger insisted that it was not enough to reform society in other ways; political or social reforms were mere “palliatives” compared to the fundamental duty of women to use birth control for their and society’s well-being.[18]

It is illuminating to compare Sanger’s ideas about what oppresses women with its main rival theory, against which Sanger subtly argues in Woman and the New Race. At Sanger’s time, there was already a well-established feminist movement in America. This movement began in the middle of the nineteenth century and had a much broader agenda than Sanger’s. Its main program was the pursuit of female suffrage. It was not diverted by interest in sexual “liberation.” Unlike Sanger’s cramped focus on contraception and sex, the suffragette movement embraced a variety of issues, such as the education of women, property rights, and divorce law.[19] In fact, few feminists in Sanger’s day supported contraception. Even a free-love feminist such as Tennessee Claflin would write that the “washes, teas, tonics and various sorts of appliances known to the initiated [were a] standing reproach upon, and a permanent indictment against, American women . . . No woman should ever hold sexual relations with any man from the possible consequences of which she might desire to escape.”[20] In Woman and the New Race, Sanger condemns the efforts of the suffragette movement as mere window-dressing hiding the more fundamental problem: female fertility and its negative effects.

Sanger’s views may not seem very startling to twenty-first century readers. After all, women have internalized the now-dominant message that their biology enslaves them. In fact, contraception and abortion have been made synonymous with “reproductive health.” For example, Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara has deplored the Catholic prohibition of contraception, saying, “It is impossible to [have] reproductive health if you don’t allow [condoms and birth control].”[21]

But “reproductive health” ought to refer to having a healthy reproductive system. Healthy reproductive systems are fertile. When disease or injury disrupts the functioning of a woman’s reproductive system, she goes to a doctor to restore it—unless, that is, the disruption is deliberately caused through birth control. Then the disruption is viewed as furthering her “reproductive health.” Archbishop Charles Chaput spells out the underlying logic: “At the heart of contraception, however, is the assumption that fertility is an infection that must be attacked and controlled, exactly as antibiotics attack bacteria.”[22]

Indeed, we usually take pills when we are sick, not when we are healthy. Contraception must be the only case in which a person takes a pill solely in order to thwart the natural purpose of a bodily system, all in the name of “health.” The practice indicates that we have bought Sanger’s line: reproduction is fundamentally unhealthy, both for women and for society. Ardent feminist Germaine Greer fears this war against the female body: “More and more it seems that women themselves are coming to regard their wombs as a burden they have been lumbered with on behalf of the race . . . If men flee the female, we will survive, but if women themselves treat femaleness as a disease we are lost indeed.”[23]

At War with Fertility

If the world’s problems are caused by female fertility, then governments have a right and even an obligation to encourage, or coerce, women to limit their reproduction.[24] As we have seen, Sanger’s conjuring of a female “duty” to prevent over-population was an implicit rejection of the basic human freedom to bear as many children as one desires. She would be more explicit elsewhere: “Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.”[25] Among these “drastic and Spartan methods” was forced eugenic sterilization, legalized nationwide by the Buck v. Bell case of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927.[26] Buck v. Bell caused the forced sterilization of over 60,000 Americans.[27]

There are more recent expressions of this coercive mentality. Beginning in the 1970's, the population-control movement popularized the fertility-as-disease equation. Warren Hern, an influential population-control activist and late-term abortionist, asked, “Is pregnancy really normal?” In 1993, he theorized that human population growth was “carcinogenic.”[28] A similar mindset can be seen in research for an “anti-pregnancy vaccine.” Such a vaccine would trigger the body’s immunological response against the new life by attacking pregnancy-related hormones or else either the eggs, sperm, or the new life, as a regular vaccine triggers the body’s responses against a disease.[29]

In China, the mystification of female fertility as the cause of social problems is writ large in the country’s one-child population policy, which has led to uncounted numbers of forced sterilizations, abortions, house demolitions, and imprisonments. Peru recently sterilized some 340,000 of its citizens, often in forced operations on its minority Indian population, leading a government sub-committee that investigated the crimes to determine them genocidal.[30] These countries reproduce the attitudes seen in India in the 1970's, when the country ran horrific compulsory-sterilization programs. The Harvard-educated Dr. D. N. Pai, director of family planning in Bombay in the 1970's, explained the situation to the New York Times in 1976: “If some excesses appear, don't blame me . . . You must consider it something like a war . . . There has been pressure to show results. Whether you like it or not, there will be a few dead people.”[31] Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae vitae feared such a result would follow from the popularization of contraception. If couples can use it to promote their supposed good, why not whole nations?[32]

Though the enthusiasm of a Dr. Pai might make old-school Catholic apologists for contraception nervous, they nonetheless embraced the population-control justification for contraception. The March 1974 issue of the mainstream Catholic journal Theological Studies was dedicated to the population question, with contributors including well-known theologians such as J. Bryan Hehir, David Hollenbach, S.J., and Margaret Farley. According to the contributors, the “over-population crisis” necessitates, at the very least, an avoidance of making a public case for Humanae vitae.[33] Indeed, Father Hollenbach devoted his entire dissertation to the argument that the right to procreate is not absolute and may be limited by the state, rejecting as simpleminded the Church’s insistence that people be free of governmental coercion in this matter.[34] (In his research, he must not have discovered the fact that state-mandated population-control programs always brutally target the poor. Population control simply cannot be squared with the preferential for the poor.) Hollenbach presumed, of course, that the Church’s teaching on contraception was wrong.[35] More recently, Daniel Maguire of Marquette University has recycled the “duty” argument of Sanger by insisting that contracepting is the “service we owe this earth” in order to halt over-population.[36]

The over-population argument is based on numerous fallacies. Population density cannot be said to cause economic problems, environmental devastation, or war; political and economic systems have much more to do with these problems than the number of people.[37] Mary Eberstadt summarizes the truth drolly when she writes, “Less than half a century later, these preoccupations with overwhelming birth rates appear as pseudo-scientific as phrenology. Actually, that may be unfair to phrenology.”[38] In fact, despite the mounting evidence pointing to the sociological and economic dangers of decreasing birth rates, population controllers continue to push contraceptives upon the unwilling, especially non-white, poor, even though, for example, Kenya’s population density stands at fifty-nine people per square kilometer, while Belgium’s is 341.[39] When was the last time we heard the population-control establishment worrying about the fertility of the world’s rich?

At War with Oneself

The “war” that is fought against female fertility is not restricted to what happens in health clinics in the developing world. It is carried to the very psyches of women and girls everywhere. If we are telling women that their own bodies are the cause of their problems (and those of the world as well), how can we expect them to be at peace with themselves?

Lest this claim seem extravagant, let us look more closely at some of the explicit and implicit messages that impress upon women and girls the need to turn against their bodies in order to be liberated. An ad for the first birth-control pill assumed women are enslaved by their bodies:

From the beginning woman has been a vassal to the temporal demands . . . of the cyclic mechanism of her reproductive system. Now to a degree heretofore unknown, she is permitted normalization . . . of cyclic function. This new method [of] control is symbolized in an illustration borrowed from ancient Greek mythology—Andromeda freed from her chains.[40]

The ad copy lays out with astonishing explicitness what most women only unconsciously think: I am imprisoned by my body, especially by my fertility, and I need to control it, bend it to my will, in order to be free. My body, especially my fertility, is not a gift but a burden. This ideology is echoed in the old-school “Majority Rebuttal” of the pope’s birth-control commission in 1967: “biological fecundity,” that is, female fertility, “is subject to many irregularities and therefore ought to be assumed into the human sphere and be regulated within it.”[41] Translation: let contraception “normalize” the disconcerting power of not-quite-fully-human female fertility (technological control yielding a masculine regularity), and we’ll all be better off. But is this the way to respect women and their bodies: to make male physiology and sexuality the norm (indeed, “the human sphere”) to which women must conform themselves?

If it sounds far-fetched that such abstractions could affect everyday women, consider this: how many women do you know seem at home in their bodies? Modern Western women and girls are too often in a state of undeclared war with their bodies, seeking to remake them until they fit the dominant cultural standards of attractiveness. Over the last forty years or so, those standards have gradually come to emphasize thinness to an extreme degree. As fertility has become more and more optional and undervalued in women, so have cultural elites located female beauty less in fertile, Rubenesque voluptousness and more in prepubescent, emaciated youth.

A second sign of the internalized war women and girls undergo is the degree to which they are willing to accept all manner of side-effects and dangers in the cause of suppressing their fertility. One might compare the mechanism of the Pill to that of killing a mouse with a cannon-ball. Unlike barrier methods, which put a physical obstacle between the sperm and the egg, hormonal contraception disrupts the body’s whole hormonal system for the sole sake of preventing ovulation. Despite being commonly dispensed to women and girls as though they were aspirin, hormonal contraceptives pose significant, though incompletely assessed, health risks, especially for the young. We almost never reflect upon this risk, even as organic food becomes more and more popular among the well-off. Critical thought on this subject, as reflected in this former Pill-user’s account, is all-too-rare: “I was eating organic vegetables, drinking hormone-free milk and using chemical-free cleaners. I knew deep down that birth control pills did not fit into my parameter of healthy living.”[42]

Some side effects and risks of oral contraceptives have been documented. One only has to read the Pill’s package insert to see them enumerated. Some are almost amusing, if you like ironic humor: loss of libido, for example, an effect that could be long-term.[43] (Take this medication as your ticket to sexual freedom, and hopefully you won’t lose your sexual desire along the way. But then, was the point of the sexual revolution, radicalized in the “hook-up” culture, ever really the satisfaction of female desire?) Some side-effects are more serious, such as blood clots. It was the incidence of strokes and fatal blood clots among the early cohorts using oral contraceptives that caused some feminist backlash against the drug in the early 1970's.[44] Recent research indicates the risk for heart attack or stroke doubles for women on low-dose pills.[45] Another study showed the risk for cervical cancer doubling among women using the Pill for five or more years.[46] Fortunately, for many of these conditions, the risk dissipates after discontinuing use of the Pill.[47]

The cavalier way in which women are expected to expose themselves to health risks for the sake of sterility indicates a wider problem. Women and girls internalize the war against their bodies by accepting the dominant, masculine utilitarian calculus as determining their value. Female bodies become reduced to their possibilities for providing enjoyment to men. But when female fertility is valued, women’s bodies are recognized as having a larger purpose beyond male sexual fantasy. That purpose is, of course, the bearing of children, which transcends the often-selfish pursuits upon which men and women fixate in a culture of consumerist desire. While sex accomplishes many things beyond procreation in a relationship, maintaining an openness to children prevents sex from becoming narcissistic. Children point one to the future, to the great unknown, to projects and plans bigger than just me or even us. If children are taken out of the equation, then it becomes easy to reduce women’s bodies to what is useful in the here and now.

But is there a better use for female bodies than the pursuit of pleasure? A twentieth-century cultural analyst, Michel Foucault, enunciated the dominant paradigm: sex is about bodies and pleasures.[48] Because fertility doesn’t matter any more, it does not matter whether the bodies are male or female; they are all just raw material for anonymous couplings. This is the depersonalized view of the body that reigns in the age of “hook-ups” and “friends with benefits,” the age of contraception and same-sex “marriage.” It is a world in which female fertility just does not fit. It is also a world in which the female body is ripe for exploitation by male pleasure-seekers—provided, of course, that the body is suitably sterilized first.

That this turn of events is degrading to women is acknowledged by all but the most obtuse contemporary feminists. Mary Eberstadt observes that numerous feminists have complained about the current sexual regime, but she notes that “there is no auxiliary literature of grievance for men—whom, for the most part, just don’t seem to feel they have as much to grieve about in this new world order.”[49] In fact, the male voices opposing such exploitation have usually been religious ones. For example, Pope Paul VI predicted in Humanae vitae that contraception would lead husbands to “lose respect for their wives.” As a result, they would be tempted to “use their wives as instruments for serving their own desires. Consequently, they will no longer view their wives as companions who should be treated with attentiveness and love.”[50] Likewise, Gandhi wrote, “As it is, man has sufficiently degraded woman for his lust, and artificial methods, no matter how well-meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her.”[51]

But such voices are too rare. Easily obtainable sexual gratification from perpetually available women and girls: no scoundrel would have dared dream up this world simply delivered into his lap by Sex and the City “feminism.” And what happens to a whole society when everyone agrees that the female body is better off sterile?

[1] Resolution 15 of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, The Lambeth Conference, (accessed March 16, 2009).

[2] “Fortieth Anniversary of Humanae Vitae,” New England Cable Network, July 25, 2008, (accessed March 16, 2009).

[3] See, for example, Mark M. Gray, Ph.D., Paul M. Perl, Ph.D., and Tricia C. Bruce, Ph.D., Marriage in the Catholic Church: A Survey of U.S. Catholics (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University), October 2007, 1. Old-school theologians and their followers often express alarm at the popularity among the young of the “theology of the body” proclaimed by Pope John Paul II; e.g., David Cloutier, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth?: Analyzing the Popularity of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body,” in Sexuality and the U.S. Catholic Church: Crisis and Renewal, The Boston College Church in the 21st Century Center series, ed. Lisa Sowle Cahill, John Garvey, and T. Frank Kennedy, S.J. (New York: Herder & Herder, 2006), 18-31. Befuddlement at the young would be expected of old-school thinkers.

[4] Luke Timothy Johnson, “A Disembodied ‘Theology of the Body’: John Paul II on Love, Sex, and Pleasure,” Commonweal (Jan. 26, 2001): 16.

[5] Charles E. Curran, The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II, Moral Traditions Series, ed. James F. Keenan, S.J. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 116.

[6] Johnson, “Disembodied,” 15.

[7] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Sex in the Catholic Tradition,” in The Good News of the Body: Sexual Theology and Feminism, ed. Lisa Isherwood (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 51.

[8] See, for instance, Gallup poll, “U.S. Catholics Would Support Changes,”, April 3, 2005 , (accessed March 16, 2009).

[9] The best presentation of this history is in Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 1-35.

[10] For primary-source materials and other references to the history given here, see my Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co., 2005).

[11] Emma Goldman was one of the pioneering leftist eugenic birth-controllers who also promoted unrestricted sexual freedom. See ibid., 27-28.

[12] Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1920), 1, italics mine.

[13] Woman “has chained herself to her place in society and the family through the maternal functions of her nature, and only chains thus strong could have bound her to her lot as a brood animal for the masculine civilizations of the world.” Ibid., 2.

[14] “Nor have famine and plague been as much ‘acts of God’ as acts of too prolific mothers. They, also, as all students know, have their basic causes in over-population.” Ibid., 3-4.

[15] Ibid., 229.

[16] Ibid., 5-6.

[17] “By her failure to withhold the multitudes of children who have made inevitable the most flagrant of our social evils, she incurred a debt to society. Regardless of her own wrongs, regardless of her lack of opportunity and regardless of all other considerations, she must pay that debt.” Ibid., 6.

[18] “She must not think to pay this debt in any superficial way. She cannot pay it with palliatives—with child-labor laws, prohibition, regulation of prostitution and agitation against war.” Ibid.

[19] See, for instance, “The Declaration of Sentiments,” Seneca Falls Convention, 1848, reprinted in The Modern History Sourcebook, (accessed March 16, 2009).

[20] Linda Gordon, “Voluntary Motherhood: The Beginning of Feminist Birth Control Ideas in the United States,” in Women and Health in America, 2nd ed., ed. Judith Walzer Leavitt (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), 254.

[21] Quoted in Catholics for Contraception, “A Matter of Conscience: Catholics on Contraception” (pamphlet), n.d., (accessed March 16, 2009).

[22] Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., “Of Human Life: A Pastoral Letter to the People of God of Northern Colorado on the Truth and Meaning of Married Love,”, July 22, 1998, (accessed March 16, 2009).

[23] Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 47-48.

[24]When the eugenic scapegoating of the “unfit” became widely unpopular after World War II, eugenicist Neo-Malthusians such as Sanger simply shifted their focus to the “quantity” side of the “quality, not quantity” equation. Explicit eugenics was out; eugenics as population control was in.

See my Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy for a detailed history of the shift from eugenic rhetoric to population-control agitation (although the latter was always the driving factor in the Neo-Malthusian equation). The link between eugenics and population control may seem startling, but it is generally recognized by historians of eugenics. See, for example, feminist and Marxist historian Linda Gordon: “The eugenics people slid into the population control movement gracefully, naturally, imperceptibly. . . there was nothing to separate the two movements because there was no tension between their two sorts of goals.” (“The Politics of Population: Birth Control and the Eugenics Movement,” Radical America 8, no. 4 (1974): 85). Less politically charged works on the same connection are Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), and Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

[25] Margaret Sanger, “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda,” Birth Control Review (Oct. 1921): 5.

[26] Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).

[27] J. D. Robitscher, M.D., ed., Eugenic Sterilization (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1973), 118-119.

[28] Warren M. Hern, M.D., “Is Pregnancy Really Normal?,” Family Planning Perspectives 3, no. 1 (1971): 5-9; “Is Human Culture Carcinogenic for Uncontrolled Population Growth and Ecological Destruction?,” Bioscience 43, no. 11 (1993): 768-773.

[29] Betsy Hartmann, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control (Boston: South End Press, 1995), 280; Asoka Bandarage, Women, Population and Global Crisis: A Political-Economic Analysis (London: Zed Books, 1997), 87. For more on American research efforts in this regard, see the Population Research Institute, “A ‘Stick’ in Time Saves Nine,” PRI Weekly Briefing, March 2, 2001, (accessed March 16, 2009).

[30] “Final Report Concerning Voluntary Surgical Contraception During the Years 1990-2000,” Subcommittee Investigation of Persons and Institutions Involved in Voluntary Surgical Contraception, June 2002, (accessed March 16, 2009).

[31]Quoted in Betsy Hartmann, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control (Boston: South End Press, 1995), 243-44.

[32] Pope John Paul II, Humanae vitae (“Of Human Life”) (San Fransisco: Igna Books, 2002), no. 17; Janet Smith’s incomparable translation, Humanae Vitae: A Challenge to Love, can be acquired at

[33] J. Bryan Hehir, “The Church and the Population Year: Notes on a Strategy,” Theological Studies

35 (Mar 1974): 71-82.

[34] David Hollenbach, S.J., The Right to Procreate and Its Social Limitations: A Systematic Study of Value Conflict in Roman Catholic Ethics, Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University (1975), 442. He summarizes his argument on pp. 427-444.

[35] Ibid., 426, note 2.

[36] Daniel C. Maguire, Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions, Sacred Energies series (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 150.

[37] On the false assumptions concerning population control and the promotion of contraception for the developing world, see the website of the Population Research Institute (; Stephen W. Mosher, Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits (New York: Transaction Books, 2008); and Jacqueline Kasun, Ph.D., The War Against Population: The Economics and Ideology of World Population Control, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).

[38] Mary Eberstadt, “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” First Things, August/September 2008.

[39] United Nations World Prospects Report (2004 revision), (accessed March 16, 2009).

[40] Cited in Lara V. Marks, Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 132, emphasis mine.

[41]Cited in Smith, Humanae Vitae, 25, emphasis mine.

[42] Christine Montone, “The Perfect Fit for Our Healthy Lifestyle,” Natural Family Planning Blessed Our Marriage: 19 True Stories, ed. Fletcher Doyle (Cincinnati, Oh.: Servant Books, 2006), 28.

[43] Claudia Panzer, M.D., et al., “Impact of Oral Contraceptives on Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin and Androgen Levels: A Retrospective Study in Women with Sexual Dysfunction,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 3, no. 1 (2006): 104-113.

[44] See my Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy for a detailed history of the disregard of human dignity evinced by researchers in the development of various methods of contraception. For contemporary feminist objections to hormonal contraception, see www.ourbodiesourselves, the former Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which produced the many volumes of the Our Bodies, Ourselves series.

[45] Jean-Patrice Baillargeon, Donna K. McClish, Paulina A. Essah, and John E. Nestler, “Association between the Current Use of Low-Dose Oral Contraceptives and Cardiovascular Arterial Disease: A Meta-Analysis,” J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 90 (Jul 2005): 3863 - 3870.

[46] Jane Green, M.D., “Cervical Cancer and Hormonal Contraceptives: Collaborative Reanalysis of Individual Data for 16 573 Women with Cervical Cancer and 35 509 Women without Cervical Cancer from 24 Epidemiological Studies,” The Lancet 370 (2007): 1609–21.

[47] One of the more controversial claims about the dangers of hormonal contraception has been that oral contraceptives are correlated to an increased risk of breast cancer, especially in younger women who have not yet carried a pregnancy to term. The cells in the breast are immature until the hormones of a woman’s first full-term pregnancy help to mature them. Mature breast cells are less susceptible to becoming cancerous than immature ones. See Jose and Irma Russo, “Differentiation of the Mammary Gland and Susceptibility to Carcinogenesis,” Breast Cancer Research and Treatment 2 (1982):5-73, cited in Chris Kahlenborn, M.D., Breast Cancer: Its Link to Abortion and the Birth Control Pill (Dayton, Ohio: One More Soul, 2000), 5-6. The use of powerful hormones in the young can make the immature cells more prone to becoming cancerous later. As one medical text explains it, “Several studies have suggested that the use of oral contraceptives in the early teen years may increase the risk of subsequent breast cancer” C. M. Haskell, Cancer Treatment, 4th ed. (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1995), 327, cited in ibid., 9. A recent study shows a 44 percent increased risk in developing breast cancer when oral contraceptives are taken before the first full-term pregnancy, and the risk rises to 52 percent if the Pill is taken for more than four years. See Kahlenborn, C. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 81 (October 2006): 1290-1302; Salynn Boyles, “The Pill May Raise Breast Cancer Risk,”, October 31, 2006, (accessed March 16, 2009). See also Kahlenborn, Breast Cancer, 36, in which he notes that studies that do not show a link between breast cancer and the Pill generally do not isolate the population that has used oral contraceptives before the first full-term pregnancy. The risk for breast cancer in women taking the Pill after the maturation of breast cells seems to be reduced. A meta-analysis (or overview of the most significant research papers on a subject) focusing on the risk of the Pill to women using it for more than four years before their first full-term pregnancy, set the risk even higher, at a 72 percent increased risk of developing breast cancer. See Isabelle Romieu, et al., “Oral Contraceptives and Breast Cancer: Review and Meta-Analysis,” Cancer 66 (1990): 2253-2263, cited in Kahlenborn, Breast Cancer, 9.

[48] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 157.

[49] Eberstadt, “Vindication.”

[50] Humanae vitae, no. 17.

[51] The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. iv, pp. 45-48.

Featured Image: "Racial" Synthetic sponge, London, England, 1940-1960; Description: Sponges were widely used as contraception in the early 1900's. They were one of a range of contraceptives promoted by the Society for Constructive Birth Control. The trademark "Racial" comes from a belief in eugenics. This widely held theory in the early 1900's argued selective breeding could remove "undesirables" from society; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0.


Angela Franks

Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and a Church Life Journal Life and Dignity Writing Fellow. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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