What a Contracepting Society Looks Like
Contraception was from the beginning touted as the answer to a host of societal problems, from the old Neo-Malthusian bogeyman of over-population, down to marital unhappiness and child abuse. But have such extravagant claims come true?
Has contraception helped marriage? Contraception, after all, is sold as promoting the deeper union of the spouses. But divorce has skyrocketed to around 40-50 percent of all marriages since contraception became a widespread marital practice. If contraception increases bonding between spouses, then at least some amelioration of the divorce rate among those using contraception (that is, almost every married couple) should be evident. But no data indicate such an effect. In fact, demographer Robert T. Michael has argued that half of the rise of the divorce rate between 1965 and when it leveled off in 1976 “can be attributed to the ‘unexpected nature of the contraceptive revolution’ . . . especially in the way that it made marriages less child-centered.” More generally, given the deepening of love that it is supposed to foster, contraception should help prevent fatherless homes, in which the security provided by two married, biological parents is lacking. The evidence points to the contrary. Nobel Prize-winning economist George A. Akerlof has documented how the “choice” for women to contracept beginning in the 1960's has significantly raised the rates of unwed motherhood and child abandonment by fathers: “The sexual revolution, by making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, makes marriage and child support a social choice of the father.”
Has contraception prevented “unwanted children” from being conceived, thus supposedly reducing child abuse? Again, the correlative data is not good for the old-school theologians: in 1960, 749 children were believed to be abused in the U.S.; by 2006, over 900,000 children were determined to be abused or neglected. Much of this increase is surely due to better reporting of incidents, but if contraception is such a panacea for the problem of unloved children, should not some decrease in child abuse be detectable as the rate of contraceptive use increased dramatically?
What about the prevention of abortion? This possibility is still raised by old-school Catholics as a pious reason to support contraception. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly promoted “preventing unintended pregnancies and reducing the need for abortion through increasing access to family planning services and access to affordable birth control.” Yet, it is astonishing how few people who make this claim attempt to provide any empirical support for it. Pelosi does not reckon with the reality that contraception closes the partners’ hearts, here and now, to a child. They think they have made an arrangement: sex but no child. No thought goes into what might happen if a child is conceived. So, when a child comes—as one so often does, given the fact that sex tends to produce what it is meant to produce—the adults are not mentally open to her. They have contracepted their heart. We should not be surprised that increased promotion and use of contraceptives among adolescents is linked to more abortion, not less.
So what does a contracepting culture look like? It looks a lot like our culture: more divorce, more unwed parenthood, more abuse, more abortion, less commitment, less trust, less love. Looking at this aggregate of social ills, one sociologist has written, “The shifts in sexual and familial behavior to which dissenters would like the church to accommodate herself have been revealed in study after study to be social catastrophes.”
Could these catastrophes have been foreseen? In fact, they were—by Pope Paul VI. We have already noted two of his predictions that have come true: coerced contraceptive use inflicted by oppressive governments and the increased degradation of women (including an increase in marital infidelity). The Pope made another prediction: a general lowering of sexual morality was to be expected. If one doubts whether this has occurred, just ask any young person about “sexting” and the “hook-up” culture as a whole.
It is important to understand that neither Pope Paul VI nor I would want to claim that birth control is wrong because it has bad effects. Human actions are right or wrong because of the acts that they are, not because of their effects. But bad actions usually lead to bad effects, because they are not good for us. We were made for true love, and anything less fails to make us truly happy.
From Contraceptive Control to Life-Giving Love
The reigning ideology tells us that the unkempt contours of female fertility must be scoured away by a masculine, mechanizing ideology in order to fit into the smooth cogs of the sexual revolution. But is the only paradigm that applies to female fertility one of technological “control”? Or is there another way to approach female fertility that appreciates rather than scapegoats it, while not requiring women to always produce dozens of progeny?
The Catholic Church’s counter-cultural way of cherishing female fertility is spelled out in Humanae vitae. There Pope Paul VI notes that, rather than asking women to have as many children as they are physically able, the Church proposes “responsible parenthood”: intelligent openness to welcoming many children. Many considerations might enter into the discernment of whether having a child at a given time is prudent—if such discernment is carried out in a spirit of generosity.
This intelligent, active discernment is the opposite of the eclipse of the question of children facilitated by hormonal contraceptive use. With contraception, one may decide against having children at a certain time and never deliberately revisit the original decision. Technological control does not require self-knowledge and self-mastery, but merely the ability to follow directions on a package.
Resorting to technological autopilot means one can go along without seriously engaging the question of the larger meaning of one’s life. Why am I here? What is that wise and loving plan of God for my life that is the reason for my existing at all? Has my fertility been entrusted to me to freely and deliberately serve God’s overflowing desire to bring more human lives into existence? How do my “private” actions affect the body politic?
Discerning “serious reasons” for delaying childbirth through “responsible parenthood,” as proposed by the Church in Humanae vitae, is conducted within this infinite horizon of divine wisdom and love, and of the common good of society. This is a world away from birth control, which reduces the horizon of my consciousness to my plans for my life, a meager thing compared to the greatness God has in store for each of us. The Church never wants any of us to settle for less than the nobility and grandeur of true love.
There may indeed be serious reasons to delay conceiving a child at a given time, but one must be open to reconsidering that decision at any point if it seems that God’s wise and loving will is leading a couple onto a new path. The discernment of responsible parenthood is, in other words, an interior openness to letting God’s generous, life-giving will into the bedroom—even if it is not convenient—for God wants only each person’s happiness, the fulfillment of our freedom in a love without limit. Responsible parenthood is one thing; it is quite another to control inconvenient fertility through technological routinization.
The decision to postpone childbearing requires such careful discernment because children are good for a marriage. What really makes us mature people able to sustain an intimate, permanent relationship is the ability to love definitively, without reserve, without thinking first of one’s own advantage. A person capable of true love can give and take, can compromise, can communicate without defensiveness or nastiness, and so forth. But, in the usual case, what teaches a married couple such selflessness is having children.
Before children, it was possible for me to live with my husband as I might live with a really congenial roommate. He had his schedule; I had mine. Marriage was a wonderful and challenging thing in many ways, but it did not ask us to give of ourselves extravagantly most of the time. When our first child came, however, I experienced for the first time the genuine neediness of another person. I had to bend my schedule and my life to her, as did my husband. This newfound ability to give of ourselves, while often painfully won (colic and all), was the most important growth that we experienced in our lives, as well as the single best thing that ever happened to our marriage. We experienced what is true for every human being: self-gift, while difficult, makes us flourish.
We did not have children right away in our marriage. Initially we were both in graduate school, and we thought we had serious reasons to delay having children at the beginning of our marriage. (I was in my third trimester with our first child while taking my doctoral comprehensive exams.) So, what could we do if contraception was off-limits?
Just prior to Paul VI’s time, a scientific breakthrough in the understanding of the cycles of female fertility had laid the groundwork for the new method of natural family planning (NFP). NFP depends upon judging the signs of fertility given by the woman’s body and either abstaining from intercourse during fertile times (in order to avoid pregnancy) or engaging in the conjugal act (in order to achieve pregnancy). When used properly, it is 99 percent effective in avoiding pregnancy—as effective as the Pill—and much more effective than artificial reproductive technologies in achieving pregnancy.
Many people do not understand the distinction between NFP and contraception. Surely, they say, the intention is the same, and thus NFP is just “Catholic birth control.” Indeed, faithful Catholics are often hesitant about NFP because they worry about what might constitute a sufficiently serious reason to postpone childbearing. It is significant that the teaching documents of the Church deliberately avoid providing a list of reasons that would count as “serious.” The Pope cannot, nor does he have the least desire to, decide if a family is ready to have a child at a given time; only the couple’s prayerful discernment of God’s wise and particular will for them can do that. My personal observation is that natural family planning weeds out less-than-serious reasons. Instead of routinely popping a pill every day, the NFP couple has to discuss their decision to postpone having children. This discussion may even occur over several days every month! When a reason becomes less than serious, the method invites a couple to begin engaging in the marital act on days that are on the outer edge of fertility, and so on. NFP of itself places a couple in a deliberate, and joint, vocational discernment of God’s loving will. This is far different from the birth-control routine. The former is always nimble, always open to God’s will, while the latter tends to foster an avoidance of the question of children. The proponents of birth control may speak of “family planning” and “planned parenthood,” but, ironically, birth control tends to suppress a free and deliberate approach to children.
Act, Intention, and Object: A Quick Primer in the Philosophical Underpinnings of NFP
This fundamental difference between the NFP and contraceptive patterns of life flows from a difference in the kinds of acts involved. Without understanding this, it is hard to fully grasp why it is that NFP is not “Catholic birth control.” If a couple uses natural family planning, they will, depending on the woman’s point in her cycle, either engage in the marital act, or not—both of which are of course, in and of themselves, perfectly licit things to do. The contracepting couple does something entirely different: they engage in deliberately sterilized acts of sex. This is a different kind of action.
It is no small part of the difficulty in intelligently distinguishing between NFP and contraception that the notion of kinds of things, let alone of kinds of actions, has fallen into disfavor. In our relativistic culture, we tend to think that things do not have inherent meaning, but rather that they gain their meaning from the value one places on them in terms of one’s own desires. The “realist” view, by contrast, holds that things have real natures that are intelligible, that is, a discoverable design that intelligibly fits into the whole system of other natures. Realists claim, for instance, that marriage has a real nature—one man and one woman publicly and faithfully committed to each other for the exclusive sharing of their life together, ordered to the procreation and education of children. Relativists will say that marriage is whatever we define it to be, according to our desires. 
Along with the loss of the recognition that there are real kinds of things, we are also losing the sense that some actions are of such a kind as to be always encouraged and other actions, to be always resisted. Every properly human action, that is, every free human action, will be either good or bad. Any free human act will either advance us along the path of our flourishing, the path of happiness, or along the path of disintegration, or unhappiness. In performing any free act, we either make ourselves better or we make ourselves worse.
When, in this relativist culture, we think of actions as good or bad, we instinctively think of our personal intention as decisive. Thus, “it may not be the best thing to tell a lie, but he just didn’t want to hurt her feelings. His intention was good, so what he did was alright.” It is certainly the case that intention has much to do with the badness or goodness of an act. But intention is not the most basic factor; what is most basic is the object that makes an act into a certain kind of act.
In and of themselves, certain kinds of actions are good (such as giving money to the poor), some are indifferent (such as crossing the street), and some are evil, always and everywhere (such as rape and murder). An action is good, indifferent, or evil by virtue of what is technically called the “moral object.” If someone were to ask you whether “taking” is wrong, you would have to ask, “taking what?” The “what” would be the moral object. “Taking” is not a specific kind of moral act. But taking something against the reasonable will of its owner is a recognizable kind of moral act: stealing. This is distinct from the issue of intention. One can steal with a good intention, but that good intention does not change stealing from being a bad act, which in and of itself it is, into being a good act. Intention does not change the nature of the act. The ends (intention) do not justify the means (the kind of act performed).
Suppose I have a good intention: to feed my family. But what is the kind of moral act I perform as a means to that end? I could either hold up a convenience store, or I could get a job and work hard to earn money. The intention is the same; are the acts the same? Hardly. One is a bad kind of act, and the other a good kind of act.
So let us look again at the kinds of action involved in contraception and NFP. The intention may be exactly the same: to avoid having children at this point in time. Does that mean that NFP is simply another form of birth control? We could only say this if we focused solely on the intention of the actors. Though intention is important, the more basic reality is the kind of act involved. What kind of act is contracepted sex; what kinds of acts are involved in NFP?
Pope Paul VI notes in Humanae vitae that sex, the marital act, has two “meanings”: the intimate unity of the spouses and the generation of children, called the unitive and procreative meanings respectively. With contraception, the moral object of the action is the deliberate blocking of the possibility of children in an otherwise fertile sexual act. That is, when a couple contracepts, whatever their good intention, they distort the nature of the sexual act by severing its unitive and procreative meanings. If we thus deform sex, which inherently means the union of lifelong and life-giving love, we cannot expect to flourish as a result. Intentions and desires are not all there is to reality.
In NFP used for the avoidance of pregnancy, the couple either abstains from the conjugal act during the fertile period or engages in it during the infertile time. These actions, or non-actions, do not involve deliberately taking away the procreative meaning of an otherwise fertile conjugal act. Instead, the couple honors that meaning, and thus the given nature of sex, precisely by abstaining during the woman’s fertile period.
Cultivating Ethical Maturity: NFP’s Path to Self-Mastery
It is important to understand that being able to re-direct one’s drive for intimacy into non-sexual expressions for a time is not a bad thing. Rather, it fosters human flourishing—and thus it is morally good. Periodic abstinence heals and integrates one’s desires. Through such self-mastery comes real freedom, which is the freedom to give generously of oneself, without limits. What passes as freedom in a consumerist culture—being able to pursue whatever desires happen to strike one’s fancy—is in fact the very opposite of freedom: we cannot help but follow our urges. Morally good action instead leads towards freedom from the compulsion and unhappiness involved in being internally enslaved to every passing desire. A genuinely free and mature person is able to say no to immediate desires, when necessary, in order to pursue things that are more lasting and valuable—such as better health, achievement in athletics or the arts, or professional advancement. We have all made sacrifices of immediate gratification for the sake of such goods. When we can say no to the satisfaction of lesser desires for the sake of higher desires, we come to love better.
In cultivating such ethical maturity, natural family planning places fertility regulation within the wide horizon of God’s wise and loving plan for the happiness of each human being. Instead of external, technological control severing the two meanings of the sexual act, as happens with contraception, NFP promotes the interior self-control, or better, self-integration, necessary for one to be able to make a sincere and total gift of self. NFP provides training in true love, and true love is the only path to happiness. Contraception opposes human happiness by elevating immediate self-gratification to the position of primacy in sexual decision-making. Sexual desire and pleasure are great things, but they are meant to serve true love.
And that is why, finally, contraceptive sex is not good for us because self-centeredness is not good for us. It makes us unhappy, while self-giving leads to true, deep happiness, the kind of happiness you see in those close to God. For sex to be self-giving, both meanings of sex have to be present. When the procreative end of sex is deliberately thwarted through contraception, the ability of the spouses to unite in a total self-gift (the unitive meaning) is thwarted as well. The ramifications of this can be seen in the roughly 50 percent divorce rate among the general public, while the divorce rate among NFP-practicing couples is between 0.2% and 4%. Openness to life and spousal bonding do go hand in hand. In fact, the bonding is so powerful precisely because sex is meant to be total surrender to the other person, including surrender to the possible fruitfulness of one’s mutual love. It is this openness to the future, to something greater than just “us,” that actually makes sex so thrilling.
This big picture of self-gift is what old-school 60's theology and conventional feminism miss. Recall the charge of “physicalism,” the accusation that Catholic teaching on contraception focuses obsessively on the mechanics of the physical act of sex rather than the relationship’s openness to children as a whole. But it is precisely the point of Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” to show that sex is not simply about bodies bumping together. By placing sex within the big picture of true love in all its breadth, John Paul makes clear that sex is a deeply personal act, one of the most personal we will ever perform. The stakes are so high with sex because at issue is the future of true love, of society, of God’s plan for our greatness and happiness.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, argues that sins against God, such as blasphemy, are objectively the worst, but sins involving lust are in some ways the most dangerous, because they ensnare us the most. We are not brains in a vat, tenuously connected to bodies that can do their own thing. Rather, our bodily acts form who we are. If a man develops selfish patterns of sexual desire, then he is harmed—not just his body—and the spiritual pleasures of true, personal love become a closed book to him. After all, how many times do I have to rob a convenience store before I am a thief? It would be supreme silliness for me to sit in court and declare, “I am fully committed to respecting private property and living justly. Sure, I robbed three Quick-E Marts, but don’t call me a thief! Those were just the acts I did with my body, not with my mind!”
In fact, we cannot decide which acts we are going to let affect us in our innermost core. It would make no sense for the Church to say, “Stealing is wrong. But as long as you don’t let this particular act of theft affect your overall commitment to justice, then one act of theft is okay.” Likewise, the Church cannot simply decide that individual acts (how many?) of contracepted sex are not going to hurt one’s relationship with one’s spouse and with God. If we act selfishly in our sexual life, we become selfish, and no amount of wrangling about the Church’s teaching on contraception can change that.
An Act of Giving, Not Taking
Margaret Sanger, Planned parenthood, and late modern culture give one answer to the question of what is bad for us: female fertility. By contrast, the Church argues that it is not the female body that oppresses women and girls, but rather that deformed desire is at the heart of all sin—and thus all oppression.
If deformed desire is bad for us, healed desire, put in the service of self-giving love, is good for us. How do we develop such love? As we have seen, the periodic abstinence involved in natural family planning heals desire in a way that contraception cannot. Desire is in itself not immoral; by nature, we are creatures who physically desire, because we have bodies with senses that detect what is pleasurable. But desire must be fully human: it has to be directed by our intelligence and freedom. Some training of sexual desire is necessary in order that it find its right place: eros in the service of agape, that is, erotic love put in the service of charity. Here NFP can play a central role.
As my husband can testify, NFP demands something profoundly countercultural: that men learn to measure their sexual desires by the rhythms of the female body. Such a request is unheard of in a society in which male desire appears to set the guidelines—especially in the “hook-up” culture. Indeed, such a reorientation of desire is more revolutionary than any old-school feminist project.
Fletcher Doyle, in reflecting on the internal chastity that came with practicing NFP, noted how profoundly it altered his relationship with his wife for the better. “She became even more beautiful to me,” he said. “Now, more than ever before, I had to consider her in her entirety as a human person and avoid the trap of thinking of her as someone to take care of my needs . . . my life with my wife became more an act of giving rather than taking.”
Perhaps it was for this reason that Pope John Paul II recommended the periodic abstinence of NFP as intrinsic to marital spirituality, regardless of the couple’s childbearing plans. This abstinence helps form one’s desires in the virtue of chastity, which in turn renders one capable of seeing one’s spouse the way God sees him or her. Chastity gives spouses “a singular sensibility for all that in their vocation and shared life carries the sign of the mystery of creation and redemption: for all that is a created reflection of God’s wisdom and love.” Reverence for the procreative meaning of sex means reverence for the female ability to bear new life and, thus, reverence for the female body in its holistic truth—as opposed to reducing the female body to the status of sexual object. The Church, through NFP, promotes the reorientation of male desire towards such reverence for the female body. This cherishing of women and girls in their personal wholeness would be a genuine sexual revolution.
Reverence for the other disrupts the frantic pursuit of pleasure that withers our ability to love generously. As we have seen, in a contracepting culture, the single-minded pursuit of sexual pleasure to the exclusion of new life leads a man and woman to close their hearts to that future beyond their control that they would face together as mother and father. By controlling births, our culture hopes to control, to tame, and to commodify the extravagant claims of love—to measure them according to our meager measure. Contraception was sold as something that would build up love, and yet it narrows love into a cramped selfishness that causes both personal heartbreak and social injustice.
In stark contrast to this contraction, the reality is that we human beings are called to greatness. We are made in the image of God, made to know and love him and each other in a love without limit. God is supremely selfless, giving of himself constantly. We are made for no less. That is why the Second Vatican Council could say that the likeness between us and God “reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” This kind of love—no-holds-barred, self-giving, God-trusting love—is an arduous adventure. It is not “safe.” But it is the only kind of love that is worthy of the dignity of men and women, made for the greatness of union with God. And it is the only kind that will make us truly happy.
 Infertile couples bear a great cross, which if accepted as God’s will, will take them along another path leading to fruitfulness of a spiritual order. Nevertheless, every time they engage in the marital act, they are still saying with their bodies, “I love you totally. I give everything of myself to you.” They are not holding their fertility back, as with contraception.
 Robert T. Michael, presentation at Emory University, March 2003, quoted in Natural Family Planning Blessed Our Marriage, p. xii; see also Robert T. Michael, “Why Did U.S. Divorce Rates Double in a Decade?” Research in Population Economics. 6 (1988): 367-399.
 George A. Akerlof, Janet L. Yellen and Michael L. Katz, “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 111, no. 2 (May 1996): 277-317, 281. According to Akerlof, with the coming of contraception, women and girls lost bargaining power to pressure a man to be chaste with her until marriage or to marry her if premarital intercourse resulted in a pregnancy. After contraception, a man could easily obtain sexual pleasure elsewhere without having to make such commitments. Ibid., 290. [Editor’s Note: See the conclusion of this volume for further discussion of Akerlof’s findings.]
 Andrew P. Sirotnak, M.D. and Richard D. Krugman, M.D., “Child Abuse and Neglect,” in Current Pediatric Diagnosis & Treatment, 16th ed., ed. William W. Hay et al. (New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2004), 215; Child Welfare Information Gateway, FAQs, http://www.childwelfare.gov/can/faq.cfm (accessed March 16, 2009).
 “Bush Administration Tries to Redefine Contraception as Abortion,” July 16, 2008, “The Gavel” blog, http://speaker.house.gov/blog/?p=1441.
 Peter Arcidiacono et al., “Habit Persistence and Teen Sex: Could Increased Contraception Have Unintended Consequences for Teen Pregnancies?” (Oct. 3, 2005), http://www.econ.duke.edu/~psarcidi/addicted13.pdf (accessed March 16, 2009).
 W. Bradford Wilcox, “The Facts of Life and Marriage: Social Science and the Vindication of Christian Moral Teaching,” Touchstone (January/February 2005).
 Humanae vitae, no. 17.
 Ibid., no. 10.
 “Natural Family Planning Method As Effective As Contraceptive Pill, New Research Finds,” ScienceDaily, Feb. 21, 2001, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070221065200.htm (accessed March 16, 2009); “Infertility,” Naprotechnology.com, http://www.naprotechnology.com/infertility.htm; Editor’s Note: See Chapter Six in this volume for further discussion of the use of NFP to achieve pregnancy.
 Editor’s Note: See Chapter Four in this volume for further discussion of the true nature of marriage.
 See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., nos. 1750-1754; Pope John Paul II, Veritatis splendor (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1998), nos. 71-83.
 I owe thanks to my husband J. David Franks for his insights on these topics.
 Humanae vitae, no. 12.
 Here we can see that even if the “serious reason” for avoiding pregnancy is manifestly grave—for example, the life of the mother would be endangered by pregnancy—we cannot resort to permanent sterilization (such as tubal ligation). A permanent “solution” is certainly an understandable temptation in this circumstance, in which one would not be tempted by contraception precisely given the rates of contraceptive user- and/or method-failure. But mutilating oneself (an intrinsically evil act), as in sterilization, of itself cannot lead to human happiness. Strictly adhered to, NFP is the moral resolution to this extreme case, the way that will lead to happiness. (And given the gravity of the situation a man would not be tempted to fudge the method.)
 See Michael Waldstein, "Introduction," Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), 32; Humanae vitae, no. 21. Waldstein’s is the definitive English translation of the audience talks in which Pope John Paul II lays out his groundbreaking theology of the body. A wonderful introduction is provided by Mary Healy in Men and Women Are from Eden: A Study Guide to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005).
 See, e.g., Mercedes Arzú Wilson, “The Practice of Natural Family Planning Versus the Use of Artificial Birth Control: Family, Sexual, and Moral Issues,” Catholic Social Science Review 7 (November 2002) (showing a 0.2% divorce rate among NFP couples). Couple to Couple League’s own studies of NFP couples indicate up to a 4% divorce rate in “Marital Duration and Natural Family Planning,” http://web.archive.org/web/20070818184432/http://ccli.org/nfp/marriage/maritalduration.php.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 73, a. 5, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1981).
 Michael Waldstein, “Introduction,” Man and Woman, 108-117, and Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas est (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), nos. 3-8.
 Fletcher Doyle, “Better Late than Never,” in Natural Family Planning Blessed Our Marriage, 53.
 John Paul II, in Man and Woman, nos. 128-131: 644-655.
 Ibid., no. 131: 4.
 I am grateful to my husband J. David Franks for this formulation.
 Gaudium et spes (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1966), no. 24.