Civil Liberties

Show Respect for Women: Ban Contraception!

Has Humanae Vitae's proscription against contraception been vindicated?


Forty years ago, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the encyclical arguing that contraception is against God's will. In celebration of its 40th anniversary, Hoover Institution research fellow Mary Eberstadt has written a passionate and subtly misleading essay in the religious and public policy journal First Things arguing that Humanae Vitae's specific predictions of social harm arising from widespread use of contraception have been vindicated. "The encyclical warned of four resulting trends," writes Eberstadt, "a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments."

But before Eberstadt launches into her polemic about the alleged prescience of Humanae Vitae, she detours to a discussion about the myth of overpopulation. She denounces the neo-Malthusians such as Paul Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb (1968) appeared two months after Humanae Vitae. "Less than half a century later, these preoccupations with overwhelming birth rates appear as pseudo-scientific as phrenology," writes Eberstadt. While that's more or less true, it's surpassingly odd that nowhere in Eberstadt's essay does she mention the role that wider availability of modern contraception and abortion played in reducing global total fertility rates from 6 to 2.5 children per woman over the past 40 years. With increased literacy, urbanization, and economic growth generally come declines in desired family size, but failing even to acknowledge the wider availability of contraception as a factor in lowering fertility rates reveals a telling intellectual blind spot.

Moving from last to first in the alleged four prescient predictions of Humanae Vitae, isn't it true that some governments spooked by overpopulation alarmists did attempt to impose contraceptive use on their citizens? After all, alarmists like Paul Ehrlich even toyed with (but rejected as politically infeasible) the idea that governments should dump "temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food. Doses of the antidote would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired population size."

No government tried to spike water supplies, but, as Eberstadt points out, the Chinese communists have ruthlessly enforced a one-child policy, and in the 1970s, India ordered more than 7 million involuntary sterilizations. It is worth pointing out that coerced contraception has never been adopted as a general policy in developed countries; even the suggestion that welfare benefits might be tied to willingness to use the long-lasting contraceptive Norplant was rejected. Eberstadt does not explain what the odious population control policies in Third World countries have to do with the voluntary use of contraception in developed countries.

Eberstadt cites the work of economics Nobelist George Akerlof and Brookings Institution economist Janet Yellen who argue that the widespread availability of effective contraception and safe abortion produced a "reproductive technology shock" in relations between women and men that is still reverberating through our culture. Prior to effective contraception, women would only agree to have sex with men who promised to marry them in the event of pregnancy. Men made such promises because they knew that other women would make the same demand. Effective contraception and safe abortion changed that age-old dynamic.

"Women who were willing to get an abortion or who reliably used contraception no longer found it necessary to condition sexual relations on a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy," explains Akerlof. These women could engage in pre-marital sex without the risk of unwed motherhood. So women who wanted children or who objected to contraception or abortion were at a competitive disadvantage. "These women feared, correctly, that if they refused sexual relations, they would risk losing their partners," writes Akerlof. "Sexual activity without commitment was increasingly expected in premarital relationships."

While it takes two to tango, women now get to decide the outcome of the dance regardless of the preferences of their partners. As Winthrop University economist Robert Stonebraker limns the Akerlof study, "Many men reasoned that they were not to blame for unwanted births. After all, women had access to contraceptives and to abortions. If women choose not to avail themselves of contraceptives or abortions, they should bear the consequences of that choice." For many men, women consciously choosing to have children over their objections often looks like entrapment. It this is mismatch between the desires of some women and some men that has led to the increase in out-of-wedlock births.

Did this titanic shift in sexual power politics lead to "a lessening of respect for women by men?" Polling data would suggest just the opposite. For example, a poll earlier this year found that 97 percent of Americans say that equal rights for women is important and three-fourths believe it is very important. In addition, a Pew Center poll in 1999 asked whether life has gotten better or worse since around 1950 for various groups of Americans. A full 83 percent of respondents said life had gotten better for women over the past half century, while only 9 percent thought their lot had worsened. Also, 70 percent of Americans say that men and women make equally good leaders. And a 2005 Gallup poll noted that Americans no longer differentiate much on the basis of gender in the careers they would advise young men and women to pursue. Recent research suggests that women having careers outside the home actually enhances the stability of marriages.

Despite the proliferation of coarse sexual images in some precincts of the popular culture, the fact is that violence between intimate partners has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 1993. Similarly, rape rates have dropped by more than 80 percent since the 1970s. Although crime trends are driven by many different factors, these data suggest that respect for women has increased rather than diminished since the advent of effective contraception.

Eberstadt also takes after "the Pill's bastard child, ubiquitous pornography." She knows that the old assertion that porn leads to rape is false. Instead, Eberstadt craftily turns to no less a personage than the feminist victimologist Naomi Wolf who complains that porn "is responsible for deadening male libido to real women." Porn doesn't rev men up; instead, it saps their lust. Oddly, in the next paragraph, Eberstadt quotes Bishop Charles Chaput who asserted in 1998: "Contraception has released males—to a historically unprecedented degree—from responsibility for their sexual aggression." Aggression? Just a few lines before, Eberstadt was citing complaints that guys can't be bothered to look up from the alluring images on their computer monitors to catch a coy glance from a real woman.

What about Humanae Vitae's prediction that contraception would lead to increased infidelity? Probably the best numbers available come from the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey. The survey's findings were compiled in The Social Organization of Sexuality (1994) which reported, "Over 90 percent of the women and 75 percent of the men in every cohort report fidelity within their marriage, over its entirety." Again, data are spotty, but extramarital sex appears to have declined over the past half century or so. Interestingly, the General Social Survey found that disapproval for extramarital sex has increased between 1972 and now, rising from 70 to 80 percent. In 2007, 93 percent of respondents to a Pew Center poll said that faithfulness was very important for a successful marriage.

Of course, part of the explanation for this decline in extramarital sex is that easier divorce means that people are no longer have to tomcat around because they are stuck in unsatisfactory marriages. It's worth noting that more than two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women. The divorce rate tripled in the United States between 1960 and 1980, peaking at 5.3 per 1,000 people in 1981, falling to 4.2 per 1,000 in 2000, and falling again down to 3.6 per 1,000 in 2005, the lowest rate since 1970. Interestingly, a "divorce divide" between the college educated and other Americans appears to be opening up. University of Maryland researcher Steven Martin reports, "From the 1970s to the 1990s, rates of marital dissolution fell by almost half among 4-year college graduates, but remained relatively high and steady among women with less than a 4-year college degree." He further suggests that college graduates might be the vanguard of a cultural shift away from divorce. Contraceptive use is highest among college educated women.

Pre-marital sex has definitely increased since the advent of modern contraception. According to survey data, 48 percent of people who turned 15 between 1954 and 1963 had premarital sex before age 20. That rose as contraception became more prevalent, such that 72 percent of people who turned 15 between 1974 and 1983 had engaged in premarital sex before age 20, a figure that has remained essentially flat. Does this mean that contraception has led to a general lowering of moral standards? That depends on whether or not one thinks that it is immoral to enjoy premarital sex when it is possible to avoid the risk of having an unwanted child. It turns out that most Americans no longer regard premarital sex as particularly sinful. In 1972, General Social Survey polling found that 49 percent of adults regarded premarital sex as always or almost always wrong. By 2000, 63 percent of Americans thought premarital sex is not wrong or only sometimes wrong.

Perhaps the most salient evidence for a lowering of moral standards is the effect that divorce and single-parenthood has on children. The pursuit of marital satisfaction sacrifices the interests of children. While nearly 70 percent of children are growing up with two parents, some research suggests that kids who grow up with two parents tend to do better in school and in life than those who don't. Other research suggests that divorce doesn't necessarily produce emotional and psychological basket cases. In a review of recent research, California clinical psychologist Joan Berlin Kelly found the emotional, social, and academic differences between children whose parents divorce and those from intact families are "quite small." In 2000, Kelly told the San Francisco Chronicle, "The long-term outcome of divorce for the majority of children is resiliency rather than dysfunction." In For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (2002), University of Virginia psychologist Mavis Hetherington reported, "Twenty-five percent of youths from divorced families in comparison to ten percent from non-divorced families did have serious social, emotional, and psychological problems." This is certainly not good, but it does mean that the vast majority of children from divorced families do about as well as children from intact families.

So on balance, is Eberstadt right? Have Humanae Vitae's dire predictions really been vindicated? For the most part, clearly not. On the plus side, the majority of women who have taken advantage of the availability of contraception have been big winners. By being able to choose when—and if—to have children, they have been freer to pursue life projects in wider social, commercial, creative, and intellectual realms. In addition, many men cherish the experience of sharing their lives with intellectual and emotional co-equals. However, Eberstadt is right that the biggest losers have been women who, in earlier times, would have secured financial and, one hopes, emotional support for herself and her children from a man by the simple act of becoming pregnant. Another hopeful sign that fewer women are pursuing this outmoded strategy is that teen pregnancy rates declined between 1991 and 2006 (with an uptick last year). The chief reason was the increased use of contraception among teens. Perhaps the next generation is adapting to the changed sexual dynamics engendered by the reproductive technological shock of the last half century.

Infidelity is not rife. Human beings learn morality, like everything else, by means of trial-and-error. Sexual moral standards are not lower, they are different. Men and women are still figuring out what the proper balance in sexual relations should be in light of effective contraception. And by most indicia, respect for women by men has never been higher. Women enjoy the same political, economic, and social rights as men for the first time in history. Although some women pine nostalgically for the halcyon era in which all men were Fred Astaire or Cary Grant, the most telling fact is that few American women would turn back the clock to the circumstances of women prior to 1970, much less earlier.

So Eberstadt has it wrong. Humanae Vitae has not been vindicated in most respects. There has not been a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; nor the coercive use of reproductive technologies by our government.

Toward the end of her essay, Eberstadt cites the moral authority of Martin Luther who in "a commentary on Genesis declared contraception to be worse than incest or adultery." This is the same Martin Luther who declared, "Girls begin to talk and stand on their own sooner than boys because weeds always grow up more quickly than good crops." Luther's thinking on the proper relation between men and women is complex, but it should be remembered that he also brutally said, "God formed her body to belong to a man…Let them bear children till they die of it. That is what they are here for…."

Yes indeed, proscribing contraception is really the way to respect women.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.