Before joining the Marines in 1960, I was in the midst of a boiling controversy at the University of California in Berkeley. There was widespread frustration there and elsewhere with intransigence of a backward Catholic Church that refused to approve the marvelous and newly introduced birth control pill.
The harmless — or so we thought — manipulation of hormones with a pill to space one’s family seemed like such a good idea. The pill could help with the looming catastrophes of overpopulation and poverty. Superficially it looked like the Church cared only about a principle — not about family size or the poor. All she could offer was abstinence, the rhythm method, or more children — none of which appealed to lay people.
Understanding the Church’s reasoning was hard, as I tried to answer my hostile classmates. One of the priests at the Newman Center had to explain it to me several times. Even if the new contraception was truly evil, at least it should end abortions, right? That benefit surely would have pleased everyone.
Well, phooey. What do you know when you’re 18? Once in the Marines, compliance with the drill instructor became my main preoccupation, and hostile questions related mostly to personal performance.
Fast-forward 13 years. By 1973, I was finishing up medical school and beginning residency. I was also trying to figure out what to do about contraception. By then the waters had gotten muddy. Vatican II concluded in 1965 and afterwards you could find a priest anywhere who would tell you 1. contraception was moral, or 2. immoral, or 3. it would soon be approved by the Church, or 4. figure it out yourself.
That same year, in 1973 the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. This should have been a tip-off as to the effect 13 years of contraception was having on abortion, but I missed it completely. See, I was still thinking the way to prevent abortions was to insure contraception availability. It’s largely what I used to justify contraception prescriptions.
It didn’t dawn on me that the increasing availability of contraception — paradoxically — drove the demand for legalization of abortion. It was also proclaimed that 10,000 women were dying every year from illegally preformed abortions. (Mary Calderone, then-director of Planned Parenthood, later admitted it was never more than 300, but the deception added to the justification for Roe v. Wade.) The Supreme Court decision appeared to be based mostly on an agenda, not a considered legal rationale and human rights.
I thought, OK, even if legal, we can still fight abortion by insuring every woman who wants contraception gets it. We’ll simply eliminate demand by education and adequate prescription. In those days, incidentally, we were learning about hormonal side effects, but weren’t aware of the abortifacient potential.
My journey through this jungle took some weird turns, but with the blessed help of a Protestant minister, I was led to absolute rejection of artificial contraception. I then discovered the rhythm method had matured into very effective natural family planning, and became an enthusiastic supporter — but that’s another story.
Contraception has been readily available, very efficient, and in a number of inexpensive forms for some 53 years. In 1960, there were about 800 legal abortions. There are now 1.2-1.3 million abortions annually — almost one out of four viable pregnancies. About 55 million babies have been legally killed since Jan. 22, 1973. And although many people still believe all the abortions are because contraception is not yet available enough, the only rational conclusion is that contraception somehow fuels abortion — both its continued legalization and its proliferation.
The Church consistently condemns not only contraception, but also its largely unrecognized fruits — including promiscuity, co-habitation, divorce, sterilization and abortion. This condemnation provokes hostility in and out of the Church.
Those who battle to overturn Roe v. Wade need to recognize that overturning it alone will not end the demand for abortion. That will require overturning hearts and minds.
To convince people of no real faith that a contraception mentality is the root cause of abortion may be impossible. What is possible — and utterly necessary — is to convince people who desire a vigorous faith life that contraception interferes with God’s presence in their marriage. And that it remains a mortal sin. Benedicamus Domino.