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Fifty years ago this summer, Pope Paul VI issued “Humanae Vitae,” his encyclical reaffirming the Catholic church’s stance against artificial contraception. That most people (including 89 percent of American Catholics) disagree with the church’s teaching, traditionalist defenders say, has summoned a world where sex is severed from procreation and therefore commitment, strewn with the rubble of broken marriages, children of divorce, and women regarded as “sexual instruments,” demonstrated by #MeToo.
As one of the 89 percent, I see little point in arguing a settled debate. Whether it’s the high failure rate of the church-endorsed natural family planning; the unpersuasive distinction between preventing life with and without artificial means; the harm from emotionally and/or financially unprepared people becoming parents; or the goofiness of blaming #MeToo offenses on birth control, as if harassment and objectification of women were unknown before 1960 gave us the pill, most Americans agree with the Supreme Court that sex without reproduction is not necessarily bad.
Better than debating the minority view against contraception is focusing on the globally restricted access to it. The world, especially the developing world, needs more condoms, not fewer. And other means of family planning as well.
... most Americans agree with the Supreme Court that sex without reproduction is not necessarily bad.
From South America to Africa, news stories in the last two years have shown the toll of unwanted pregnancies. Here are a few:
1) Venezuela’s economic crisis, brought on by socialist mismanagement and plummeting prices for the country’s oil, was worsened by a contraception shortage that led to childbearing among families who were already struggling financially.
One woman who’d lost her job told the Washington Post that, after running out of the pill and despite trying to avoid pregnancy, she and her husband conceived a second child: “We barely eat three times a day. I don’t know how we’re going to feed another mouth.”
The contraception shortage, a product of the government ceasing free provision of birth control due to its fiscal squeeze, saw sexually transmitted diseases spike as well. With abortion illegal, dangerous home abortions also rose. All of which saddled Venezuelans, the Washington Post said, with “a bleak quandary: Have sex—or don’t?”
2) A 2016 report, authored by International Planned Parenthood Federation, found that the UN’s Population Fund, “the largest supplier of contraceptives in many nations,” faces a $235 million budget shortfall over the four years ending in 2020:
Advocates at all levels—global, national and subnational—must urgently examine the implications of the global funding gap for contraceptive supplies. The commitment and leadership of national governments is the lynchpin to contraceptive security. Without their leadership, we cannot meet the growing demand and need for contraceptives.
3) Finally, a Catholic priest in Kenya told his flock that condoms cause HIV-AIDS. His reasoning (not sanctioned by the Vatican) was that, by encouraging promiscuous sex, condoms inevitably lead people to let down their latex guard and have unprotected intercourse, boosting infection rates.
Actually, Slate reported, condoms have slashed HIV transmission by 80 percent. When Kenya’s archbishop OK’d married couples employing condoms in 2005, their use doubled among husbands and wives able to procure them.
Even in the U.S., however, contraception is ensnared in the broader debate over the sexual revolution.
The Catholic church’s position on artificial birth control also clashes with its noble pursuit of Jesus’s call to care for the poor. Research shows that as more women have access to education, the number of children they have invariably declines.
“Given that fewer children per woman and delayed marriage and childbearing could mean more resources per child and better health and survival rates for mothers and children, this is an important link,” says the World Bank, which also urges greater access to family planning in developing nations.
Of course, the wealthy U.S. hasn’t dodged the contraception wars. Egged on by conservative evangelicals, the Trump administration curtailed access to family planning under Obamacare and is trying to cut family planning money to abortion clinics and referral services. Still, contraception advocates often skate on thinner ice in the developing world than here, where most religious groups don’t share the Vatican’s hostility to artificial birth control.
Even in the U.S., however, contraception is ensnared in the broader debate over the sexual revolution. David Talcott, an expert on Christian sexual ethics at King’s College, a Christian college in New York City, says that while many evangelicals have no moral objection to contraception, “There are a lot of people who think that the social and cultural changes of the past 50 years, especially related to sex, have been pretty bad."
No doubt, a throwaway culture in which everything from marriages to the unborn is disposable is a sign of trouble. Cutting off access to birth control won't solve the problem.
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