This year we “celebrate” the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill, or “the pill.”
For the 40th anniversary of the pill, PBS produced a thorough retrospective on its history. The material is still on the PBS website and is an invaluable resource for those interested in this subject.
The story PBS tells is fascinating and, without meaning to denigrate PBS, the broadcaster tells the history of the pill in a surprisingly honest way — surprising not only because of PBS’ usual biases, but also because the pill is a subject that involves a great deal of dishonesty. PBS is even honest about the dishonesty and even simple foolishness that surrounds the pill. For instance, when it reports on early efforts to get the pharmaceutical companies — including Searle, which eventually became the first company to receive FDA approval to sell birth control pill — to develop a chemical contraceptive, PBS notes:
“Beyond the legal and religious complications, Searle executives just didn’t believe there would be a huge market for an oral contraceptive. The men at Searle found it inconceivable that any woman would consider taking pills every single day just for contraception. The prevailing wisdom was that no healthy woman would ever willingly take a drug that neither treated nor prevented disease.”
Deceptive drug trial
Sadly they were oh so wrong. Women have proven wretchedly willing to “take a drug that neither treated nor prevented disease” and, indeed, which has been plausibly identified as a cause of lethal diseases.
PBS also noted that some of the early research that was done circumvented laws against contraception by purporting to do research to help women with problems with infertility. Not only were some of the trials illegal, some of them involved giving women in psychiatric hospitals drugs without their knowledge or consent.
Deception was even written into the pill; since the pill creates a pseudo-pregnancy, women on the pill would not be menstruating. Researchers, however, devised the pill so that women would experience pseudo menstruation each month. This was done so that the pill might seem more “natural” and thus perhaps make it more acceptable to the Catholic Church.
Researchers chose Puerto Rico as a place to test the pill because they reasoned if they could get a poor Catholic country to accept contraception, it would be an easy sell elsewhere.
The fact that three women died during the course of the trials did not provoke researchers to examine the risks of taking the pill.
In fact, contraceptives are regularly tested or used without proper testing in Third World countries. Another kind of pill, Quinacrine, has the same sordid history. Quinacrine, a drug available in pellet form, was used for some time in Third World countries to sterilize women. It works by burning surfaces of the fallopian tube and uterus, thereby closing off the fallopian tubes. Huge problems arose with the practice, however. For instance, many of the lesions created by the burning became infected. Many women died of sepsis from infected wounds before the World Health Organization made sterilizers cease the practice.
The disturbing amount of duplicity and falsehood surrounding contraception continues to this day. Neither pharmaceutical companies nor physicians have been honest about the medical dangers of chemical contraceptives. The pill launched a whole set of chemical contraceptives, including Depo Provera, Ortho Evra, also known as the Patch, and Norplant. More and more studies (see the April 2009 study by Jessica Dolle of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center) are linking contraception with increased incidences of some forms of cancer.
The transcript of the PBS documentary indicates physicians recognized this possible connection from the beginning, but, from the start, this information has been suppressed. Why? Because pharmaceuticals make billions each year from chemical contraceptives: An honest account of the dangers would result in huge financial losses. Moreover, most of the research done on the pill is financed by pharmaceuticals. That just might call into question the reliability of the studies.
Occasionally, a study will appear that purports to show that the pill actually reduces the incidence of some forms of cancer. At best these studies show only a correlation between taking the pill and reduction of risk of disease. For instance, a study might take a group of women who take the pill and a group who don’t and compare the mortality rate between them. If the study shows that more takers of the pill lived longer, researchers jump to the conclusion that taking the pill is what prolonged the contraceptors’ lives.
That is a unwarranted leap of logic; there may be many other significant differences between the two groups that could account for the difference in mortality. What the studies definitely have not done is shown why the pill might prolong life. I suspect that will be impossible to do. More reliable logic is on the side of those who suspect a link between contraception and disease, since the chemical contraceptives involve prolonged ingestion of steroids. Many of those taking the pill are young women whose breasts are not fully developed; their breasts are particularly susceptible to predatory cell growth.
Cancer is not the only lethal side effect of the pill and other chemical contraceptives. The Patch, which was approved by the FDA in 2001 and went on sale the following year, has proved to have many lethal side effects. Johnson and Johnson has paid out millions of damages to women and to the families of women who have experienced sometimes fatal heart attacks and strokes. The fact that the usage of the patch has dropped by nearly two-thirds indicates that at least some doctors have been informed of the risks.
Any other drug that has been linked with as many deaths and risks of lethal diseases would likely have been taken off the market. Some have observed the pharmaceutical companies may be as liable to class action suits as were the tobacco companies.
Certainly too few people know that the chemical contraceptives can have an abortifacient effect — that is, they work by causing the endometrium to be insufficiently friendly to an embryonic human being. Women who use chemical contraceptives may nonetheless conceive. If a woman forgets to take the pill or takes the pill at a different time of the day than usual, or is taking other medication that might interfere with the working of the pill, she may ovulate and conceive a child. As the new little human being tries to implant in his or her mother’s uterus, he or she may find the atmosphere of the womb inhospitable. Women who use the pill may regularly be spontaneously aborting a very small baby.
No woman knows how the pill or any of the chemical contraceptives is working in her body: Are they preventing ovulation, conception or implantation? Brian Gail’s terrific novel, “Fatherless” (One More Soul, $14.95), provides a gripping narrative, all too likely close to fact, of the suppression by pharmaceuticals of the truth of the abortifacient power of the pill.
Present vs. future
That the Father of Lies should be using lies and subterfuge to promote contraception should not be surprising. As Pope John Paul II noted in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (on the role of the Christian family), contraceptive sex is itself a lie. It falsifies the relationship of spouses. When spouses are engaging in sexual intercourse, their acts, by their very nature, are ordained to expressing a lifetime commitment to each other, to expressing love, the desire to share their entire lives with each other, their desire to give of themselves to each other in a way in which they give themselves to no other.
Contracepted acts simply cannot express such meanings. Contracepted acts of sexual intercourse are inher-ently ephemeral; they have no ordination to the future. They express simply the desire of the partners to share a great pleasure.
Noncontracepted acts of sexual intercourse retain the meaning of a profound orientation toward the future — that is, the language of the body, the meaning of a noncontracepted act of sexual intercourse, says, “I acknowledge and accept the beauty of the procreative meaning of this act. If you and I were to become parents with each other, the commitment entailed in parenthood is one I welcome with you; I want a lifetime exclusive relationship with you.”
Lies lead to more lies. Certainly contraception is damaging to the marital relationship since it belies the nature of the gift. It is also falsifies male/female relationships prior to marriage.
First, consider the physical effect of the chemical contraceptives on male/female relationships. More and more studies show that the use of contraceptives muddles the “chemical” attraction between males and females. Since chemical contraceptives put women in a state of “pseudo-pregnancy,” women using the chemical contraceptives have a bizarre chemical makeup — they do not have the hormonal makeup of women with natural fertility nor the hormonal makeup of truly pregnant women.
Studies show that women taking the pill are attracted to less masculine men, and when they go off the pill they often find they are not as attracted to the man they chose when they were on the pill. Men are more attracted to women who have natural fertility cycles. One study showed that they find average-looking women who are fertile more attractive than supermodels. So, chemical contraceptives falsify the attraction between men and women.
The effectiveness rate of contraceptives is misrepresented. Fifty percent of the pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and 50 percent of women who have those unwanted pregnancies were using a contraceptive when they got pregnant. More than 50 percent of women having abortions say they were using a contraceptive when they got pregnant. Within the first year that they use contraception, 17 percent of unmarried, cohabiting women will experience contraceptive failure.
The lying that goes on in any sexual relationship not bound up with marriage is also destructive, both of the relationships and of the souls of those participating in such relationships. Dawn Eden, in her book “The Thrill of the Chaste,” vividly portrays the amount of deception it takes to be promiscuous — to pretend you are more interested in your potential prey than you actually are and after intimate relations to maintain a conversation with someone you barely know. Most everyone who is cohabiting is lying to someone — to a grandmother or co-worker, for instance. It is not beneficial for the future of relationships that individuals discover themselves and their partners to be effective liars.
Connecting the dots
The human and social devastation wrought by the pill and companions cannot be overstated. It is not difficult to connect the dots between contraception, fornication, promiscuity, cohabitation and divorce. The amount of sex outside of marriage and the incidence of cohabitation has increased wildly since the pill was invented. So, too, have unwed pregnancy, abortion, divorce, poverty and unhappiness. Books like Lionel Tiger’s “The Decline of Males” and Jennifer Roback Morse’s “Smart Sex” provide statistical data to demonstrate what logic and common sense should easily be able to link. In his article “Bitter pill” (in the May issue of First Things), economist Tim Reichert uses the methodology of economics to show the use of contraception has led to a measurable decline in the happiness of females. As a result of our sexually out-of-control culture, we have an abysmally unhappy and wounded populace. Certainly the men and women in and out of sexual relationships, carrying and sharing incurable sexually transmitted infections, suffering heartbreak and desolation, and enduring abortions are dreadfully wounded by their sexual behavior.
Yet it is arguably children who suffer the most; those who are aborted never see the light of day. Thirty-seven percent of babies are now born out of wedlock, and nearly 70 percent of American children will grow up in single-parent households or households fractured by divorce. Why is it so hard for the world to see, that out-of-control sexuality is the cause of more troubles in our culture than any thing else?
I keep hoping someone will do a study of the carbon footprint of contraceptives. Production costs are considerable, as is the cost for packaging and distributing and disposing of contraceptives. The estrogens, in particular in some forms of the pill, are having serious negative effects on the environment. Well-known are the reports of a serious disproportion between male and female fish when a water supply has too much estrogen in it. And what other effects might there be of excess estrogen in the environment? Some have conjectured that premature puberty in young girls and the increase in infertility among males may be traceable to excess estrogen in the water supply, or perhaps even in their mother’s systems as they were gestated.
For my part, I believe all those who use natural family planning should get a tax credit for environmentally responsible behavior.
Conflicts within Church
Sadly, even the response to the pill within the Church is marked by underhandedness and coercion. Someone on the commission set up to advise Pope Paul VI on the question of “birth regulation,” leaked confidential documents to the press to put pressure on him to support contraception. Such was a serious betrayal of trust.
Cardinal James F. Stafford tells of a clandestine meeting of the priests in Baltimore wherein the priests were browbeaten into signing a petition against Pope Paul’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”), and only he refused. None of the signatories had read the document. That is simply dishonest.
There are, however, many good signs. The studies showing the various dangers of the pill are getting more respect. For instance, the fact that Dr. Louise Brinton of the National Cancer Institute now acknowledges a link between contraception and cancer is a step forward. Within the Church, we find evidence of a renewed zeal on the part of the bishops to defend the Church’s teaching on sexuality. For instance, the fact that the U.S. bishops wrote a letter on “Marriage and the Gift of Life” in 2006, and issued another beautiful statement on marriage in 2009, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” indicates they have recognized the need for marriage to be bolstered. Their “For Your Marriage” website is a gold mine of resources for the engaged and married and those who work with both groups.
Catholics still have work cut out for them. Nearly all Catholics have used contraceptives, and the vast majority still think the Church should cease teaching that contraception is intrinsically wrong. A wide majority of Catholics have sex before marriage, and they seem to have abortions and to divorce at pretty much the same rate as the rest of the population. The Church has a teaching that is beautiful and that will save women from much of the grief that is facilitated by the chemical contraceptives.
Rather than “celebrating” the 50th anniversary, our culture should take an honest look at what the pill (and its cousins) have done to our culture. It may come to see that the Church, rather than being retrograde and an obstacle to progress, is one of the few voices of sanity in a culture gone mad.
Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Mich.
On May 11, Enovid becomes the first birth control pill to receive FDA approval.
Harvard obstetrician Dr. John Rock publishes “The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposal to End the Battle over Birth Control.”
Pope John XXIII establishes the Papal Commission on Population, Family and Natality. After his death, Pope Paul VI expands the commission to research use of the pill.
Pope Paul VI issues his encyclical Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”), which reaffirms that artificial contraception is not acceptable and warns that its use may lead to infidelity, moral decline and the demeaning of women.
Within a quarter of a century, 50 million to 80 million women worldwide take the pill.
FDA approves Depo-Provera, a hormone shot used to prevent pregnancy.
FDA approves RU-486, or mifepristone, which induces an abortion in the first seven weeks of pregnancy when used in conjunction with another drug, prostaglandin.
Ortho Evra, the birth control patch, is approved.
FDA approves over-the-counter sales of Plan B, called “the morning after pill,” which uses a large dose of birth-control pills to prevent contraception up to 72 hours after sex, and which can cause early abortion by preventing a newly conceived embryo from implanting in its mother’s womb.
Sources: Catholic News Service, Newsweek’s “The History of Birth Control,” PBS
Claiming God's Power
When, through contraception, married couples remove from the exercise of their conjugal sexuality its potential procreative capacity, they claim a power which belongs solely to God: the power to decide in a final analysis the coming into existence of a human person. They assume the qualification of not being cooperators in God’s creative power, but the ultimate depositaries of the source of human life. In this perspective, contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful, as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God.”
— Pope John Paul II, 1983
Love, Not Drugs
In a culture subjected to the prevalence of “having” over “being,” human life risks losing its value. If the practice of sexuality becomes a drug that seeks to enslave one’s partner to one’s own desires and interests, without respecting the cycle of the beloved, then what must be defended is no longer solely the true concept of love but in the first place the dignity of the person. As believers, we could never let the domination of technology invalidate the quality of love and the sacredness of life....
The teaching expressed by the encyclical Humanae Vitae is not easy. Yet it conforms with the fundamental structure through which life has always been transmitted since the world’s creation, with respect for nature and in conformity with its needs. Concern for human life and safeguarding the person’s dignity require us not to leave anything untried so that all may be involved in the genuine truth of responsible conjugal love in full adherence to the law engraved on the heart of every person.
— Pope Benedict XVI, in a May 10, 2008, speech