Ironically, this Sunday was not only Mother’s Day but the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the first modern birth control pill, now granted proper noun status at The Pill. Tributes and analyses have been written ad naseum over the weekend, but for a Catholic blog it is important to take a step back and realize that, despite our intense moral objections to this form of birth control, it more than any other person or thing may have been the most influential part of Catholicism in the last fifty years.
The Pill was “invented” by a then-Catholic doctor whose goal in creating the birth control option was to find a way to regulate women’s menstrual cycles that mirrored the traditional Catholic rhythm method. As Church and American Catholic historians well know, Pope Pius VI created a committee to offer an advisory opinion, then allegedly went against the committee’s recommendation in Humana Vitae and lumped The Pill in with other forms of artificial contraception.
Some authors have said that this moment was a defining point in Catholic America’s history: millions of devout Catholic women were prepared for the pope to “legalize” The Pill and when he didn’t, simply carried on with their birth control plan anyway. I think this is slightly naïve, as the assimilation of American Catholicism with mainstream American habits was well underway. But it did become the main talking point about the lack of faithfulness of the American Church – almost every article on The Pill notes that US Catholic women use The Pill at the same rate as other women.
On this anniversary, I think it is important to think about how Catholics should respond to what, at least according to our museums, is now a part of medical history. Obviously Catholic teachings say we should oppose artificial birth control while celebrating life through natural family planning. This message does not resonate in a society that yearns for things “Better than Nature.” But I want to expand on a point Donald McClarey made in this post that when we as a society celebrate the major advances in birth control, we also need to lament the downfall of a society that values children.
Consider today’s birth control commercials and advertising. One commercial that grabbed my attention is a woman shown standing in front of her house with her husband, children, and dogs. But she is standing a few feet in front of them, as if to show a distance. She then proceeds to list the things she wants to do, moving from the more active (hiking) to the least active (reading, taking a breath). All the while, the scene shifts to show in the background the kids and husband doing family activities, which is designed to give you a sense of being overwhelmed. The narrator then comes on to talk about the birth control pill that allows women to do what they want, then decide when they want to have children. In our modern society this is called freedom.
But what strikes me if the family in the background. It is clear that the commercial means to show them as a hindrance. The audience is supposed to shake their head and go “it’s too bad she doesn’t have time for herself. Kids just get in the way.” Next time you watch TV take a critical look at how media portrays children. So often you see parents roll their eyes at mention of their children or use them to show how bad things are in their household. This goes for both TV shows and commercials.
How often do we smile and praise our children when talking to others? Not to sound like a homily, but we as pro-life and pro-family Catholics should talk more about the joys of children. Maybe this is how we should celebrate The Pill – by celebrating what it cannot give.