by Susan E. Wills
March 18, 2000
Good theology and good science both lead to truth. Catholic teaching about contraception does not depend on scientific discoveries, medical findings or sociology statistics. It rests on an understanding of the meaning and purpose of marriage and human sexuality, through which God continues "to speak His 'yes' to human life" (G. Meilaender). But after 40 years of cultural hype, it is gratifying to see the failures and harmful effects of contraception recently exposed in prestigious publications. The wisdom of Church teaching is being validated, if inadvertently, by medicine and social science.
In the category of "Still Can't Read the Handwriting on the Wall," first prize goes to a Washington Post article entitled "Teen Birthrate Takes a Big Toll in Brazil; Pregnancies Soar Despite Access to Contraceptives." Utterly hoodwinked by Planned Parenthood's mantra "contraceptives mean fewer pregnancies and fewer abortions," the author writes:
The birthrate among adolescents has soared, a mystifying development given the unprecedented efforts of the past decade here to provide more information about, and access to, contraceptives. Television commercials trumpet the use of condoms. Neighborhood clinics distribute birth-control pills and other contraceptives. Numerous cities have created programs to reduce the number of pregnancies and cases of sexually transmitted diseases among teens. Yet those efforts have found only limited success....Limited success? From 1993 to 1998, the birthrate for Brazilian girls aged 15-19 jumped 19% and for girls aged 10-14, the birthrate leaped 31%. Also, the annual abortion rate for Brazilian teens aged 15-19 is tragically high: 32 per 1,000 girls (rivaling the appalling U.S. rate of 36 per 1,000).
Clearly the answer is not more of the same failed policy. Condoms and oral contraceptives are not foolproof. "Typical use" failure rates are about 14% for condoms and 7.6% for oral contraceptives, but failures are even higher among teens because of imperfect use. And to make things even worse, contraceptives create a false sense of security and lead to higher levels of nonmarital sex, promiscuity, pregnancy, abortion, nonmarital births and sexually transmitted disease.
The runner-up article in the category "I Can See Clearly Now" comes from a recent issue of The Lancet. It attributes the gravely worsening AIDS epidemic in southern Africa to condoms unhelpfully supplied by the U.S. and international agencies. The author notes that condoms are not only ineffective in stopping the transmission of AIDS, but have actually exacerbated the epidemic by fostering the false belief that promiscuous sexual activity can be "safe."
The U.S. is awash in contraceptives which have proved to be no help in reducing rates of pregnancy, birth and abortions. Nor are they helping to eradicate STDs. Cases of incurable viral STDs in the U.S. are epidemic. About 45 million Americans have genital herpes. One million new cases are added annually. Human papilloma virus, the primary cause of cervical cancer, now affects 20 million Americans. Some 5.5 million new cases are added each year. Hepatitis B afflicts 750,000 Americans and 77,000 new cases occur each year. HIV claims 650,000-900,000 victims in the U.S. currently, with 20,000 new cases added annually. (Medical Institute for Sexual Health)
The winning entry in the "I Can See Clearly Now" category appeared in the February 2000 issue of the AMA's Archives of Family Medicine: "Postfertilization Effects of Oral Contraceptives and Their Relationship to Informed Consent" by Walter Larimore, MD and Joseph Stanford, MD. Reviewing abstracts of all studies of oral contraceptives (OCs) published since 1970 and available on MEDLINE, the doctors concluded that "good evidence exists to support the hypothesis that the effectiveness of oral contraceptives depends to some degree on postfertilization effects." Women taking OCs may still sometimes ovulate (more likely with today's lower doses of estrogen, with progestin-only pills and with imperfect use) and the resultant egg may be fertilized, creating a new life. The embryo's life may be cut short in its first week, without the mother's knowledge, by the OC's actions in slowing the embryo's progress through the fallopian tubes or in altering the uterine lining to prevent successful implantation or maintenance. Because many patients morally oppose taking their child's life even at the embryonic stage, and few are aware of this property of OCs, the authors recommend explaining this potential action to all prospective users of OCs as a matter of "informed consent." Based on this research, Dr. Larimore stopped prescribing OCs due to their potential for terminating new life and now recommends modern methods of natural family planning to his patients.
Even as such medical findings and statistics publicly reveal the dark side of the contraceptive revolution, we hear continued calls for funding adolescent contraception, for increased availability of emergency "contraception" and for more money for international "family planning." Will we never learn?
Susan E. Wills is assistant director for program development, NCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.