Wednesday, September 7, 2016

It Is Time to Revisit Church’s Stance on Contraception

By Celia Wexler

NOTE: This op-ed was first published September 6 by The Huffington Post.

In the immortal words of John Oliver, “How is this still a thing?”

The “this”, in this case, is the Catholic church’s official stance on contraception. Since most American Catholic women clearly have decided that the institutional church was out of touch when it deemed artificial birth control, “intrinsically wrong,” many of us believed that battle largely was won, if only by attrition. (Even by conservative estimates, it appears that about seven out of ten Catholic women in the U.S. have used artificial birth control.)

But, of course, that’s not true. Contraception, which could do so much good, continues to be a religious minefield. In Africa and Latin America, millions of Catholics follow the church on this issue.

Catholic hospitals and women religious, who should be at the forefront helping the disadvantaged plan their families, are stymied by the wrongheadedness of a long-dead pope.

The church has long had concerns about the morality of contraception, but so did the rest of society. In 1916, birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger was jailed for her advocacy. It took Congress until 1971 to actually repeal provisions of the federal law imposing restrictions on contraception. Courts invalidated many state laws.

As women pushed for equality and autonomy, scientists were developing a birth control pill that would place the decision solely in women’s hands. The problem was, the church was not progressing along the same timeline, although there was reason to hope for change.

In 1930, Pope Pius XII had strongly condemned artificial birth control, when there was worry about a declining birthrate after the deaths of so many young men in World War I. But by the 1950s, the church had relaxed that ban to permit natural family planning, which allows couples to schedule intercourse when the woman is not fertile.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened a commission to examine the ethical implications of birth control, a commission which was expanded and continued under Pope Paul VI. The commission, which included Catholic married couples and physicians, reportedly voted overwhelmingly to lift the Vatican’s blanket ban on artificial birth control, and to permit married couples to prudently plan their families.

But that hope was dashed in 1968, when Paul VI, writing in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, once more declared artificial contraception “intrinsically wrong.”

A re-thinking of the church’s official position is long overdue. The progressive Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, recently issued a lengthy and detailed rebuttal to Humanae Vitae, which has done so much harm in the fifty years since it was issued — harm not only to women, but to the church itself. To date, the statement has been signed by more than 80 scholars, ethicists and scientists.

Effective birth control gives women control over their own bodies, helps lift families out of the poverty caused by too many children, and shows careful stewardship of our over-taxed planet.

In this time of Zika, contraception may be the most effective way to prevent tens of thousands of infants from being born with serious, debilitating birth defects. As long as AIDS continues to threaten African women, including married women, and their offspring, condoms are vital.

Contraception may also limit the collateral damage of rape and sexual assault in countries where women have few defenses against predators.

The institutional church itself has suffered from this papal decision. Twenty-five years after Humanae Vitae was released, the late Jesuit moral theologian Richard A. McCormick regretted its aftermath — a cleric’s position on birth control became a “litmus test” for priests who aspired to be bishops; it discouraged theological discourse on sexual ethics, and it caused many Catholics to no longer rely on the church for moral guidance.

The scholars’ recent statement notes that a quarter of the world’s health-care facilities and schools are run by Catholic institutions, making a reversal of the church’s position very urgent.

The scholars contend that if the church permits natural family planning, which is a way to prevent conception, it should realize that other forms of birth control are equivalent.

They ask that the institutional church make clear that all birth control methods that do not induce abortions are approved for use by Catholic healthcare providers. (Birth control methods that do induce abortions should be evaluated on a case by case basis, applying ethical principles such as whether their use would be the “lesser evil.”)

They also urge that Catholic theologians whose opposition to Humanae Vitae caused them to be censured have their reputations restored.

A half a century is a long time for a mistake to go uncorrected. If Pope Francis really wants to leave behind a reform legacy, this would be a good place to start.

Celia Wexler is a free-lance journalist and author living in Alexandria, Virginia. Her book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope, will be published September 30. Follow her on Twitter at

See also the previous posts:
Dear Pope Francis: Saving the World Requires Contraception
We Are the 98 Percent
Contraception's Con Men
Out of Step With the Flock: Bishops Far Behind on Birth Control Issues
Church's View of Sex the Root of Its Troubles
Overpopulation and the Catholic Church: Can't We Become Part of the Solution?
Quote of the Day — February 12, 2012