The Pill: past its use-by date

On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI published a document, Humanae Vitae, which said that the Pill was incompatible with Catholic morality. Did this shunt his Church into decades of irrelevance or did it make the Church a beacon of moral clarity? This week MercatorNet publishes three articles about the world after Humanae Vitae. Below, Jennifer Roback Morse asks why former champions of the contraceptive Pill are disenchanted with it and what exactly we expected the Pill to do.


How quickly things can change. One week we read about the need for school nurses to give contraceptive pills to girls who just can’t say no; the next, this headline from London’s Daily Telegraph leaps out from our news feeds: “‘Contraceptive pill outdated and does not work well,’ experts warns”.

Well, I thought, that is curious. Whatever could have happened? Are women all of a sudden immune to the effects of estrogen? Is it something in the air, or the water? And who was the expert delivering this disturbing news?

It turned out to be Dr James Trussell, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and Director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. Dr Trussell is one of the Mr Bigs of birth control research so the Telegraph was listening carefully when he spoke recently at a conference of one of the UK’s main birth control groups, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

And yes, he certainly was disenchanted with the Pill. “One in 12 women taking the Pill get pregnant each year because they miss so many tablets,” he lamented. “The Pill is an outdated method because it does not work well enough. It is very difficult for ordinary women to take a pill every single day.”

Frankly, this is something well known in Britain where pregnancy rates among schoolgirls continue to rise, and thousands of women have three or four abortions. But what does Dr Trussell suggest should be done with these “ordinary women” who, although he is too polite to say it in so many words, are too stupid to take a pill every day?

Shoot them up with long-lasting hormonal contraception amounting to sterilization -- not to put too fine a point on it. “The beauty of the implant or the IUD is that you can forget about them," enthused the professor. "If you want to seriously reduce unintended pregnancies in the UK you can only do it with implants and IUDs.”

So now we get to the heart of the matter. The problem is not that the Pill doesn’t work -- it does, reducing the probability that any given act of intercourse will result in pregnancy. The problem is that women do not take it regularly enough. But that raises the all-important question: What, exactly, are we trying to accomplish with the Pill?

This is my theory: the Pill has been an instrument in the creation of what author Lee Harris called, in another context, a fantasy ideology.

A fantasy ideology is a variety of utopianism that is not about making a better world, but making its adherents feel good about themselves. The believer is assured that he is one of the chosen, one of the few enlightened ones who truly understands the universe. In the name of supporting the fantasy, the believer is entitled to impose large costs on other people. Indeed, he seldom notices these costs, because he is not checking in with reality on a regular basis. Data fly right over his head.

Though Lee Harris developed his concept of the fantasy ideology in relation to Islam, his analysis could apply just as well to the contraceptive ideology. The fantasy ideology of contraception is that people are entitled to behave as if they had perfectly functioning contraception; in other words, to act as though sexual activity and reproduction are completely disconnected.

Adherents of the ideology get to feel good about themselves as progressive, modern, enlightened. They are ever so beyond the tired old ethics that connects sex with responsible parenthood through marriage. Most importantly, believers in the faith that contraception prevents all consequences of sex never have to apologize for any sexual misdeeds. There are no sexual misdeeds, with the possible exception of rape.

It is no wonder that poor Dr Trussell is disappointed. The Pill could not possibly meet the standard of creating a lifetime of harmless and guilt-free sex.

Yet on the road to the society of perfectly controlled reproductive freedom, millions of people’s lives have been ruined. Women got themselves involved in relationships that had no chance of sustaining a pregnancy. Then, they were shocked and appalled when they got pregnant. In their desperation, they turned to abortion. Or they kept babies they were ill-prepared to raise, because they could not bring themselves to have an abortion and no-one encouraged them to consider adoption.

Or, men got themselves involved with women who claimed they wanted no deeper involvement. But then, when they became pregnant, they wanted the child after all. In some cases the woman wanted the child all along, and deceived the man into believing that he was participating in a sterile sexual encounter. Since sterile sex is the new social norm, thanks to the Pill, it is not difficult to convince a man you don’t mean to have a baby.

Men and women alike thought the addition of a condom protected them from sexually transmitted diseases. They didn’t notice when the sexual spin doctors quietly changed the term “safe sex” to “safer sex”. Some were naïve enough to think that the Pill looked after all safety issues, even though it offers no protection against STDs whatsoever.

The true believer in the fantasy ideology of contraception does not look too closely at problems like these. Any problem that cannot be solved by more contraception is not worth considering.

This is why the indefatigable Dr Trussell advocates more aggressive and intrusive methods of contraception. He and his allies must not, at any cost, question their premise that contraception eliminates all negative consequences of sex. They are reduced to sewing more patches over the tattered quilt of an outmoded fantasy ideology. It is not just the Pill that has outlived its shelf life, but the contraceptive ideology itself.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of The Ruth Institute, and the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World.


This is one of three articles on the world after Humanae Vitae. See also: Singapore's fertility woes call for a rethink of sexual attitudes which describes what happens when governments, not parents, regulate births, and and an interview with philosopher Christopher Tollefsen, Sex without consequences, a world without commitment


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