A storied history describes the progression of contraceptive methods, spanning from as early as 1500 B.C. until today. The appearance of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive, in 1960 marked a revolutionary change for those seeking contraception. In a mere five years, 6.5 million American women were taking Enovid. The first Pill rapidly gained international popularity, with TIME reporting over 5 million women in other countries using Enovid by 1967.
During the 1950s, when the first birth control pill was being developed, discussions of male birth control began; they never came to fruition. What did result was the severe mistreatment of women, namely in the form of experiments on women in asylums in Massachusetts (whose mental illness prevented them from consenting to the trial) and experiments on Puerto Rican women (targeted due to their low socioeconomic status and because they were people of color). The women in these experiments suffered side effects of the trial version of the Pill, which included significantly higher hormone levels than those found in today’s versions.
Discussions of male birth control began; they never came to fruition.
The Nelson Pill Hearings of 1970 revealed more of the injustices against women that took place during the first decade of the Pill’s existence. A journalist named Barbara Seaman discovered and brought to light the severe, life-threatening risks that accompanied the Pill, risks which were hidden from the women taking it. Feminist activists such as Alice Wolfson rightly condemned the troubling fact that no women were invited to testify during the Pill hearings. Fortunately, the hearings resulted in a requirement that the Pill be accompanied by written information on its side effects and risks.
Faith Leaders Respond
Until 1930, various Christian denominations denounced the use of artificial birth control. With the Anglican Bishops’ Lambeth Conference of 1930, the Anglican Church permitted the use of artificial contraception for married persons, while still condemning “the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience” (Resolution 15). Use of the Pill gradually gained acceptance among Christians of other denominations following this Conference.
In March 1963, Pope St. John XXIII issued a commission to study the question of artificial contraception and worldwide concerns of overpopulation. Following St. John XXIII’s death in June 1963, Bl. Pope Paul VI began his pontificate and expanded this commission in June 1964. The commission submitted their final report to Bl. Paul VI in June 1967, with the vast majority of members being in favor of the Catholic Church permitting the use of artificial contraception for married couples. It was expected that Bl. Paul VI would declare a change in Church teaching on contraception.
Humanae Vitae defied this expectation.
Bl. Paul VI’s July 1968 encyclical unequivocally reaffirmed the teaching of the Catholic Church that artificial contraception is contrary to God’s will and His design for human sexuality, and that, consequently, it cannot be permitted. Humanae Vitae received harsh criticism and was met with widespread dissent in the Church among both clergy and the lay faithful.
A Shared Responsibility for Fertility
Bl. Paul VI begins his encyclical with an acknowledgement of the topic’s challenges, communicating that the man and woman face together the difficulties of living out the Church’s teaching on contraception in order to respect God’s design for human sexuality:
“The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.” (Humanae Vitae 1)
Paragraphs one through three of the encyclical continue to name the concerns about rapid population growth and the realities of supporting several children, which troubled not a small number of people at the time of its publication.
Bl. Paul VI’s language throughout Humanae Vitae deserves special attention. In each case where he discusses fertility, responsible parenthood, or related matters, he does so referring to man and woman, husband and wife. He states that conjugal love “requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood” (HV 10). In fact, the phrase “husband and wife” appears nineteen times in the encyclical.
In each case where he discusses fertility, responsible parenthood, or related matters, he does so referring to man and woman, husband and wife.
Furthermore, Humanae Vitae presents periodic continence as a morally acceptable way of avoiding pregnancy within the exercise of responsible parenthood (what we now call natural family planning, or NFP). This requires a shared decision, made by husband and wife together. Bl. Paul VI argues that man and woman can grow from this practice:
“Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. . . . It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities.” (Humanae Vitae 21)
Unlike with artificial contraception, the burden of avoiding pregnancy (with grave reason for doing so) does not fall solely on the woman when a married couple implements periodic abstinence. With each form of contraception, only one sex remains responsible. It is the woman who takes the Pill or gets the IUD. It is the man who uses the condom or has a vasectomy. While couples can remind each other to use their chosen form of contraception, in the end, the responsibility of doing so falls on one person’s shoulders. And in the case of the Pill, the woman must be the one responsible for taking her pill... and suffering the resulting side effects or health risks.
In the case of the Pill, the woman must be the one responsible for taking her pill... and suffering the resulting side effects or health risks.
Larger Impact on Treatment of Women
Not only does Humanae Vitae communicate a shared responsibility of fertility and avoiding pregnancy, but it also outlines how artificial contraception can lead to the mistreatment of women:
“Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” (Humanae Vitae 17, emphasis added)
Contraception may leave us - men and women alike - disinclined to fully respect the design of a woman’s body and what makes us different as women. Humanae Vitae, however, communicates that the uniqueness of a woman’s body (including her ability to bear children) is worthy of respect and sacrifice. As discussed earlier, sex has different radically different ramifications for women, and Bl. Paul VI recognizes this.
The Current Landscape
Let’s return, for a brief moment, to the historical context of Humanae Vitae. One of the horrors of the Pill is that women were prescribed this medication for 10 years without being informed of the side effects and health risks. It took the Nelson Pill Hearings in 1970 to rectify this. Women were not receiving all of the information they deserved to make wise decisions that are actually beneficial to their health.
I’m afraid we’re in a similar position, almost 50 years later.
Each packet of the Pill may come with written information about side effects and health risks. This is certainly better than how things were from 1960 to 1970. However, it is not enough. The birth control pill is still heralded as a fundamental aspect of women’s healthcare, despite the severe and potentially fatal health risks that accompany it.
The birth control pill is still heralded as a fundamental aspect of women’s healthcare, despite the severe and potentially fatal health risks that accompany it.
Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABMs) offer excellent alternatives to the Pill for family planning and treating various health conditions, without any of the Pill’s health risks. In fact, FABMs can help women discover underlying health issues that the Pill covers up and that may never be discovered without using FABMs. The issue is that FABMs are not adequately communicated to women by our health professionals. How could they be when, according to FACTS, “only 3% to 6% of physicians have accurate knowledge about the effectiveness rates of fertility awareness based methods”? FABMs are tragically absent from most traditional curricula in medical schools. This is unacceptable, especially as more women seek information on FABMs for family planning and monitoring their health.
50 Years Later: How Will We Respond?
Despite its contentious reception, I believe Humanae Vitae communicates a pro-woman message because it affirms that men and women both share the burden of being responsible stewards of their fertility, and because it boldly states artificial contraception’s negative impact on women.
Throughout the Pill’s development, only one sex - the female sex - was mistreated during experimental trials, assumed the burden of responsibility for contraception, and suffered health risks that were hidden from them. By contrast, the entirety of Humanae Vitae emphasizes the inherent dignity of each human person and discusses fertility with respect to man and woman’s call to be responsible stewards.
Throughout the Pill’s development, only one sex - the female sex - was mistreated during experimental trials, assumed the burden of responsibility for contraception, and suffered health risks that were hidden from them.
As Humane Vitae’s 50th anniversary approaches, I want to challenge this generation to revisit this encyclical, to revisit the history of contraceptives, and to revisit the current narrative of women’s health and equality.