I’ve been wanting to write about birth control for months, and the fact that the Supreme Court is debating whether secular employers have a “right” to deny certain kinds of contraception in their health care plans seems as good a reason as any to finally do it.
I have beside me a pamphlet my mom, a public health nurse, gave me in disgust — she works on a daily basis with crisis pregnancies and parents whose kids pay the price for their own unpreparedness to be parents. My mom has always felt that birth control is a Very Good Thing, and she made sure I always knew that the Church had no right to make this decision for her, for me, or for any other woman.
The pamphlet is: “Contraception: Abortion in Disguise“. It attacks hormonal contraception and IUDs for their potential abortive effects — that is, the fact that they can effect change in the uterine lining that makes it difficult for a fertilized egg to implant, in contrast to success rates for the same issue. It also includes long sections on the risks various contraceptives can pose to a woman’s health, including everything from headaches to breast cancer. But never fear, there is hope! The pamphlet ends with a quote from Dr. Rudolph Ehmann, who says, “The only course which will do justice to the complete human being in a dignified manner is, in my experience, Natural Family Planning.”
We’ll come back to this.
About a month ago, I saw an article from the Business Insider on a friend’s Facebook feed that blamed contraception for the fact that so many women end up single parents, and that so many men shirk their responsibilities as fathers. Wow, this is a chicken-or-egg argument if I ever saw one. Are men irresponsible fathers because birth control has “divorced” sex from marriage and procreation, or do couples use birth control BECAUSE one or both partners are not ready to be parents? Regardless, I’m not at all ready to jump into the “Church has been right all along!” camp, not when I’ve seen how devastating unplanned pregnancy can be for individuals and families alike (you can read a few of my personal stories here). I also think it’s a pretty sad state of affairs when we think the only way to “keep” men responsible is to tie them to their sexual partners through children. A man’s ability to be responsible and do what’s right should have nothing to do with his and his partner’s choices about birth control. And while this article blames all sorts of evils on birth control without any facts to back it up, actual studies have shown that children who are “mistimed” (parents wanted children, but not just then) or “unplanned” (parents didn’t want any children) suffer worse relationships with their parents and perform worse on virtually all developmental measures than their “planned” counterparts — even when both children come from the same family. The ability to choose isn’t only important to the lives of the parents — it’s important to the lives of their children, too.
Here’s the thing, though: the “other side” is not unbiased. Last year, I took a Coursera class on contraception. The public health nurse teaching the course dismissed common concerns about hormonal contraception — that they can act abortively, cause depression and weight gain, or increase the risks of long-term complications like cancer or blood clots. Her tone essentially said, “This is all a bunch of hype over nothing! Hormonal contraception is the best!” While natural family planning and barrier methods were covered, their higher failure rates were emphasized. She had an agenda, too: her first priority was preventing unplanned pregnancy, and she was going to push the methods that would make that least likely.
As a woman who falls between extremes, I’m fed up with both these agendas. I’m fed up with information that doesn’t address the whole picture, and that doesn’t acknowledge that the picture looks different for every couple.
The “Abortion in Disguise” pamphlet blatantly ignores the existence of a whole range of birth control options that are non-hormonal and truly contraceptive — that is, never allowing an egg and a sperm to meet — and that will NOT interfere with implantation if a pregnancy does occur. Natural Family Planning is just one alternative, and many couples find it serves them best in conjunction with barrier methods like condoms, spermicides, diaphragms, and/or withdrawal.* If a couple feels their family is complete or doesn’t want children at all, surgical sterilization also makes it almost impossible for sperm and egg to meet. Pamphlet author Renee pretends her concern is for the mother’s and embryo’s health, even implying that contraception that never allows an egg and sperm to join is perfectly fine. But then she pretends effective non-hormonal birth control doesn’t exist. Her real agenda is to push Church teaching, and her inability to come out and say it is deceptive and unethical.
Likewise, health professionals who only push so-called “highly effective” methods of contraception — which usually means hormonal — need to understand that for some couples, failed birth control isn’t the worst thing that could happen. I hated bringing up contraception with my former doctor because she always pushed me toward an IUD, a method that totally freaks me out. Hormonal contraception pushes me into such a depressive funk that I will never use it again. Yes, I know that I am eschewing the most effective non-surgical forms of contraception, but I’m making that choice because I also know what my priorities are: to delay pregnancy without interfering with my body’s natural rhythms. My husband and I use a combination of barriers and natural family planning to achieve this, with the agreement that a mistimed pregnancy would not be as devastating to me as years of living under the cloud of depression hormonal birth control would cast over my life.
And this is ultimately where both the medical profession and our Church are failing us: in refusing to acknowledge that each family’s contraceptive needs are different. YES, women should know about the dangers of hormonal contraception, and YES they should know that non-hormonal methods have a higher failure rate. Once women are armed with this information, with unbiased facts instead of hype or fear-mongering, they MUST be allowed to make the decision that is right for them. And after they do, they have the right to expect support from their doctors, their employers, and their faith community. Those who aren’t willing to offer it need to step quietly out of the way.
* Technically speaking, this is “Fertility Awareness Method”–which uses the same principles and tools as Natural Family Planning to track a woman’s cycle, but allows for the use of barrier contraceptives during a woman’s fertile period, which NFP does not.