Elaine Tyler May, author of the book America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, recently wrote an opinion piece in the Miami Herald on the moment in time back in the 1960s when the Catholic Church stood at a crossroads and decided to stick to its doctrine and maintain the status quo vis-a-vis birth control.
In 1964, Pope Paul (VI) appointed a commission on birth control to advise him. As the panel deliberated, anticipation ran high; many journalists, clergy and lay Catholics expected the church to lift the ban. Scottish songwriter Matt McGinn wrote a jaunty tune, recorded by Pete Seeger, about a woman with a house full of children waiting for the pope to “bless the pill.” She buys a package of birth control pills so she will be ready when the church acquiesces. In the final stanza, she hopes to hear the pope’s approval “before my man comes in.”
In 1967, the commission’s report was leaked to the press, revealing that a significant majority of its members favored lifting the ban, including 60 of 64 theologians and nine of the 15 cardinals. The minority who were opposed issued a separate report. After much consideration, the pope issued a formal encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) in 1968, siding with the minority and reaffirming the church’s prohibition of any form of artificial birth control.
Among those who protested the pope’s decree was Sanger, a daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants. Sanger’s passionate commitment to promoting birth control stemmed from watching her mother weaken and die at age 50, having given birth to 11 children. She blamed her mother’s premature death on constant childbearing and lack of access to contraceptives.
Most people consider the use of abortion as a fallback in case contraceptives fail to be morally wrong, but is it purely a coincidence that the most passionate proponents of birth control frequently cite people like Margaret Sanger and her Planned Parenthood as an example or role model? Could it be perhaps because there IS a link between birth control and abortion and studies that have shown an increase in abortion even with greater access and use of contraceptives? If so, then Pope Paul VI sounds more prophetic with each day that passes.
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