The unintended consequence of widespread birth control — on individuals, families and society — cannot be denied.
Loneliness has become an “epidemic” in the world today, says scholar Mary Eberstadt.
Eberstadt, author of the 2013 book “Adam and Eve After the Pill” (Ignatius, $13), believes this loneliness is in part a consequence of the spread of the birth control pill and artificial contraception in the West.
“Fifty years after the embrace of the pill — undeniably, because of the embrace of the pill — loneliness is spreading across the materially better-off countries of the planet,” she writes in a new article in the April edition of First Things magazine.
In a recent conversation with Angelus News, she expands on the themes of her new article, describing the “prophetic power” of “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”), Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical letter on birth control and married love, which turns 50 this summer.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You note that a “recurring theme” of Pope Francis is “that human realities trump scholarly abstractions.” Is that a gift of this papacy and model for the rest of us?
Mary Eberstadt: There’s something interesting in the emphasis by Pope Francis and his inner circle on earthly “realidades” — especially if we consider realities after the sexual revolution.
If we set all abstractions aside — theology, philosophy, ideology, etc. — and look only to the discernible trends of the world, we uncover a remarkable fact: No matter how controversial and unwanted it may have been for half a century now, “Humanae Vitae” continues to be vindicated by the empirical record.
This includes social and other evidence that didn’t exist until after the document was written, most of it amassed by disinterested scholars with zero ties to Rome.
Paul VI’s encyclical foresaw what almost no one back then would have predicted: that the world after the sexual revolution would be rife with unprecedented problems, among them a general coarsening of standards, a coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments and a marked lowering of respect for women.
Lopez: How did the sexual revolution license predation and democratize sexual harassment?
Eberstadt: There have always been predatory men. But the Pill has acted as a game changer on their reach, expanding it exponentially. Both the scandals of recent months and the “#Me Too” movement itself are consequences of the revolution itself.
Why? Because the behavior of the men who have fallen from grace lately — their alleged serial efforts to secure sex on demand, sometimes from a great many women — would be unthinkable in a world where those same men might have had to worry about pregnancy.
In this fascinating way, a straight line connects the feminists who celebrated change in 1968 with the travails suffered by many of their daughters and granddaughters in 2018.
Lopez: Do you really believe that after 50 years of debate, “Humanae Vitae” can lead to more unity than division?
Eberstadt: Let’s consider the analogy of tobacco. Fifty years ago, in 1968, cigarette smoking was ubiquitous around the world despite the publication in 1964 of the Surgeon General’s Report, warning that tobacco smoke was toxic.
This document was countercultural for its time. It contravened what many people who smoked wanted to hear. That’s why it’s no surprise that the Report would go on to be argued over for decades. Both the tobacco industry and a great many individuals claimed that the report was scare-mongering, and that science hadn’t proven a causal link between tobacco and disease.
Others argued that even if that link did exist, the freedom of individuals to do whatever they wanted outweighed the interest of society in reigning in anyone’s behavior.
It’s an instructive bit of history, because as everyone now knows, majority opinion about smoking did a 180 thanks to many years of accumulated evidence. Even former and current smokers would agree today that this re-evaluation has been a net plus for society — that humanity’s better off for having persuaded people that a pleasurable practice was also harmful.
The tobacco analogy shows how humanity can absorb a slow-motion poison for a long time without recognizing its effects. It also demonstrates that once those harmful effects are faced honestly, people can use their reason and the evidence of their senses, and turn around.
A skeptic might scoff that lung cancer can be detected on a CT scan; where’s similar evidence that contraception, abortion, pornography and the rest of the revolution’s fallout are unhealthy? The fact is that there’s plenty of such evidence. It just doesn’t reside in CT scans.
Consider phenomena like the “lonely deaths” in Japan and other advanced nations — so prevalent that a “cleanup” industry has emerged to throw out bodies that have putrefied for months because there were no visitors to know a person was dead.
Or consider the anxiety among many women who want husbands and children, but who find so many men “swiping right” and people-shopping, with no intention of committing to anyone. Try telling them that the sexual marketplace isn’t flooded. They know better.
It took a long time for the consensus on tobacco to turn around — and almost no one in 1968 would have predicted it was possible. Consensus about the sexual revolution may not be as bulletproof as it appears, either, given the facts.
Lopez: You emphasize the need for mercy in reviewing analyses of “Humanae Vitae.” Why is that crucial right now in making room for “second thoughts”?
Eberstadt: Fifty years ago, there was a lot of understandable confusion about what the revolution would bring. The difference between 1968 and today is that we can no longer pretend the pro-revolution optimists were right. There are too many data points demonstrating otherwise.
Unprecedented rates of divorce, single parenthood and semi-orphaned children during the past half-century torpedo any case that the Pill helped marriage.
Likewise, back before the invention of the sonogram machine, many might have believed in good faith the going narrative that pregnancy was about a “blob of tissues” — similar to a cyst or hangnail, as feminists frequently asserted.
Fifty years later, everyone knows better. That’s why survey data show repeatedly that even nonreligious people, especially younger ones, have been shying away from abortion.
Eminem’s latest album includes a song in which a male narrator rages his remorse over an abortion — and that’s just one example of how popular music and popular culture increasingly reflect the fact that the “blob of tissues” narrative is over.
The Church teaches that everyone needs mercy, because everyone is fallen. That principle surely applies to those half a century ago who had high hopes for the revolution, and who couldn’t have foreseen what it would bring. If all Catholics had known in 1968 that the mass adoption of contraception would lead to millions more abortions, might they have thought twice about embracing the revolution?
The same goes for yesterday’s dissident theologians. It was one thing to defend contraception as a moral good in 1968, before social science would document its role as a major player in the catastrophic rise of broken homes and abortions.
By 2018, it’s hard to understand why anyone within the Church would want to risk complicity in these outcomes.
Those who agitate today for a change in the Church’s unbroken teaching need to understand the consequences of their advocacy clearly.
If they seek to expand the use of contraception, they must first explain why contributing to more abortion is permissible — because more abortion is the result of expanded use of contraception, as 50 years of history continue to show.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a contributing editor to Angelus and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.