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Sixty years of the birth control pill

The first birth control pill, called Enovid, was commercialized in the in 1960. One year later, under the name Anovlar (“without ovulation”) and with a slightly different chemical composition, the pill was launched in Europe. Anovlar was the work of a Belgian gynecologist, Dr. Nand Peeters, who, although a Catholic, overtly rejected the Church’s teachings on contraception. A phrase of his was widely commented at the time: “It is you and your husband who decide the number of your children, and that’s not the Pope’s business.”

Based on Divine and Natural Law, the Catholic Church has always condemned the use of artificial contraceptive devices.

From the standpoint of Natural Law, the goodness of an act is determined by its natural outcome. A good meal is that which satisfies the appetite; a good holiday is that which relaxes; a good music is that which delights the ear, and so on. Because a meal is meant to satisfy the appetite, a holiday is meant to relax, and music is meant to delight the ear. If these acts comply with their natural finality, we say they are “good.”

We speak of “natural” when something fulfils the tendencies towards which a being is inclined by its own nature. Thus, for example, eating fulfils the need to nourish oneself in order to stay alive and to grow up. This is not random. God is the Author of our nature and, therefore, of all its tendencies and the laws that govern them. The laws of Nature reflect God’s own mind. We say they participate in Eternal Law.

Natural tendencies are facilitated by instincts ingrained in nature. In the case of eating, the instinct is hunger. Instincts were created by God to help our nature tend towards its finalities. They are always oriented for the good of our nature and should thus follow our nature, both rational and material.

Let’s apply all these notions to the conjugal act.

The natural outcome (finality) of sexual intercourse is to procreate, thus perpetuating the species. And herein lies its goodness: “The principal criterion of its morality [of the sexual act]: it is respect for its finality that ensures the moral goodness of this act.” [1] So that human beings could adequately perpetuate the species, God embedded a natural instinct that facilitates this act: the sentimental attraction between sexes.

A secondary finality of the conjugal act is to placate concupiscence. Although legitimate in itself, this finality is subordinate to the main one and cannot be exercised independently. This is called the “unitive” element of the conjugal act, intrinsically linked to the “procreative” one explained above.

In the case of human beings, the conjugal act assumes a dignity so elevated it touches on the supernatural, since it not only produces a new body but a new person, endowed by God with a spiritual soul. Leo XIII teaches: “The Christian perfection and completeness of marriage are not comprised in those points only which have been mentioned. For, first, there has been vouchsafed to the marriage union a higher and nobler purpose than was ever previously given to it. By the command of Christ, it not only looks to the propagation of the human race, but to the bringing forth of children for the Church, ‘fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God’”[2].

This is why Our Lord Jesus Christ elevated marriage, which includes the conjugal act, to the category of a Sacrament, endowing it with special graces.

The intrinsic malice of the birth control pill – as, indeed, of any artificial method of contraception – is that it separates the two finalities of the conjugal act, thus gravely violating Natural and Divine Laws. Pius XI teaches: “No reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.” [3]

In 1968, Paul VI reiterated this teaching: “This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” He thus condemned with full force all “unlawful birth control methods”: abortion, coitus interruptus, the pill, direct sterilization and “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.” [4]

Separating the two elements of the conjugal act gave way to “casual” or “recreational” sex, that is, to the possibility of engaging in sexual activity without accepting the responsibility for its natural outcome. This is widely credited with having fueled, if not actually caused, the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The possibility of engaging in “casual” sex greatly aggravated the libertine mentality already visible in so many sectors of society, indeed since the 1920’s.

“The Pill became a convenient scapegoat for the sexual revolution – we read in American Experience – Many argued that the Pill was, in fact, responsible for the sexual revolution. The Pill’s revolutionary breakthrough, that it allowed women to separate sex from procreation… Since women on the Pill could control their fertility, single and married women could have sex anytime, anyplace and with anyone without the risk of pregnancy.” [5]

In a 1966 feature on the Pill and morality, the magazine U.S. News and World Report asked, “Is the Pill regarded as a license for promiscuity? Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy?” The author Pearl Buck took an even direr doomsday approach to the Pill when she warned in a 1968 Reader’s Digest article: “Everyone knows what the Pill is. It is a small object — yet its potential effect upon our society many be even more devastating than the nuclear bomb.” [6] 

The “nuclear” impact of the pill was enhanced by the introduction of abortion, which offered a last-ditch escape from the responsibilities of intimate relationships. One of the arguments in favor of the pill was, precisely, that it would avoid abortions. Well, it turned out to be the opposite. Says Glenn Stanton: The separation of the two finalities of sex had the consequence of dramatically boosting the rate of abortion, which spiked dramatically around 1968-70, well before 1973’s Roe v Wade. This was because of the growing sense of having a ‘right not to be pregnant’ if a sexually active woman didn’t want to be. She could also face pressure toward abortion from her partner who didn’t want his sexual partner hampered by pregnancy. The Pill was expected to actually reduce abortion by reducing unwanted pregnancies. It didn’t work that way.” [7]

By and large, the Pill is one of the main culprits of today’s moral crisis, especially since the more recent introduction of the “morning after” pill.

A final word on the Church.

The Magisterium of the Church regarding artificial birth control has not changed. In 1981 John Paul II fully reaffirmed it: “When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings [unitive and procreative] that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as ‘arbiters’ of the divine plan and they ‘manipulate’ and degrade human sexuality.” [8]

However, growing numbers of bishops, priests and moral theologians no longer accept it. When Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968, whole episcopates – like those of Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada – overtly rebelled against him. In the United States, a group of dissident theologians, led by Rev. Charles Curran, of the Catholic University of America, issued a statement affirming: “Spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the value and sacredness of marriage.” [9]

Thus, in the concrete life of the Church – we may say “pastorally” – these teachings are now practically forgotten. Polls show that the use of artificial contraceptive methods is as widespread among Catholic as among non-Catholics. Since this is a grave moral matter, one wonders just how many “Catholics” can be still considered such.

This surrender to moral relativism is part of the aggiornamento the Church has undergone since the 1960’s, if not before. It is interesting to recall that Dr. Nand Peeters, the father of the European birth control pill, faced strong opposition from Catholics faithful to the Church’s teachings. He thus sought the support of bishops and theologians favorable to the aggiornamento. On May 1, 1963, he was granted a short private audience with John XXIII, from which he came away with the impression “that the pope provided support for the pill.” [10] On October 23, 1985, Pope John Paul II granted Peeters the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award for his services to education.

Peeters never recanted the paternity of the birth control pill, although he strongly disapproved of the loose mores of the sexual revolution (largely due to his pill…). In his later years he simply remained silent about it. He died in 1998.

(Taken from Nasz Dziennik)



© Reproduction is authorized provided the source is acknowledged.

[1] Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Persona Humana. Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, December 29, 1975, N° V.

[2] Leo XIII, Encyclical Arcanum, February 10, 1880, N° 10.

[3] Pius XI, Encyclical Casti Connubii, December 20, 1930, N° 54.

[4] Paul VI, Encyclical Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968, N° 12, 14.


[6] Ibid.

[7] Glenn Stanton, “The Pill: did it cause the sexual Revolution?,” Focus on the Family, July 6, 2010.

[8] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, November 22, 1981, N°. 32.

[9] Richard McCormick, “Humanae Vitae 25 Years Later,” America, July 7, 1993.



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