By Russell Shaw
If you have access to the April 29 issue of The New Republic, take a look at a long review of several new books on abortion. The work of Christine Stansell, a professor of history at the University of Chicago and herself author of a history of feminism, it’s worth reading on several counts. Full of misinformation and misinterpretation, punctuated by invective and anti-Catholicism, it’s an unintended primer for people with traditional views that illustrates what they face in confronting the mindset of secular feminism.
Negatives aside, though, Professor Stansell does make one important point. The introduction of the birth control pill in the United States in 1963, she writes, was the start of a “revolution in assumptions about sex and its consequences” based on “the central tenet of modern heterosexual life, [namely] the separation of pregnancy from sex.” Here is the dawning of the era of “worry-free contraception” — with abortion available (and soon to be legal, thanks to the Supreme Court) as “a method of birth control when other measures failed.”
What’s surprising about this is that it’s basically what Pope Paul VI said in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning contraception.
To be sure, Pope Paul didn’t refer to the “separation of pregnancy from sex” as Professor Stansell does, but instead, more delicately, to “the inseparable connection … between the unitive significance and the procreative significance” of the act. With all due respect to the pope, I prefer the Stansell version — “the separation of pregnancy from sex” — since it bluntly expresses what’s really involved here.
But regardless of the words, the pope and the professor are saying the same thing: Separate the purposes or meanings of this act by means of contraception, and you take a radical step that has serious consequences. Professor Stansell thinks the consequences are very good. Pope Paul clearly does not. On the contrary, he said, once you do this the way will be “wide open to marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”
He was right. This plainly has happened the last half-century, despite widespread refusal to acknowledge the fact.
The refusal is a product of what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in a journal article back in 1993, memorably called “defining deviancy down.” When a society suffers from an over-supply of deviant behavior, Moynihan explained, one way it handles the problem is by redefinition, so that activity previously considered deviant is now seen as normal. That in a nutshell is what’s happened in the case of contraception, whose universal approval in the United States, a phenomenon of just the last 80 years, received its final boost from the marketing of the pill.
Just as Pope Paul said, the emergence of the contraceptive mentality and the contraceptive culture that came with it have paved the way for other behaviors that many people still recognize as forms of deviancy with destructive social consequences. Among these are cohabitation, illegitimacy, abortion, and the decline of traditional marriage.
Like others, Professor Stansell thinks the pill has been liberating. That’s true in a very limited sense — the pill makes it safe to act on instinct, impulse, urge. But there’s nothing humanly liberating about that. Freedom in a human sense is freedom to make self-determining choices, while chastity — temperance in the realm of sexuality — is the virtue empowering one to choose in favor of self-control instead of being driven by instinct. It’s a measure of how far we’ve traveled the other way that simply saying it sounds strange to so many people in America today.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.