The Sexual Revolution was supposed to solve all of the world's problems, it seems, when one looks back at that period of history. "Make Love, Not War!" sloganeering, casual sterile relationships comprised of assorted people with no commitment beyond a temporary physical one, a nation finally free of "hang-ups" about sex in its various iterations--that was the dream, and the people dreaming it were, by and large, the baby boomers who now at sixty are in denial about their aging, and in another decade will be demanding free Viagra as clamorously as they once demanded free condoms.
It’s hard to remember all the joys we were told that contraception would bring, back in the day. For generations, from Victoria Woodhull all the way down to Margaret Sanger, birth-control activists had insisted that abortion would cease if we allowed access to contraception. In the 1965 decision Griswold v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court placed decisions about birth control at the center of the marriage bond. The smutty theaters, the back-room racks of pornography, the venereal diseases, the crushing down of young women into a life of timidity, the out-of-wedlock births, the masturbatory shame—all the sicknesses of a repressed culture would be swept away in the free love that contraception allows.
Free love—forty years on, the phrase has a marvelously musty sound to it, like the fragile violets of a Victorian spinster’s girlhood, pressed in the fading pages of her remembrance book. Things didn’t work out quite the way we were promised. In fact, the results were pretty much what the pope had said they would be. A funny thing happened on the way to the orgy, and—as Mary Eberstadt notes in her superb essay in the current issue of First Things—if there’s a joke buried in Humanae Vitae, the joke is on us.
As Mr. Bottum points out, all the things that Pope Paul VI warned us would be the result of contraception have been the result of contraception: disrespect for women, destruction of marriage, coercive population control, and the objectification of the body as if it were a mere possession. We can find evidence of the societal decay caused by widespread use and acceptance of artificial birth control everywhere we look--no other weapon of modernity has been so socially and culturally destructive as this one, leading to untold oceans of human pain, sorrow, suffering, emptiness and regret. Abortion on demand is a result of contraception; staggering divorce rates are a result of contraception; exhausted women trying to be rivals to their husbands in career fields while still 'handling' the chores of home and children are a result of contraception; men whose attitude towards women is that marriage isn't necessary, and that women who want to have children are selfish, and women who want to stay home and raise those children are lazy is a result of contraception; in fact, all the little fissures and fragmentations that have led to the shattering of the American family are the result of contraception, the result of the notion that love has nothing to do with marriage and that marriage has nothing to do with children and that children can be just as easily raised by unrelated, low paid strangers as by a family member, so long as Mom and Dad are free to be "sexually fulfilled" beings, not only in regard to each other but also in regard to anyone else they feel like "connecting" with.
And we see how that has worked out. We see how impossible it is to create stable, happy, healthy families comprised of fully autonomous individuals who insist on controlling every aspect of their lives, refusing ever to put family first, but always looking out for number one.
Prior to contraception, a young man and a young woman who were in love knew certain things. They knew that failing to respect the power of sex could lead to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; they knew that being ready for marriage meant being ready for children; they knew that the division of labor in the home would ordinarily result in the husband assuming the role of provider-in-chief, while the wife became the nurturer-in-chief. Before they ever walked down the aisle at church, they had to be mature, responsible grown-ups, potential parents as well as soon-to-be spouses. They were younger in age than many of us were on their wedding days, but so much older in terms of the ability to make that commitment, to promise that for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death did they part they would be together, and be ready to handle all of the joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures, happiness and suffering that would be theirs--and to care for the children who would impact all of those potential realities.
I know that the past wasn't perfect, and unhappy and even disastrous marriages could be made. But there's a big difference between preparing for marriage as if it's a lifelong voyage together, and preparing for marriage as if it's a short plane trip, keeping one hand on the ripcord of the parachute the entire time just in case. Contraception encourages the latter view; many couples enter marriage determined to avoid having children for a few years, in case things don't work out--it's so much easier to divorce when children aren't involved. But what kind of commitment is that? What kind of marriage is that? Is it a marriage at all, or just an excuse to have the big lavish white-dress party that all one's friends have had?
So much of the sickness that infects our culture can be traced back to the wide acceptance of contraception, the view of sex that sees it as a random pleasurable act with no spiritual reality behind it, and the despair and loneliness both of these things have left in their wake. Pope Paul VI's prophetic wisdom continues to shine like a light on a hilltop, beckoning to its warmth and joy all who have eyes to see it. In the end, none of the political battles we fight will do us much good if we can't restore the integrity of the family--and the greatest enemy to that integrity is artificial contraception.