How the Catholic Church—and the GOP—Came to See Birth Control as Evil
In the 60s, the Catholic Church came close to reversing its position on contraception as sinful. It didn't, obviously, and women today are still suffering under policy influenced by religious dogma.
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
END FORCED MOTHERHOOD is a column focusing on the ways in which anti-abortion activists use pseudoscience and thinly veiled religious justifications to attack the bodily autonomy of all people who can get pregnant.
This past February, Idaho State Senator Dan Foreman was videotaped berating a group of university students scheduled to meet him to discuss comprehensive sex education and a bill to increase access to birth control. “Abortion is murder. I stand against it,” Foreman shouted as he waved his bony finger at the students, who had driven 300 miles to meet him. “I’m a Roman Catholic; I’m a conservative Republican. I think what you guys do stinks.”
Despite Foreman’s outrage, the students weren’t there to discuss abortion rights at all, but rather to have a conversation about policies that would make contraception more accessible to women in the state and improve sex ed. Both of these things would in fact, reduce the abortion rate in Idaho—a topic that should theoretically have been a top priority for Foreman, considering his belief that abortion is morally equivalent to murder.
Scientifically and medically speaking, contraception access and comprehensive sexual education are key to reducing the abortion rate. That’s because more than 90 percent of abortions are the result of unintended pregnancy; and if we want to reduce the abortion rate, we clearly must reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. Copious research shows the best way to do this is through promoting the use of contraception. In fact, the US rate of abortion is currently at its lowest point since it was legalized in 1973 — a decline researchers have attributed to increased use of reliable long-term birth control methods such as IUDs. And, unsurprisingly, when women are provided free birth control, the abortion rate plummets even more.
If contraception is so effective at lowering the abortion rate, it would seem to make sense for rabidly anti-abortion politicians like Sen. Foreman to be pushing to have free birth control and condoms available across the state. But Foreman is Catholic, and he believes that birth control is evil, and prioritizes ecclesiastical interpretations of reproductive ethics over secular law and proven medical data.
In 1970, 66 percent of Catholic women said they had used contraception... Today, a full 98 percent of Catholic women say they’ve used a form of birth control.
How did we get to a place where religious opinion dictates the health and wellbeing of Americans? While neither the Old nor the New Testament contains language specifically addressing contraception or abortion, all Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox denominations have been in agreement that contraception is a mortal sin since at least the second century. Since 1930, however, the Anglican church has permitted the use of contraception "when there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.” As a result, most Protestants today accept the use of modern contraceptives.
Catholics have not been quite so tolerant. In 1963—six years after the pill was first introduced on the market—Pope Paul VI commissioned a study to analyze the morality of birth control. The commission, which was comprised of laypeople, theologians, and bishops, worked for two years on the report, during which time the Second Vatican Council affirmed Church’s position that “life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception.”
In 1966, the commission overwhelmingly encouraged the Church to rescind its ban on contraception and reverse its position that birth control is “intrinsically evil.” This, presumably, was not what Pope Paul VI wanted to hear; in 1968, he ignored the advice of his own pontifical commission and released a widely controversial text entitled Humanae Vitae (Latin: Of Human Life), subtitled On the Regulation of Birth.
In the text, he argued that anything “specifically intended to prevent procreation” is to be “absolutely excluded as a lawful means of regulating the number of children." Per his interpretation, family planning is considered an abomination and a direct violation of the will of God, who ultimately decides when and if a marriage should produce children. Additionally, the encyclical detailed several grave consequences that result from the use of birth control, including “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”
Humanae Vitae was greeted with “public outcry,” according to an article published in the Undergraduate Review. “There was mass disbelief,” it reads. “Almost everyone was shocked and amazed that the Pope would disregard the [commission] entirely.” The result, overwhelmingly, was disillusionment with the Church. Of course, many Catholics chose to ignore the edict altogether: In 1970, 66 percent of Catholic women said they had used contraception, a rate that grew to 94 percent by 1980. Today, a full 98 percent of Catholic women say they’ve used a form of birth control.
Despite the edicts of the church, birth control initially enjoyed bipartisan support following its legalization in 1960. In fact, Republicans strongly supported family planning and contraception access as good economic policy. In 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon enthusiastically signed Title X into law, providing federal funding for family planning services. But a year later, in a bid for Southern voters disaffected by civil rights advances in the south, Nixon’s advisors encouraged him to reverse his position on family planning to bring conservative Catholics into the Republican camp.
This moment marked a monumental shift in Republican strategy, notably because embracing the evangelical and Catholic community was a wildly successful strategy for winning elections. Likewise, politicizing religious issues was a powerful tool for filling church pews.
In 1976, four years after Nixon won his reelection bid in a landslide victory, the Republican National Convention addressed abortion for the first time in the party’s history, adopting “a position on abortion that values human life” as part of the Republican Party platform. The GOP had hoped that endorsing an anti-abortion position would win the support conservative religious voters and paint the Democratic party as anti-Catholic.
After this, the politicization of contraception became a proxy for the predominance of religious influence in the US. Over the next five decades, funding for and access to contraception—both at home and overseas—became a political bargaining chip. Views on abortion and contraception quickly became a litmus test for the GOP, catalyzed by religious conservatives, who basically spoon-fed anti-choice rhetoric directly into the mouths of candidates.
This symbiotic relationship—between Catholic and evangelical leaders and establishment Republicans—has survived decades of sexual revolution and changing attitudes about sexuality. Under the Trump administration, it’s grown more powerful than ever.
During the 2016 presidential election, Trump tailored his campaign to address the interests of conservative religious voters, specifically courting anti-abortion leaders and choosing a hardline anti-contraception, pro-religion running mate Mike Pence, resulting in a record 81 percent white, evangelical vote for Trump.
Less than a year after taking office, in a demonstration of loyalty to these conservative religious voters, President Trump released new rules that drastically rolled back the contraceptive coverage mandate. The rules also vastly expanded exemptions to allow any employer or insurer the right to deny birth control benefits on the grounds of “religious or moral objection,” placing 55 million women who receive free contraceptives at risk. The mandate explicitly suggested that that contraceptive access promotes “risky sexual behavior” among some teenagers and young adults—a claim that comes straight from the mouth of the church and has zero medical credibility.
On May 3 of this year, during the National Day of Prayer, President Trump stood in the Rose Garden alongside evangelical advisors and religious leaders and declared, “Faith is more powerful than government, and nothing is more powerful than God.” If that’s the case, we’re all screwed. The moral and “religious liberty” arguments espoused by the current administration don’t just impact Catholics, but all of us — especially considering that one in six US hospital beds are in Catholic facilities, which have the right to legally deny services to patients, including children, in accordance with their religious or “moral” beliefs. When we value the personal, religious beliefs of the powerful over the constitutional rights of marginalized groups in need of healthcare, the dignity and freedoms of our society as a whole are degraded.
Make no mistake: Attacking access to contraception is not about protecting religious freedom. It’s not even about protecting “life.” It’s about furthering the agenda of corrupt religious institutions who seek social and cultural dominance through systematic control of our sexuality, and their partnership with political actors who seek to maintain positions of power and influence. Contraception is vital to liberate ourselves from this oppression, which is why it’s perceived as a threat—and why it must be protected at all costs.