Contraception and Women’s Wellbeing: NFP, Disillusionment, and the Poor

 
 

Contraception isn’t the only way to plan a family, and it certainly isn’t cost-free: contraception leads to sexual disillusionment and weakens the marriage culture at the expense of the least well-off women. The second in a three-part series.

In yesterday’s essay, I described a new alliance formed between our national government and Planned Parenthood, and how they are waging an unprecedented campaign against religious liberty in the United States—and threatening female wellbeing at the same time. Today and tomorrow I consider how we can respond to their arguments about human sexuality.

Contraception Is Not the Only Way to Plan a Family

It is very likely true that many women regard their ability to limit their family size as a factor in their accessing educational and work opportunities. It is also true that there are many women desirous of, or open to, larger families who also wish to attain particular academic or employment goals. Usually alone, without the help of women’s organizations, they struggle to push schools and employers toward schedules and policies allowing mothers to do justice both at home and at work. While their stories are not part of my response to the argument linking contraception and women’s freedom, it should be noted that this latter group of women deserves the thanks of all women seeking a similar balance of justice. All too often, leading women’s organizations subjugate or ignore this top female priority—this balance—in favor of demands for greater access to contraception and abortion.

But even regarding the group of women desiring few or no children, contraception is not the only means available. For the unmarried, premarital chastity is an option (one that teenagers in particular are increasingly exercising) and, it turns out, one associated with better long-term relationships and a lower likelihood of divorce.

For the married, there are increasingly easy-to-use natural family planning (NFP) methods (not to be confused with the now-discredited “rhythm method”). It is hard to communicate to young women—but we should try— how wonderful it feels as a woman at age forty or fifty or beyond, to have a body free of the health worries associated with decades of hormonal drug use (more on this later), and a marriage permeated with inescapably mutual responsibility respecting sex, not to mention regular conversations about the meanings and consequences of sex, and about why or why not to seek another child.

There is also the beauty of remembering—against the world’s oft-repeated mantra, “unprotected sex makes babies”—that it is indeed sex that makes babies. And to recall every beautiful thing that this implies: that a man and a woman’s complete sharing of themselves with another who is different but complementary—body and soul—creates a new being, with an immortal soul, whose very existence both reminds the parents of their love and calls them to be faithful unto death.

Suggestions that timing sex as NFP requires is impossible to the point of inhumane, and that sexual spontaneity is so highly valued that nothing could substitute for it, are belied by empirical observations. According to a paper by Harvard University development economist, Lant Pritchett,

The oft used methods for assessing the value (or cost effectiveness) of contraception, calculating the benefits by examining the improved maternal or child and health status or the benefit of averting unwanted births is either a) flat out wrong or b) implicitly contains the assertion that the value of benefits foregone from an alternative contraceptive technology, such as changes in sexual behavior, is larger than the health and fertility benefits. Ignoring the value of sex in discussions of contraception emphasizes the value of sexual activity because it is an implicit assertion of value—that the value of sex is larger than all the other values being calculated.

Conceding that his next point is “empirical and is admittedly on a very thin evidential base,” and after looking at data regarding people’s willingness to change their patterns of sexual activity (versus resorting to contraception) to avoid pregnancies, he concludes that people are quite willing. The value of unlimited, spontaneous sexual activity is, in other words, not as high as supporters of large birth-control programs assume it is. This is why, he concludes, “the bulk of the both macro and micro empirical literature says” that “lowering the costs of contraception (be they money, travel time, information or psychic)” will have only “small” impacts.

Contraception Traps and Disillusions Women

The effects of contraception at an individual level (i.e., if used according to directions, it regularly prevents pregnancy) are different from its effects on a social scale. When contraception is made available on a social scale, especially with abortion as its backup (in the United States, for example, most women who seek abortions were using contraception in the same month that they became pregnant), it alters the relationship market to women’s disadvantage. Together, contraception and abortion lower the most apparent “risk” of sex, while squarely placing on women’s shoulders the burden to avoid both a pregnancy and a live birth. With the risk lowered, more women make themselves available for nonmarital sex.

Relatedly, women thinking about refusing sex to any man are acutely aware that another woman will surely say “yes.” Caught up in a “prisoner’s dilemma,” each woman, on average, is more likely to understand sex as the price of maintaining a relationship, and therefore to concede, even though women are far more likely than men to prefer that sex take place in the context of an ongoing relationship. (See, for example, Miriam Grossman’s Unprotected and Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker’s Premarital Sex in America.)

Contraception also has led to a decline in “shotgun” marriages after unexpected pregnancies. This flows from women’s well-known “right” to abortion, and the declining stigma attached to nonmarital sex and pregnancy. The results? In every population that has introduced large-scale birth-control programs (against a backdrop of general distaste for abortion), there appear higher rates of nonmarital pregnancies and births and abortions.

Planned Parenthood and the federal government can always cite a study or two showing lowered rates of each of these problems in a discrete population, over a few years, with the introduction of a stepped-up contraception program. But these rates never come close to the levels achieved before the large programs began, nor do researchers even allude to the spiritual and emotional costs (especially to women) of sex without a committed relationship, even if pregnancy and disease do not result.

The following letter penned by a woman on the Women Speak for Themselves list, reflecting on her daughter’s life, speaks poignantly to the lived reality in a world where sex is divorced from children and commitment:

I live in a part of the U.S.A. remarkable for the number of 30-something single women whose prospects for marriage and motherhood are declining by the day. Among college educated in my area, there is a birth rate as low as Singapore or Greece. These women are high achievers who bought into the "career first" mindset. They truly believe that women's freedom and achievement cannot be separated from sex-without-standards, and abortion. ... At the same time, they're starting to feel lonely and insecure. The career is not as fulfilling as they thought it would be and some have struggled with unemployment. The dating scene was fun and exciting during their college years and their twenties, but now it's getting harder to meet eligible men. Most have several failed relationships behind them, and carry quite a lot of emotional baggage. Meanwhile, the men they'd like to meet have become wary and are making every effort to date younger women. ... Their best prospects will be divorced men 10 to 15 years older. Typically, these divorced men have a first family and often they're unwilling to marry and give the thirty-something woman a baby. A "relationship" is easier.

The fruit of the sexual revolution is loneliness. The only way out is for women to confront the things they believe, that just aren't true, and change their ways.

By the way, I've been happily married for over 40 years, but I'm quite concerned that my daughter in her 30s won't wake up in time.

Contraception Hurts Poor Women More

If this is life for some of the “high achievers,” how are poor women faring? Worse than their more privileged sisters. Much has been written about this in the recent decade: Kay Hymowitz’s Marriage and Caste in America, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and the National Marriage Project’s When Marriage Disappears are three prominent examples. Better-off and more-educated women have fewer nonmarital pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, more marriage, less divorce, less cohabitation, and less abortion.

When cultural messages—of the kind increasingly embraced by the White House—divorce the good of sex from the interests of children, privileged Americans vote with their feet to disagree, while seemingly fearing to support the same wise choices for the less- privileged. (Charles Murray calls it refusing to “preach what they practice.”)

Disadvantaged women, on the other hand—more dependent on public services, and public schools, less likely to enjoy intact families of origin, living in neighborhoods with high percentages of imprisoned men, and probably just plain forgotten by the more privileged—are disproportionately vulnerable to the government’s messages, and disproportionately lose out on the ordinary dream of marriage with a man with whom they can rear their common children.

Tomorrow’s final installment in this series will consider women’s health and happiness as variously affected by contraception and by religious practice.

Helen Alvaré is associate professor at George Mason University School of Law and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute.

 

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