Some people argue that the Church’s teaching on contraception isn’t just wrong, it’s a threat to the planet. They view contraception as a benefit to society; for example, as a curb on global overpopulation, which they consider a danger both to the ecosystem and to human flourishing. Others may claim it’s a boon to women’s equality and empowerment, and so to oppose it is sexist.
Fortunately, the idea that the Earth is becoming dangerously overpopulated, though still popular in some circles, seems to be on the wane. One reason is that the most dire population-growth projections of years past have not been realized. In fact, most of the First World, including the United States, has birth rates below replacement level—meaning that as the older generation passes, these countries will experience population decline. This is a source of concern in Western Europe and Japan, where there may not be enough young workers to support the retired elderly. And even developing nations are generally showing lower growth rates than had been projected. Some demographers are calling to revise down future projections of growth.
Not only is human life an unqualified good from a Catholic, biblical perspective, it is also increasingly being recognized as a driver of global prosperity. Babies are not just “mouths to feed”: they will become hands that work, minds that innovate, hearts that care about the world and its future. No culture in human history ever depopulated itself into prosperity. People are good: our challenge should be how to work together to maximize our planet’s human resources, not to diminish them.
Often related to population concerns are ecological concerns. The detailed scientific and economic facts here are complex and beyond our scope. As a matter of principle, though, it’s good to heed the words of the encyclical Laudato Si: blaming population growth for the world’s problems, and proposing as a solution not truly helping the poor and caring for the Earth (for example, by curbing wasteful consumerism) but only “reducing the birthrate” is “one way of refusing to face the issues.” Citing the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, it reminds us that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” (50).
When it comes to contraception, an appeal to ecology may be somewhat ironic. Based on the United Nations estimate of some 10 billion condoms used annually around the globe, we add more than 30,000 tons of mostly non-biodegradable condom waste to landfills and waterways every year. (Some environmentalists defend this waste by insisting that having children is actually the worst form of global pollution, so it's worth it.)
And most kinds of hormonal contraception—pills, implants, injections, IUDs—also represent a pollution of human ecology: a woman’s body. They’re the only kind of “health care” in the history of the world designed to take a correctly functioning bodily system and make it malfunction; to take a healthy woman and make her unwell.
Many medical therapies, of course, may have physically harmful side effects, but their purpose is still to restore the overall health of the body. Doctors don’t prescribe chemotherapy, for example, in order to make a cancer patient feel sick but to kill cancer cells and help him live longer. In contrast, the purpose of hormonal contraception is to disrupt the normal function of a healthy reproductive system. And of course it also has side effects.
As our culture becomes more attuned to healthy living and to the need to protect the natural world—all those artificial hormones have to go somewhere after they’re flushed—we have seen a growing interest in fertility-awareness methods of family planning among non-Catholic, even non-religious, women.
Those women also help answer the idea that contraception is a boon to female empowerment. For what seems on the surface like a tool to help women control their sexuality has turned out to be another way to help men control women. Without contraception, men must face up to the natural outcome of sex. Babies, and the expectation that fathers will take care of them and their mothers, are a natural brake against men’s worst impulses to use and discard women sexually.
But contraception deprives women of this natural advantage. Men are no longer expected to love and provide for offspring—instead the woman is expected to use a pill or device that will make her sexually available at all times without consequence.
In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI foresaw that a culture that embraces contraception will be one that degrades women. In our era of pornography, sex trafficking, Tinder, and #MeToo, it’s hard to say he was wrong when he predicted that
a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection (17).
For more answers like this about sex, marriage, and family life, see Todd's new booklet, 20 Answers: Marriage & Sex, available now from Catholic Answers.