Lessons from Humanae Vitae

Almost half a century ago Pope Paul VI presented his encyclical Humanae Vitae to the Church and the world. In modern times few popes have been as maligned as Paul VI. He carried a heavy cross in his time but now, half a century after his most famous and controversial encyclical, history is vindicating him. Reading about Humanae Vitae and the history of the contraception pill reminded me of a passage in the Apocalypse of St. John:

“And a mighty angel took up a stone, as it were a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying: With such violence as this shall Babylon, that great city, be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.” Revelation 18:21

I think this passage can be used to illustrate what happened to our world since 1960. Back then not a huge millstone was hurled into the “sea” of mankind but a tiny little pill, the first nearly 100% effective oral contraceptive. The ripple effects of the Pill were almost immediately felt, in particular in the United States and the rest of the developed countries of the western hemisphere. Our world has not been the same ever since.

In 1960 the mood of the Western world was optimistic in spite of the menace of a nuclear war between the USSR and the U.S. When I think of those years I think of John F. Kennedy, the Beatles, Miles Davis, the first astronauts, and the emergence of a new way of seeing morals and religion. All of it came together. There was a “cooler way” of doing things and the Pill was on its way to being accepted by many as a way to make life easier, less risky, and more enjoyable.

A contraceptive called Enovid 10 appeared in Britain at the crest of the post-war economic expansion and towards the end of the Baby Boom, a period roughly extending from 1946 to 1964 when some of the returning GI Joes and the former bobby soxers decided to marry and have big families. It was their way of forgetting about the recent war. The Baby Boom was waning when the Pill made its entrance.

In Britain, between 1962 and 1969, the number of women using the Pill rose from an estimated fifty thousand to about one million. In 1964, the Archbishop of Westminster pronounced himself against it, declaring that its use was “against the law of God.” Nevertheless the use of the Pill continued to rise worldwide.

Although it may prove impossible to connect the societal changes that followed the introduction of the Pill, one can hardly deny that easy contraception was a contributing factor to the social earthquake of the 1960’s. Morality changed, families became smaller, attitudes towards religion changed as Freudian psychoanalysis, Darwinian evolution, and Marxism became more and more mainstream.

The moral consequences of removing the possibility of pregnancy from sex outside of marriage and not just outside of marriage but within marriage as well — are quite evident after more than half a century. I will leave that aside since there are already many intelligent commentaries written on that topic. What I want to consider are angles of this problem that are not usually examined. To do that I need to return to the millstone of St. John’s Apocalypse but first we must recapitulate a time in history affected by some of the same elements we are considering. There is a parallel we need to notice.

In his book 1491, journalist and author Charles C. Mann argues that more than ninety percent of the aboriginal population in the Americas perished after contracting European diseases for which they had no natural defenses. Columbus and those who followed after him unwittingly transported those diseases into the New World. That decimation of native populations by European infirmities made the future immigration of Europeans much easier. Entire cultures were wiped out and replaced in spite of their self-sufficiency, sophistication and development.

If the 1491 argument is correct — as I think it is — then we can learn a valuable lesson from history that will help us understand some of the unintended social effects of the Pill. It is easy to see that if the Europeans had to confront large native populations, it would have been much harder for them to settle the New Continent so quickly and thoroughly. Think of India, or China, nations that were very hard to conquer if not virtually impossible to dominate. European settlements there were limited to heavily protected ports, like Macao or Hong-Kong, where merchant vessels could anchor and trade with the inland populations.

If the Americas would have been as thickly settled as China, maybe New York and San Francisco could have been the American equivalents of Macao and Hong Kong. But it did not happen that way because of at least two sick men that we know about. One was a French sailor who survived a wreck near the coast of New England and was rescued by natives. Unfortunately for the natives that sailor was a carrier of viral hepatitis. He was primarily responsible for a plague that erased the coastal populations of Massachusetts. Years later when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth they found the empty Indian towns filled with dry food supplies and no inhabitants.

Something similar happened earlier farther south when Columbus’ crew introduced smallpox and other diseases after their arrival at Hispaniola Island. Today archeologists and historians can trace the destruction caused by the disease. By 1532 when Pizarro arrived in Peru the disease had spread to the continent, killing one out of four inhabitants of the Inca Empire. Among the dead were the emperor, Huaino Capac and his heir apparent. A civil war ensued between two surviving sons: Huascar and Atahualpa. The latter had just won the long and violent contest when Spaniards arrived and conquered the war-weary and disease-weakened empire.

The introduction of the contraceptive pill in our culture can be compared to the arrival of European viruses to the Americas in 1492. Just as the Native Americans were not prepared for such a vast calamity, our society was not prepared — not even aware — of the social, cultural, and economic consequences of the unbridled use of contraceptives. Ancient nations considered the “closing of the womb” one of the harshest divine punishments. What would ancient cultures think of us “closing the womb” of our own women by means of a self-administered nature-altering poison? Would they think we are committing societal suicide?

Consider these facts: no economy can grow without population growth. Then notice that the U.S. has been growing its economy on debt (just as many other developed countries have) since the early 1980’s. That would be about the time when the growing “hole” created by the Pill appeared in the American population. The pill impeded the birth of an unknown  number of children between 1960 and 1965. If they had been born they should have entered the workforce and the consumer market in full force between 1980 and 1985 but they did not. In my opinion their absence explains the drag in the economy we have been experiencing since then.

I believe the “hole” in the population went undetected, gradually forcing governments to rely on debt and immigration to grow their economies. The extraordinary growth of the North American economy in the post-war period runs almost parallel with the Baby Boom. It is very likely that the lack of growth that has plagued the economies since the 1980’s could be related to the unnatural “Baby Bust” caused by the Pill. Our potential populations were decimated by an invisible killer that we can know only by its effects.

Even those ancient non-sophisticated civilizations knew that lots of babies meant lots of future farmers and soldiers, long periods of stable food supplies, and future happy elders taken care of by a populous younger generation. That was why they had fertility gods. One can go back to biblical times and the concept runs steady all the way to late modernity. Some say that the Pill means “choice” and “progress.” Well this is what “choice” and “progress” do to your culture: if Joey is not born, José or Yusuf will move in to take his place in the economy. Factories have to be manned; someone has to harvest the fields; armies have to recruit. So the “hole” in the expected population causes another undesired effect: massive immigration.

Another unintended effect of the Pill is a specific form of pollution. Since a woman’s body cannot break down the artificial progesterone designed to prevent her from having babies, her body eliminates the chemical with the urine. Then it returns via sewage to the water supply but nature cannot break it either and so it accumulates there. We are already seeing the genetic damage done to fish and small amphibians by those artificial chemical compounds now present in nearly every body of water on the planet.

Going back to the millstone of St. John’s Apocalypse … The most destructive force the West has unleashed on the environment, the world’s economy, and cultural stability is that tiny contraceptive pill. Think of it and if you can, please read the encyclical Humanae Vitae, even if you are not Catholic. I am sure you will find that the document was prophetic. Also carefully examine by yourself the statistics on the Pill’s general availability and usage; compare the graphs to the economy, national debt, runaway immigration, violent crime, and abortion. You will see an eerie correlation.

Some say, “We are a nation of immigrants.” The trite phrase repeated like a mantra to justify uncontrolled immigration should rather be, “We are successful invaders that thrived far away from home.” The trick is not to let others do to us what our ancestors unwittingly did to the Cohasset and Seminoles, to the Taino and the Incas. Remember that the colonization of the Americas by Europeans would have been impossible if it were not for the European diseases that literally decimated the aboriginal nations since 1492, “making room” for European settlers.

Using the Pill and abortion to avoid having babies is basically killing our population even before they are born. There is no way around it. Opting to have fewer children may be our right but remember that practices have consequences. One consequence may be the extermination of your own kind or the assimilation of your few descendents into a different, more prolific group in three or four generations. Cultures are hard to erase but races can be gone easily in a century or two. We have seen that recently but few appear to be heeding the lessons of history.

If we want our nations and economies to survive we must stop fearing population growth. We must “think life” and thrive.