When Plan B starts to fall apart

16 Jan 2009

By The Record

Its supporters promised it would liberate women and make us all happier. But as increasing numbers of women count the cost 40 years after Humanae Vitae’s prophetic insights, articficial contraception’s deceitful web begins to unravel…


Carl Djerassi, the Austrian chemist who helped invent the contraceptive pill.


The Pill: past its use-by date
Actually, the whole idea that technology can deliver consequence-free sex has outlived its shelf life.

On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI published a document, Humanae Vitae,
which said that the Pill was incompatible with Catholic morality. Did
this shunt his Church into decades of irrelevance or did it make the
Church a beacon of moral clarity? This week MercatorNet publishes three
articles about the world after Humanae Vitae. Below, Jennifer Roback
Morse asks why former champions of the contraceptive Pill are
disenchanted with it and what exactly we expected the Pill to do.

How quickly things can change. One week we read about the need for
school nurses to give contraceptive pills to girls who just can’t say
no; the next, this headline from London’s Daily Telegraph leaps out
from our news feeds: “‘Contraceptive pill outdated and does not work
well,’ experts warns”.

Well, I thought, that is curious. Whatever could have happened? Are
women all of a sudden immune to the effects of estrogen? Is it
something in the air, or the water? And who was the expert delivering
this disturbing news?

It turned out to be Dr James Trussell, Professor of Economics and
Public Affairs and Director of the Office of Population Research at
Princeton University. Dr Trussell is one of the Mr Bigs of birth
control research so the Telegraph was listening carefully when he spoke
recently at a conference of one of the UK’s main birth control groups,
the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

And yes, he certainly was disenchanted with the Pill. “One in 12 women
taking the Pill get pregnant each year because they miss so many
tablets,” he lamented. “The Pill is an outdated method because it does
not work well enough. It is very difficult for ordinary women to take a
pill every single day.”

Frankly, this is something well known in Britain where pregnancy rates
among schoolgirls continue to rise, and thousands of women have three
or four abortions. But what does Dr Trussell suggest should be done
with these “ordinary women” who, although he is too polite to say it in
so many words, are too stupid to take a pill every day?

Shoot them up with long-lasting hormonal contraception amounting to
sterilization — not to put too fine a point on it. “The beauty of the
implant or the IUD is that you can forget about them," enthused the
professor. "If you want to seriously reduce unintended pregnancies in
the UK you can only do it with implants and IUDs.”

So now we get to the heart of the matter. The problem is not that the
Pill doesn’t work — it does, reducing the probability that any given
act of intercourse will result in pregnancy. The problem is that women
do not take it regularly enough. But that raises the all-important
question: What, exactly, are we trying to accomplish with the Pill?

This is my theory: the Pill has been an instrument in the creation of
what author Lee Harris called, in another context, a fantasy ideology.

A fantasy ideology is a variety of utopianism that is not about making
a better world, but making its adherents feel good about themselves.
The believer is assured that he is one of the chosen, one of the few
enlightened ones who truly understands the universe. In the name of
supporting the fantasy, the believer is entitled to impose large costs
on other people. Indeed, he seldom notices these costs, because he is
not checking in with reality on a regular basis. Data fly right over
his head.

Though Lee Harris developed his concept of the fantasy ideology in
relation to Islam, his analysis could apply just as well to the
contraceptive ideology. The fantasy ideology of contraception is that
people are entitled to behave as if they had perfectly functioning
contraception; in other words, to act as though sexual activity and
reproduction are completely disconnected.

Adherents of the ideology get to feel good about themselves as
progressive, modern, enlightened. They are ever so beyond the tired old
ethics that connects sex with responsible parenthood through marriage.
Most importantly, believers in the faith that contraception prevents
all consequences of sex never have to apologize for any sexual
misdeeds. There are no sexual misdeeds, with the possible exception of

It is no wonder that poor Dr Trussell is disappointed. The Pill could
not possibly meet the standard of creating a lifetime of harmless and
guilt-free sex.

Yet on the road to the society of perfectly controlled reproductive
freedom, millions of people’s lives have been ruined. Women got
themselves involved in relationships that had no chance of sustaining a
pregnancy. Then, they were shocked and appalled when they got pregnant.
In their desperation, they turned to abortion. Or they kept babies they
were ill-prepared to raise, because they could not bring themselves to
have an abortion and no-one encouraged them to consider adoption.

Or, men got themselves involved with women who claimed they wanted no
deeper involvement. But then, when they became pregnant, they wanted
the child after all. In some cases the woman wanted the child all
along, and deceived the man into believing that he was participating in
a sterile sexual encounter. Since sterile sex is the new social norm,
thanks to the Pill, it is not difficult to convince a man you don’t
mean to have a baby.

Men and women alike thought the addition of a condom protected them
from sexually transmitted diseases. They didn’t notice when the sexual
spin doctors quietly changed the term “safe sex” to “safer sex”. Some
were naïve enough to think that the Pill looked after all safety
issues, even though it offers no protection against STDs whatsoever.

The true believer in the fantasy ideology of contraception does not
look too closely at problems like these. Any problem that cannot be
solved by more contraception is not worth considering.

This is why the indefatigable Dr Trussell advocates more aggressive and
intrusive methods of contraception. He and his allies must not, at any
cost, question their premise that contraception eliminates all negative
consequences of sex. They are reduced to sewing more patches over the
tattered quilt of an outmoded fantasy ideology. It is not just the Pill
that has outlived its shelf life, but the contraceptive ideology itself.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of The Ruth
Institute, and the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a
Hook-up World.