Contraception prevents unplanned pregnancy and hence abortion–or so the popular wisdom goes. In reality, the out-of-wedlock birth rate in 1940, before the invention of the Pill, was less than 4%. Now it’s about 40%, and that’s actually lower than most Westernized nations. Abortion rates, too, have likely soared, though it’s difficult to obtain reliable data on abortion rates prior to legalization. But here’s an interesting statistic from our friends at the Guttmacher Institute–54% of all abortions are sought by women who were using contraception when they became pregnant, not by women who couldn’t afford it or who were blocked from finding it through a patriarchal conspiracy.
Empirically, contraception hasn’t actually accomplished what it was supposed to do. During the period in which it’s become accessible and accepted, out-of-wedlock pregnancies have become ten times more common, and over half of all abortions have occurred *despite* contraception use.
How can this be?
Let’s consider for a moment how people assess risk. We are not perfectly rational creatures, and we don’t assess risk through cooly computing the odds of a given outcome. For instance, if the odds of dying in a car crash are greater than dying in plane crash, we don’t then proceed to reduce our driving time and adopt flying as our predominant mode of travel. No, most people, even after seeing the statistics, will continue to fear flying while experiencing little to no fear in a car. Activities that are rare–and for most people, flying is rare compared to driving–will inspire more fear than the mundane and the everyday. Activities in which we exert little to no control over the outcome–and unless you’re the pilot, you certainly don’t have any control over the fate of your flight–will inspire more fear than the ones in which we are, perhaps literally, in the drivers’ seat. So we all fear being abducted by a serial killer, even though the odds of it happening are vanishingly rare, while ignoring the risks of downing the liquid calories and sugar at Starbucks every day or driving to work.
Here’s the problem with contraception: the contraceptive mentality leads to a normalization of non-marital, non-procreative sex. Once this becomes common, people become less likely to perceive the risks. Planned Parenthood can distribute pamphlets helpfully comparing the pregnancy or STD risks of different contraceptive methods–and college students will chuck the pamphlets in the trash and have sex with an expired condom that’s been wedged in a wallet for months. They’re surrounded by sex all the time, so their perception of its risks has been eroded. People won’t use contraception in a perfectly rational manner, because the ubiquity of non-procreative sex leads them to forget that it can actually, you know, result in procreation–in fact, that this is what it has specifically evolved to do.
Since contraception also fosters an illusion of individual control–even more so than an activity like driving, in which we have to be careful of other drivers–it leads us to believe that sex “belongs” to us, like a product to be disposed of at will. It leads us to believe that we can control the outcomes of sex. As Pope Benedict wrote in Deus caritas est, “no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness.” We become divorced from our bodily reality, from the great primordial forces of eros that we can assent to but can never completely direct. For this reason, procreation becomes alien to us. It is no longer an integral part of our being, but becomes something we (think we can) ignore.
Contraception is a complete failure at what it’s supposed to do. I don’t mean the 1-10% failure rate of each particular method if used perfectly. I mean that once you deny the reality of procreation, you’re never going to get everyone to use contraception perfectly, because you’re denying the very reality and power of sex.