Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Vindication of Humanae vitae at Age 40

The controversial "birth control" encyclical, Humanae Vitae, "Of Human Life," has held up better than its critics expected. That is the message of this long and rewarding article by Mary Eberstadt at First Things.

Full Disclosure Notice: Mary Eberstadt is my friend.

Shameless Self Promotion: One of the talks on my Smart Sex Series CD set is called, "How Science Shows the Church has Been Right Along."

Anyhow, Mary goes through and shows that every one of Pope Paul VI's predictions about the moral and social consequences of contraception has come to pass. But one of my favorite parts of the article addresses the question of WHY the opposition to HV was so intense, when the negative consequences weren't really that hard to foresee:

It is less than coincidental that the high-mindedness of saving the planet dovetailed perfectly with a more self-interested outcome, the freer pursuit of sexuality via the Pill. Dissenting Catholics had special reasons to stress the "science of overpopulation," and so they did. In the name of a higher morality, their argument went, birth control could be defended as the lesser of two evils (a position argued by the dissenter Charles Curran, among others)….

She gives considerable attention to the new book Fatal Misconceptions:

so discredited has the overpopulation science become that this year Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly could publish Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population and garner a starred review in Publishers Weekly—all in service of what is probably the single best demolition of the population arguments that some hoped would undermine church teaching. This is all the more satisfying a ratification because Connelly is so conscientious in establishing his own personal antagonism toward the Catholic Church (at one point asserting without even a footnote that natural family planning "still fails most couples who try it").

Fatal Misconception is decisive proof that the spectacle of overpopulation, which was used to browbeat the Vatican in the name of science, was a grotesque error all along. First, Connelly argues, the population-control movement was wrong as a matter of fact: "The two strongest claims population controllers make for their long-term historical contribution" are "that they raised Asia out of poverty and helped keep our planet habitable." Both of these, he demonstrates, are false.

Even more devastating is Connelly's demolition of the claim to moral high ground that the overpopulation alarmists made. For population science was not only failing to help people, Connelly argues, but also actively harming some of them—and in a way that summoned some of the baser episodes of recent historical memory:

The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think that one could know other people's interests better than they knew it themselves. . . . The essence of population control, whether it targeted migrants, the "unfit," or families that seemed either too big or too small, was to make rules for other people without having to answer to them. It appealed to people with power because, with the spread of emancipatory movements, it began to appear easier and more profitable to control populations than to control territory. That is why opponents were essentially correct in viewing it as another chapter in the unfinished business of imperialism.

The forty years since Humanae Vitae appeared have also vindicated the encyclical's fear that governments would use the new contraceptive technology coercively. The outstanding example, of course, is the Chinese government's long-running "one-child policy," replete with forced abortions, public trackings of menstrual cycles, family flight, increased female infanticide, sterilization, and other assaults too numerous even to begin cataloguing here—in fact, so numerous that they are now widely, if often grudgingly, acknowledged as wrongs even by international human-rights bureaucracies. Lesser-known examples include the Indian government's foray into coercive use of contraception in the "emergency" of 1976 and 1977, and the Indonesian government's practice in the 1970s and 1980s of the bullying implantation of IUDs and Norplant.

Should governments come to "regard this as necessary," Humanae Vitae warned, "they may even impose their use on everyone." As with the unintended affirmation by social science, will anyone within the ranks of the population revisionists now give credit where credit is due?

Read it all here.

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