The Pill and the Church


        The pill presented a significant controversy in the face of the Catholic Church. Though the pill became an approved method by the FDA, the church continued to warn against the use of contraceptives. Once again, science and religion came head to head. As Newsweek described, “Not since the Copernicans suggested in the sixteenth century that the sun was the center of the planetary system has the Roman Catholic Church found itself on such a perilous collision course with a new body of knowledge while all about swirl dangerous currents.”[1] The pill would go on to become widely adopted among women, despite the beliefs of the church. Ironically enough, John Rock, one of the main men behind the development of the pill, was himself, a member of the Catholic Church. The church’s influence among members of its community began declining, if only measured by the number of women increasingly turning to newer and more scientific means of contraception.

            Previous to the pill, women of the Catholic Church were only permitted to use family planning techniques such as abstinence and rhythm, so as not to harm or interfere with natural conception and birth. Women of the church who saw the benefits of the pill claimed that it too was a “natural” method, since it was based upon natural hormones that were already in women’s bodies. With the creation of the pill, the Church was forced to re-evaluate its historical position on birth control. It was different from the artificial forms of birth control that had previously been used. Instead, as McLaughlin points out, “the pill did not act in any way against the male seed, the historically protected male factor. Thus, it was outside the classic prohibitions so indelibly ingrained in nearly all religious guidelines on contraception, not just the Catholic rules.”[2] The Church’s quick and intense reaction to the pill can be seen in the interview with Loretta McLaughlin [3], in which she also describes how women began to, less often, heed the warnings of the church.

            John Rock, scientifically behind the making of the pill, simultaneously became an advocate of the pill in the Catholic Church. In 1957, the Pope had approved the use of the pill for therapeutic uses. However, contraceptive uses were much more controversial. In the eyes of the church, any of the artificial means that killed or prevented the sperm from being fertilized, was equivalent to an act of homicide. In response to this, Rock argued that the pill was “a permissible variant of the rhythm method.”[4] It was a means of regulation, not prevention. In addition to this, the pill posed a threat to the institution of marriage itself. According to the Catholic Church, the purpose of sex within marriage is procreation. If these two acts are separated, by means of the pill, science begins to question the church sacraments themselves. In light of these debates, on June 23, 1964 the Church had established the Papal Commission on Population, the Family, and Natality whose goal would be to research come to a decision regarding the Church’s stance on birth control, particularly the pill. It shows that the widespread adaptation and demand of the pill placed such pressure on the church that they were forced to re-evaluate age-old beliefs. Despite Rock’s efforts as well as the pleas by civil members of the church, the commission dismissed the pill as a form of contraception when Pope Paul VI (pictured to the right) issued Humanae Vitae.[5]

            The impact of the pill had significant implications for the Catholic Church. Men and women began putting their own personal and family needs before religious practices. The church turned to methods of fear and intimidation to deter women from the use of the pill and other contraceptives. Despite this, however, studies have proved that the impact of the pill on the American family was greater than that of the church. It is significant to note that between 1960 and 1965 the number of Catholics practicing unapproved methods of birth control increased from 38% to 51%, almost assuredly due to the availability of the pill.[6]

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