In light of recent controversies over Planned Parenthood, it is helpful to have a book that illuminates the organization’s motivating ideology. In the recently released Women, Sex, and the Church: a Case for Catholic Teaching, Angela Franks lays out how self-described “women’s health groups” view a woman’s fertility fundamentally as a hindrance, a burden, a disease to be eradicated. This much, perhaps, is already well known. What Franks adds to the discussion is the extraordinary way that these groups demonize women who fail to adopt their view of fertility.
In 1920, Margaret Sanger authored a book entitled Women and the New Race the opening line of which states: “The most far-reaching social development of modern times is the revolt of women against sex servitude. This ‘sex servitude’ is the biological slavery of women to their reproductive systems.” Fertility came to be viewed as biological slavery rather than a natural human capacity, and this new view ushered in radical cultural change, both good and bad.
We cannot overlook the immense gains that have been made by women. Over the past century, the role of women has transitioned away from the home and into the workplace. Women have made advances in the areas of education, social change, careers, and influence. With a woman’s fertility under her personal control, she was no longer hindered from professional advances. She was now free to pursue her own career interests and (sexual interests) without having to worry about a baby. As laudable as these results were, they stemmed from a lie about sexuality that, unsurprisingly, also bore bad fruit. The imperative of population control became an excuse for abortion, eugenics, forced sterilizations, and, of course, contraception.
Women became the scapegoats for a host of social ills. “Sanger place[d] the blame for female oppression squarely on . . . women themselves,” Franks writes. Women were blamed for problems such as out-of-wedlock births, overpopulation, and even their longstanding subservience to men. Insofar as their fertility enslaved women as individuals, it also was a burden on society at large. Suddenly, women owed society a huge debt: “Sanger thought women had a ‘duty’ to use contraception. Through birth control . . . women could free themselves from ‘sex slavery’ and prevent society from having to bear the burdens of their children. They owe it to society.”
Franks points out the irony of taking a pill to stop a perfectly operating biological process.
According to the 2010 Vital and Health Statistics, 62 percent of women are on contraceptives. This widespread use is socially reinforced by advertising messages and widely promoted notions of women’s health that denigrate the value of a woman’s fertility. Such messages put a woman “at war with herself,” Franks writes, “Contraception must be the only case in which a person takes a pill solely in order to thwart the natural purpose of a bodily system, all in the name of ‘health.’”
The contraceptive culture is now the status quo, but it doesn’t have to remain this way. In her Essays on Woman, Edith Stein says that a woman’s primary vocation is two-fold: as a spouse and mother. A woman may wear many hats, but her role as a mother retains a special importance. While being made in and for themselves as personal subjects, Mulieris Dignitatem explains that “motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman.” Those who are unmarried or infertile can participate in the call of motherhood by developing in themselves an open and loving heart in which others may rest and find peace.
In order for this openness of heart, however, women must discontinue manipulating their bodies and viewing it as dysfunctional. A woman who has long been attempting to control and manipulate herself will likely bring the same mindset into relationships with others. Instead, they must rediscover the knowledge that one of the distinctive characteristics of femininity lies in the unique ability to cooperate in bringing the gift of new life into being.
Franks explains that by returning to a more cohesive and balanced understanding of the proper role and value of fertility, it will be possible for a woman to better love herself and others. No longer will the culture effectively be such a hostile environment for a woman; it will be one in which she feels more at ease with accepting herself as fundamentally good, thereby authentically free: “The reality is that we human beings are called to greatness. We are made in the image of God, made to know and love him and each other in a love without limit... This kind of love—a no-holds-barred, self-giving, God-trusting love—is an arduous adventure. It is not ‘safe.’ But it is the only kind of love that is worthy of the dignity of men and women. . . . It is the only kind that will make us truly happy.”
Ashley Crouch is Director of Outreach and Programs at the Love and Fidelity Network.
Erika Bachiochi, Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.