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At the January 7, 2012 Republican presidential debate, there came a point at which the questioning turned to “social issues.” Moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney whether he thought a state could ban contraception. Stephanopoulos had in mind the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut , which ruled that a state could not ban contraception, and which, by invoking a presumed “right to privacy,” laid the groundwork for the subsequent Roe v. Wade decision overturning bans on abortion.

Romney did not catch the drift of Stephanopoulos’ questioning, and kept wondering why he would ask such a question and why any state would be interested in banning contraception. Eventually, Stephanopoulos explicitly mentioned Griswold to indicate why he was posing the question. Romney answered jocosely, “Contraception: it’s working just fine. Just leave it alone,” prompting laughter in the audience.

Understandably, none of the other candidates were eager to respond to Stephanopoulos’ gotcha question. Rick Santorum said he thought a state theoretically had the right to ban contraception, but did not take the opportunity to follow up regarding the connection with Roe v. Wade . Jon Huntsman just pointed to his large family, indicating his lack of interest in contraception. Ron Paul pointed to the interstate commerce aspect: if it is legal to import contraceptive pills, then it is legal to sell them.

What the debaters could have pointed to, of course, was the fact that the “right to privacy” interpretation (variously and ambiguously related to the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution), which has been used to support the right of couples to use contraceptives, was also an important ingredient in the 1973 decision protecting the right of a woman to abort her child.

One thing the GOP debate illustrates dramatically is the broader cultural sea change that has taken place in regard to contraception. It may seem that the “catalyst” for this change in attitude was simply the invention of the contraceptive pill in the early 1960s, which was far more convenient than existing methods of birth control. But even before such convenient methods surfaced, contraception in previous decades had become progressively more in vogue, even for Christians who had previously strenuously opposed it. The following March 22, 1931 editorial of the Washington Post in the aftermath of the 1930 Episcopalian Lambeth Conference, which spearheaded the acceptance of contraception for Protestants in the U.S., is absolutely inconceivable today:

It is impossible to reconcile the doctrine of the divine institution of marriage with any modernistic plan for the mechanical regulation or suppression of human birth. The church must either reject the plain teachings of the Bible or reject schemes for the “scientific” production of human souls. Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee’s report if carried into effect would sound the death-knell of marriage as a holy institution, by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be “careful and restrained” is preposterous.

Anyone reading the Post today would consider this a forgery or the result of Internet hacking. But such was once the majority opinion, reflected by the paper. But little by little, almost all Protestant denominations fell in line.

The Catholic Church has resisted the movement to the moral acceptance of contraception. Pope Paul VI in 1968 issued his famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae , condemning and warning about consequences of artificial regulation of births; Pope John Paul II and other church officials, including U.S. bishops, have reiterated that position.

But many priests, bishops, and theologians either resisted the messages, or kept silence. So now the polls tell us that the vast majority of Catholic married couples, just like Protestants, are using artificial contraception”in spite of the admonitions of the Church that this involves “grave sin.” “Natural family planning” is often treated as an oddity, or a punchline.

But, a social conservative might still object, all the Republican candidates are at least against gay marriage.

A little logic will show why the public, massively using contraception, is becoming more and more accepting of gay marriage, and laws permitting it”thus completely redefining the concept of marriage, which has from time immemorial been heterosexual and family-oriented. For if intentionally non-procreative sex is permissible for married couples, on the basis of their love and commitment, with or without an intention of eventually raising children, there is no reason to prohibit such liaisons for gay couples. Indeed, the love of gay couples, and the strength of their mutual commitment, may be more intense than in the case of heterosexual couples; and they may be even more desirous of raising progeny (through adoption, in vitro fertilization, etc.) than heterosexual couples.

Perhaps, then, contraception and gay marriage are not as unrelated as they may appear: both completely redefine the concept of marriage and sexual activity away from its long-accepted end in childbearing. While contraception is not likely soon to become a political issue, it remains a cultural watershed. Anyone who seeks to lead our country should recognize its ill effects and be willing, when necessary and appropriate, to discuss them.

Howard P. Kainz is Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Marquette University. His most recent book is The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct.

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