50 Years after Humanae Vitae: Where do we stand in heeding the directive given to scientists, doctors, and nurses?

By Patrick F Fagan, Ph.D

The Mandate: Towards the end of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI asked scientists and medical professionals to uncover the biological secrets of fertility and to teach them in natural family planning (NFP).


The Scientific Evidence of the Harms of Contraception: Scientists have discovered that contraceptives damage many biological systems throughout the female body, not just those needed for conceiving and giving birth. No woman knows in advance which effect she might endure: thrombosis, glaucoma, cancers (breast, cervical or liver), modified brain functioning, diabetic complications, infertility, ectopic pregnancies and irregular bleeding.  These occur at steady, though low, rates. Dangers of stroke, bone density loss, weight gain, and disruption of milk supply also exist. Contraceptives may affect even male offspring (early prostate cancer and hypospadias).  Higher risks and rates of STDs have followed the mass marketing of contraception, resulting in ongoing epidemics. Decreased sexual desire and satisfaction as well as increased anxiety, depression, mood disorders and jealousy are the main reasons women go off the pill. And going on (or off) the pill can diminish the attractiveness of their mate. Divorce, out-of-wedlock births and abortions are causally linked, and have wreaked havoc on the poor, especially in the inner-city, but also have deprived more than half of American children of the presence of their father. Over 99 percent of women who aborted have contracepted at some time, and for many women abortion is now accepted as the necessary means of achieving family planning. Whole continents are falling below replacement levels of fertility, leading to a massive need for immigrants.  These findings on the negative effects of contraception are a powerful, if back-handed, compliment to the prescience of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae. NFP has none of these effects.


Scientific Achievements in NFP:  The small group of scientists and medical professionals that responded to Pope Paul’s call achieved a phenomenal amount. A report from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) testifies to their success and concludes that NFP is as effective as many of the most popular contraceptives in controlling the timing of conception. With perfect use it may surpass them. “Despite challenges, NFP methods are a viable and effective family planning option for motivated patients and may be the ideal option for some.”  What the world needs now is the confidence in NFP that only widespread practice can deliver.  Catholics are especially called to illustrating this way, God’s way, of loving and begetting.


The Next Stages: Marketing NFP and Sexual Self Control. The AAFP article above, however, points out the weak spot of NFP: “periodic abstinence … may be beyond the capacity or inclination of some couples”. Only with enough sexual self-control, particularly by husbands, will the couple be able to reap the many benefits of NFP: much better sexual and marital relations and communications; obeying God’s law in conceiving or not conceiving children; significantly greater success in raising their children, and avoiding all the dangers to the woman’s health enumerated above.  A new, fast-growing non-denominational marketing and educational group, Natural Womanhood, is addressing this gap by embracing and promoting all the different methods and groups in NFP. To make NFP the Christian norm its goal is to have a representative in every church in the US.


Patrick F Fagan, Ph.D.  is the Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Initiative (MARRI) at the The Catholic University of America (CUA)


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