We Need a Thoughtful Discussion About Birth Control (A No Easy Answers Post)

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No Easy AnswersThere is a reason I generally don’t post about headlines: it takes me time to process things and make sure my first reactions all hold water. I hate the tendency to react without thinking, the way it leads us to view everything in black and white and fail to acknowledge the nuances in every situation, and the fact that if you stop and reflect for a while before posting, the topic has passed and no one cares anymore. But usually I choose to sacrifice timeliness in the service of thoughtfulness.

All this as a preface to the fact that my sister, the lawyer, pointed out that my post on Zika and contraception included a rather major flaw that, in my attempt to react in a timely fashion, I somehow overlooked. Namely, the whole flap about Zika really is about preventing pregnancy, not just about preventing disease spread, so the whole argument about barriers vs. hormonal birth control doesn’t hold up.

I feel particularly embarrassed because the topic of sexuality and its relation to family planning is so important to me, and I get so frustrated when people of faith end up turning off those they’re trying to convince by reacting without thinking things all the way through. It’s called shooting ourselves in the foot.

I think I shot myself in the foot, and I spent half the weekend cringing about it.

However, I do not delete the post, because I still believe most of what I had to say is important to have out there. Every single article that touches on the Church’s teaching on contraception emphasizes that “Catholics aren’t paying attention to this teaching, anyway,” as if that proves anything other than that people do what they want to do and always have—screwing around on their wives, cheating their customers, spreading rumors, and a host of other things the Church has always taught are wrong. Yet there’s not one of those other cases in which anyone would even consider suggesting that noncompliance = an institution “out of touch” and a teaching in need of change.

Birth control is one of those topics that people on both sides—myself included, apparently—just don’t seem to be capable of thinking rationally on. We can all project some semblance of reason, but there are conversations we ought to be having but which are considered to be non-starters.

For instance: if Church teaching on contraception is so universally ignored, why do its opponents get so bent out of shape about it? Why do they feel this compulsion to bring it up at every possible opportunity? What possible threat could it pose to them?

And another one: Is birth control actually good medicine? Isn’t it possible that it’s actually bad medicine, disrespectful to the dignity of woman, to go in and shut down a part of her body that is working just fine?

And related, but distinct, because sometimes the body isn’t working just fine: Is it truly good medical practice to use pharmaceuticals to mask symptoms of problems like PMS, endometriosis, PCO, thyroid deficiency, etc.? Shouldn’t we default to “Let’s figure out what’s wrong and fix it,” and only go to “mask the symptoms” when all other efforts have failed?

These are questions that truly puzzle me, and on which I truly would like to see thoughtful, non-polemic discussion take place. Perhaps there are things I don’t see that would make a difference to my view on them.

Can we have that discussion? Are there any people out there willing to read through a post on birth control and get to the end of it willing to engage?

For other posts in the No Easy Answers series, click here.

Environment, Family, and Planning

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Birth control pill

Birth control pill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not that long ago I wrote a blog post called Too Big For Me. I know the world’s problems are too big and too complex to be reduced to black and white. But there is a topic that most people consider closed, no longer worth debating, that warrants another look.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=birth-control-in-water-supply

I’ve shared before what happened to male fish when exposed to trace amounts of the estrogens used in birth control. The question is whether birth control residue is being filtered out of our water supply or not. The Scientific American article above stands a bit at odds with a statement made in another article, which seems to indicate that this is a non-issue. Put those two side by side and I can only draw the conclusion that here is another case of the experts not really knowing for sure. So the question is: is the risk important enough to warrant action?

If there was no option, it might be an easy answer. But here’s my thing: why is it that virtually everyone thinks getting hormones and chemicals out of our food supply is a good idea, but at the same time see nothing untoward about pumping their bodies full of hormones to shut off a perfectly healthy bodily system?

I think the resistance comes from the belief that there’s no other option; without the hormonal manipulation women willingly subject their bodies to, they would be barefoot and pregnant all the time. That would be an even greater environmental strain, all those extra people, right? Because how else can we space/limit family size? We really don’t have any other choice.

Wrong.

People are appallingly uneducated about their bodies and how they work. The fact is, you can space children and limit family size simply by watching the cycle of fertility as it circles, and matching your behavior accordingly. I am, of course, talking about natural family planning.

Now, in general, the assumption is that NFP = rhythm and thus using it is, ahem, ineffective. Rhythm was, indeed, pretty ineffective, but modern NFP has almost nothing in common with rhythm. Modern sympto-thermal NFP has been studied at 99% effective (that’s the same as hormonal birth control, by the way). If you don’t want to wade through the scientific jargon, the summation can be found here, but I wanted to provide the non-“biased” source.

We have been using NFP from the very beginning, through infertility and the subsequent successful planning of three more children. Although I began down this path “because the Church says so,” it has been most of a decade since I have come to realize that in this case, there’s an incredibly practical reason beneath what the Church says. It makes me furious to see the objectification of women in modern society, and to realize that women are participating in it themselves by allowing their value to be defined based on their sexual availability.

In short, I’m all about people planning families, I just don’t see how it’s good for or respectful of human beings in general and women in particular to deliberately shut off a healthy, functioning system in order to do it. I don’t have all the answers; I just want women to wake up and realize that birth control is not the only, or even the best, answer in most cases–it’s only the path of least resistance. And I think it’s irresponsible to ignore the health and environmental risks simply because abstinence is inconvenient.