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Primary Sources: The Pill: Negatively Affecting U.S. Morals?

This article, "The Pill: How it is Affecting U.S. Morals, Family Life," appeared in U.S. News & World Report on July 11, 1966.

What is "the pill" doing to the moral patterns of the nation?

Growing popularity of oral contraception is raising profound questions among sociologists, educators, churchman and others.

Is the pill regarded as a license for promiscuity? Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy? Are old fears of the social stigma of illegitimacy about to become a thing of the past?

Here is a report, based on extensive inquiry, on birth-control pills of the present and future, and what leading authorities say about the pills' possible impact on American culture.

An era of vast change in sexual morality now is developing in America.

Fear is being expressed that the nation may be heading into a time of "sexual anarchy."

Just six years ago the birth-control pill came onto the market. Today --

- College girls everywhere are talking about the pill, and many are using it. The pill is turning up in high schools, too.

- City after city is pushing distribution of the pill to welfare recipients, including unmarried women.

- Tens of thousands of Roman Catholic couples are turning to the pill as a means of practicing birth control.

These and other trends are expected to accelerate in times just ahead as laboratories perfect the long term "contraceptive shot" and the retroactive pill which wards off pregnancy even if taken after sexual intercourse.

Result: Widespread concern is developing about the impact of the pill on morality.

Being asked are these questions: With birth control so easy and effective, is the last vestige of sexual restraint to go out the window?

Will mating become casual and random -- as among the animals? Recently, John Alexander, general director of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, which has its headquarters in Chicago, said:

"I think it is certain that the pill will tear down the barriers for more than a few young people hitherto restrained by fear of pregnancy -- and this will be even more true when the 'retroactive pill' comes on the market."

"I am very much afraid that sexual anarchy could develop."

The nation's Presbyterian leaders, at their 178th General Assembly, warned recently of increasing "confusion about the meaning of sex," which they ascribed, in large part, to new methods of birth control such as the pill.

Disquiet is voiced even by an official of Planned Parenthood-World Population, which actively promotes birth control. Dr. Donald B. Strauss said:

"The two great supports of sexual morality in the past -- fear of disease and fear of pregnancy -- have now, happily, been largely removed....

"This, I submit, leaves our generation of parents with a problem that largely remains unsolved."

Early promiscuity.
The dimensions of that problem are being outlined daily by signs of growing sexual promiscuity among America's young.

The Connecticut State Department of health recently estimated that one 13-year-old girl in every six in the State will become pregnant out of wedlock, before she is 20.

Almost countless incidents have been reported, across the U.S., of teen-age girls in high school carrying birth control pills.

In some cases, these have been supplied by their parents.

"Sex clubs" at high schools are reported from time to time.

On the East Coast, high school girls of the middle and upper income classes join a steady traffic reported among college girls who fly to Puerto Rico for legalized abortions.

Recently a freshman at one of the East's most exclusive girl's colleges told her parents that, when a group in her class visited an Ivy League university as a weekend guests, her classmates stayed the night at motels with boys -- some whom they had never seen before and might never see again.

Such occurrences, she said, were commonplace and there were eight or nine pregnancies in her class during the past academic year. Girls declining to engage in sex relations were regarded as "squares," she said.

A different outlook.
Seen as playing an important role in the form of "sexual anarchy" among youngsters is a new attitude towards morality. An official at Mills College in Oakland, CA, reported that "there is less talk than there used to be about right or wrong -- the question today is more, ' Is the individual making a wise decision for her future?'"

It is not just the young people who are causing worries about the nation's sexual morality. Marital infidelity is becoming accepted by many Americans as being of little importance. A "wife swapping" scandal made headlines in California, while Long Island's suburbs were rocked by police accounts of housewives earning money as prostitutes -- some with the knowledge and consent of their husbands.

"A whole new world."
As many clergymen and educators see it, the pill is becoming a major element in the crumbling of past standards of sexual morality -- especially among the young. A woman teacher at a small college in upstate New York said:

"When you talk to the girls today, you're talking in a whole new world. They know how to get the pill. They think a girl is a fool not to use it if -- and it's a big 'if' -- she is seriously in love. Promiscuity is still frowned upon, but it's not equated with morals. It's a matter of personal pride."

Most educators seem to agree with an official of Ohio State University who described the vast majority of students as "nice, normal, young people" but admitted that "this whole area of sexual morals is like an iceberg -- some of it is visible but the extent of the submerged part in unknown."

One thing is clear: the pill, itself, now is becoming a major topic of conversation among students, and among faculty members, too, on nearly all the nation's campuses.

At Brown University, it was disclosed last autumn that the campus health director had prescribed the pill for two unmarried coeds at Pembroke College, the undergraduate school for girls. The health director pointed out that both girls were over 21, and said applicants were carefully questioned.

"I want to feel that I'm contributing to a solid relationship and not contributing to unmitigated promiscuity," he said.

The health director's action was defended by Brown University's president and by the Pembroke student newspaper. The latter held that "the social system is geared to safety and efficiency and not to the ordering of the personal lives of its students, or to the legislating of chastity."

From Brown's chaplain, the Rev. Julius S. Scott, Jr., came this comment:

"This situations patently documents the moral ambiguity of the contemporary college campus, the collapse of tight ethical systems."

To obtain the pill, most women students must turn to private physicians -- or to a "black market" said to exist on a number of campuses.

One news report from Austin, Tex., quoted a gynecologist there as saying he prescribed the pill "without qualms" for eight to ten coeds a month.

"I would rather be asked for the pills than for an abortion," this physician was quoted as saying.

In the medical profession, however, some uneasiness is beginning to be felt on the problem. It has been pointed out by some physicians that a doctor could be sued by a girl's parents -- or charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor -- if he prescribes the pill without her parents' consent.

As a result, some physicians are prescribing the pills for unmarried girls only on a restricted basis. For example, a Washington D.C. gynecologist said:

"If a young woman over 18 years old came in and told me that she wanted a prescription because she was getting married, I would be inclined to give it to her. But, of course, I would have no way of knowing for sure that she really was getting married."

Still other physicians are refusing prescriptions to unmarried girls on any basis. In San Francisco, one said:

"I don't like to give pills to a girl without her parents' consent, although I do know that girls can get them freely and are doing so. Some girls get a big supply and pass them around. Some deterrent is needed, and having to tell their parents first is a deterrent."

Student action.
Today, a movement appears to be developing among students to force colleges to make pills available to them at college health clinics.

At the University of Texas, a candidate for president of the student body proposed that the pill be dispensed at the student health center. He lost the election, but it was agreed that he had developed a "popular issue."

At Stanford University, students voted more than 2 to 1 in favor of authorities' making contraceptives available to students on an "individual basis," as once was the case. The practice was stopped in 1962 because of complaints from parents, religious groups, and alumni. The university administration has indicated that it has no intention of resuming the practice.

The student senate at American University in Washington D.C., recently called for dissemination of pills and other birth control materials at the school's health center. The matter was dropped, and it was found that coeds at this Methodist-sponsored institution are having no trouble in getting the pill from private physicians.

Much of the student demand is found to center in the metropolitan areas, where, it is pointed out, official policy now is to dispense the pill freely to growing numbers of welfare clients, including many with records of sexual promiscuity.

Changing attitudes.
Until recently, church pressure was a curb on private, as well as public, clinics for birth control among the poor.

Today, however, welfare administrators everywhere are turning to the pill as a means of keeping women from producing large broods, many illegitimate, to be supported by the public treasury.

New York, Chicago and Washington D.C., at first limited birth-control services among the poor to married women. Now unmarried women, too, are getting the pill in those cities.

A number of officials and clergymen are voicing concern over this trend. Unchecked, they say, it could lead to official endorsement of the idea that sexual promiscuity is acceptable as long as pregnancy does not result. The Rev. Dexter L. Hanley, S.J., of Georgetown University's law school, told a Senate subcommittee on May 10:

"There are those who sincerely feel that the distribution of information and supplies to the unmarried will encourage promiscuity and a breakdown of public morality... If contraceptive advice is to be distributed to the unmarried, two things will be necessary ... [firstly] adequate counseling and increased attention to family values...secondly, doctors and counselors will have to be able to exercise discretion."

Still another moral dilemma is arising from use of the pill -- this one involving Roman Catholic married couples.

Recently a Government-financed study showed that 21 percent of Catholic wives under the age of 45 have used, or are using, birth control pills despite the Church's ban on all unapproved means of family planning.

The comparable figure for Protestant wives was 29 percent.

A number of Catholic clergymen have held the pill to be morally acceptable -- not an "unnatural" process as the Church has held earlier contraceptives to be.

Dr. John Rock, a leading Catholic layman and one of the pioneers of the birth control pill, said:

"There have been several statements made by authoritative theologians that the method by which the pill works is not clearly against nature, and that there is justification for use of the pill by those who, in all conscience, feel they should practice family planning by this means.

"Until such time as authoritative instruction comes from the Pope, these theologians believe that the question of 'right or wrong' in regard to the pill is one to be decided by the parents."

Decision for the future.
Dr. Rock and other Catholics make it clear, however, that all judgement must be reserved on the "retroactive pill" or the long lasting "contraceptive shot" when these products appear on the market. Their view is that if either acts as an "abortive agent" it must be regarded as against the rule of nature, hence banned for use by Catholics.

These devices of the future, other clergymen are saying, are likely to multiply the moral dangers that are now arising as a result of the pill in its present form.

Today's birth control pill still has an element of inconvenience, since it must be taken for 20 consecutive days following menstruation.

Either the "retroactive " pill or the long lasting shot would remove even the small inconvenience -- and some observers are visualizing the time when a young girl on reaching womanhood would be given a set of retroactive pill to carry with her for use whenever she happens to meet a boy of her liking.

What sociologists think.
Sociologists point out that the pill, itself, is only one element in the danger of moral anarchy.

Dr. Mary S. Calderone, executive director of Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S., said:

"Society provides young people with far too many examples of sex irresponsibly used. High-school kids see sex used as a commercial come on, as an end in itself, presented to them. If the pill hadn't come along, we would be excited about whatever methods were being used."

Even so, the pill is becoming a major factor in the problem. Six million American women are using it. This sudden and overwhelming popularity has caused a few physicians to caution that physical effects over the long run are not thoroughly known. But neither these reservations nor the moral issues are dimming enthusiasm felt by many Americans. One social worker said:

"The pill is so clean and simple, and sure, that everybody who hears about it wants it. And I tell everybody about it."

Crisis ahead?
Less enthusiastic are many Americans who feel that the pill is making moral choices much more difficult for a lot of people, and could precipitate a crisis in sexual morality.

Recently the Right Rev. Richard S. Emrich, Episcopal Bishop of Michigan, said:

"the existence of the pill opens up dangerous possibilities.... It provides an invitation to premarital sex. There must be limitations and restrictions on the use of sex if we are to remain a civilized people."

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