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The Pill | Article

The Catholic Church and Birth Control

The Vatican. Richard McNight.

Until the 1930s, the Catholic Church was not alone in its opposition to contraceptives. In the Christian tradition, birth control had long been associated with promiscuity and adultery, and resolutely condemned. However, after the Anglican Church passed a resolution in favor of birth control at its 1930 Lambeth Conference, other Protestant denominations began to relax their prohibitions as well. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church held fast to its opposition.

The Vatican's stand against contraception was centuries old. For much of that time, however, birth control had remained a dormant issue. Since most birth control consisted of folk remedies and homemade cervical caps, there was little cause for the Church to respond. It was the mass production and availability of rubber condoms and diaphragms in the 1920s and 1930s, made possible by the 1839 invention of vulcanized rubber, which eventually forced the Church to take a public position on specific contraceptives.

A Mortal Sin
On New Year's Eve 1930, the Roman Catholic Church officially banned any "artificial" means of birth control. Condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps were defined as artificial, since they blocked the natural journey of sperm during intercourse. Douches, suppositories and spermicides all killed or impeded sperm, and were banned as well. According to Church doctrine, tampering with the "male seed" was tantamount to murder. A common admonition on the subject at the time was "so many conceptions prevented, so many homicides." To interfere with God's will was a mortal sin and grounds for excommunication.

The Purpose of Intercourse
For the Vatican, the primary purpose of intercourse was for the sacred act of procreation. If couples were interested in having intercourse, then they had to be willing to accept the potential for the creation of another life. For devout Catholics, that left only abstinence or the church-approved rhythm method (the practice of abstaining from sex during the woman's period of ovulation). However, the rhythm method was unreliable, and many believed it placed a heavy strain on marital relations.

A Reformist Climate
With the arrival of the birth control pill in 1960, many believed the Church was about to change the position it had held for centuries. The Church was in the midst of reform, and in this climate of modernization it seemed possible that the Vatican might bend on birth control. Since 1957, Church law had allowed women with "irregular" cycles to take the Pill to regularize their cycle and enable them to better practice the rhythm method. Approval of the contraceptive pill, many believed, was soon to follow.

"Natural" Contraception
Pro-Pill Catholics had a powerful ally on their side. John Rock, the eminent Catholic physician who had carried out Pill trials with Dr. Gregory Pincus, publicly argued that the Pill was merely an extension of the body's normal functioning. Since the Pill used the same hormones already present in the female reproductive system and did not tamper with sperm, Rock believed the Church should view the Pill as a "natural" form of contraception.

The Vatican convened a commission to study the question of the Pill, but the Church would take eight years to determine its policy towards the Pill. In the interim, the Pill quickly became the most popular method of birth control among American women —regardless of religion.

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