Raymond Ramirez | Monday, February 20, 2017
A brief tale set in a familiar country in a time that is, or is not, to be:
There were no fireworks or formal observances, but a few editorial writers noted the 10-year anniversary of legislation that essentially eliminated abortion in the U.S. “It was amazingly quick in effect,” one writer noted, “within two years of the act being signed by the president, abortions had dropped to negligible numbers in most states. Ironically, the only places with meaningful numbers of procedures were certain southern states that fought the legislation with near-religious fervor.”
The impetus for the law started decades before, with birth control being seriously discussed as a global imperative. Safe, legal and inexpensive birth control was presented as a necessary option for family planning and as a realistic part of every post-pubescent woman’s health regimen — either through regular use or purposeful avoidance. Respected institutions joined in the discourse, and even Notre Dame held an annual “Conference on Population Problems” from 1963 to 1967. The conference was organized by George Shuster, special assistant to Notre Dame’s president, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, with help from Planned Parenthood. The intent was to develop a humane and realistic Catholic position on contraception. A 1965 conference statement to Pope Paul VI, signed by 37 scholars and clerics, affirmed “[t]here is dependable evidence that contraception is not intrinsically immoral, and that therefore there are certain circumstances in which it may be permitted or indeed even recommended.”
The Catholic Church’s official position with respect to contraception prior to this time was, in a word, hostile. Pope Pius XI promulgated the encyclical “Casti Connubii” in 1930, condemning birth control. This approach was somewhat softened in Pope Pius XII’s 1951 announcement that the Church could accept “systematic use of the sterile period” (the rhythm method) for couples with a “serious economic, medical or social reason” for circumventing children. Tolerance of the rhythm method had sown hope among post-Vatican II progressive thinkers that acceptance of birth control was a logical next step: If “sterile periods” were acceptable to prevent conception, then wasn’t the birth control pill simply a means of extending the sterile period for couples who wanted to delay or prevent pregnancy, and wasn’t the “population crisis” sufficient reason to limit the number of children brought into this world? Unfortunately for this well-reasoned approach to artificial contraception, a further encyclical censoring birth control, “Humanae Vitae,” issued by the pious Pope Paul VI in July 1968, delayed further progress.
The 1968 encyclical was influential enough to cause the Republican Party to reverse its pro-contraception stance and cemented the politicization of reproductive rights for decades to come. The political right came to view reproductive rights (or rather, the limitation of such rights) as a reliable conservative cause, and sought to convert otherwise wide-ranging thinkers who were conflicted over Vietnam, economic disparity and civil rights into single-issue voters who would support any “right-to-life” politicians, no matter how vile their personal character or disdainful they were for post-birth human life. Oddly, this approach sought to place the entire burden for resulting guilt and shame for the exercise of reproductive rights solely on women.
From classical times, Greek and Roman philosophers took wild guesses at how children were conceived, and it was on one of the wrong guesses that so much religious, legal and political antagonism towards women’s role in reproduction was based. In brief, the male seed, the sperm, was erroneously thought to carry the entirety of the human child and only required a vessel in which to grow. As the vessel for growth, the woman played a minor role, and the man was given total control with respect to decisions regarding the financial, legal and social growth of the child. In this erroneous construct, the environment and nurturing provided by the mother might influence the appearance or actions of the child, but only the father was seen as the decision-maker in all matters regarding reproduction. Of course, the analogy is faulty because a true seed — say from an oak tree — is already the product of two parents, with each contributing half the offspring’s genetic makeup. Scientific knowledge changed, but patriarchy persisted.
Still, even the most obstinate had to admit that basic science applied to humans, and both men and women contribute equally to the genetics and essential being of children. In 2009, following the dramatic shift in power in both houses of Congress, legislation was introduced that finally recognized this fact, and led to the aforementioned precipitous drop in abortions, as well as unwanted teen pregnancies. Passed the following year, the Control And Responsibility Equality Act actually never mentioned abortions or birth control; rather, it simply stated one fact and a few requirements.
In relevant part, it declared, “Both parents contribute equally to the genetic makeup of children; accordingly both parents will share responsibility for all financial costs associated with decisions regarding conception, pregnancy, birth and the ensuing nurturing, education, housing and raising of all resultant children until the death of both parents. If either parent is a minor, the parents of those minors shall bear all costs. No governmental entity shall intrude or interfere with the decision-making process unless it (i) has received prior permission from both parents to do so, and (ii) has established an escrow fund equal to all anticipated financial costs, payable to both parents upon conception of the child.”
Fully shared financial responsibility from conception turned out to be the key to the resulting plummet in the cost of safe and effective contraception. Even conservatives embraced contraception as the “abortion vaccine” rather than risk the actual cost of supporting life decisions. Hesburgh’s vision of a humane approach to sexuality finally came into focus in 2020.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.