(With thanks to iusenfp.com for the graphics in today’s post.)
Last year, I participated in a panel on contraception and women. Most of the women on the panel were decidedly secular, artificial contraception advocates, but they asked if I, who considers herself both a feminist as well as a supporter of Humanae Vitae, would offer some thoughts on how being against artificial contraception might be considered in relation to feminist thought. Was it even possible, they wondered, to be feminist and in favor of natural family planning methods over against artificial contraception? While I suspect that I did not convince many (if any) people in the room, several of the points I raised did become part of good, honest conversation that I and others found helpful and healthy. (Beth Haile raised this question of links between nfp use and feminism in her post yesterday briefly, as well.)
In that spirit, and in relation to this year’s Natural Family Planning Awareness week, which has the theme “Pro-Woman, Pro-Man, Pro-Child,” I offer the following points from that talk, with the recognition that most Catholic women do not practice NFP and may find what I say odd or difficult. Indeed, I do know many people who have struggled mightily with the church’s teachings in a variety of ways, from whether to follow the teachings at all, to finding themselves in the “100% (Abstinent) Club”, to having more children or more problems with fertility than they feel they can handle. On the other hand, I have encountered those who would say they know very, very little about the church’s teachings, except in a vague sense that somehow the church teaches that women should be baby-breeding machines, and that the church’s “method” for preventing pregnancy doesn’t really work scientifically (neither of these last two assumptions are true, by the way).
But I am publishing these remarks with a view toward enabling further conversation and toward thinking together about some of the things we all might hold in common regarding contraception. A caveat: some of the people I mention in this blog post are not Catholic, and many are approaching the question from a particularly feminist-not-Catholic standpoint. So, this post serves as a means of discussing how some of these viewpoints converge with Catholic teaching at times, and it should be seen in light of that initial, often secular, audience for whom it was intended.
Some women, whether Catholic or not religiously affiliated, have spoken in favor of the anti-artificial contraception stance of Humanae Vitae because they see an anti-contraception stance as being more pro-woman than artificial contraception. Some of these women consider themselves feminists; others do not. And, not all women who find themselves in opposition to artificial birth control necessarily agree with the church’s teachings about marriage, nor are they practicing Catholics, but they do find affinities with it and particularly see problems with contraceptive use for women. I’m going to discuss briefly a few of these women’s positions, dividing them into three general categories: biological concerns (broadly speaking), political concerns, and objectification of women.
Biological Concerns – Health Risks and the Environment
One set of arguments that finds agreement with the basic sense of the church’s teachings against contraception are those concerned with biological questions about artificial contraception. This set of arguments are made by scholars who would tend to agree with Humanae Vitae’s concern about the misuse and objectification of women. For example, some feminists like Rita Ardetti and Renate Duelli Klein are concerned about the medical effects of hormonal contraception on women (see the Cancer Institute (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/oral- contraceptives) They note an elevated risk of breast, cervical and liver cancer for estrogen/progestin pill users, especially at younger ages; the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology notes an increase in blood clotting and stroke risk, depending on other health factors like obesity and smoking.
The concern here is actually not with the increased risk of cancer per se – for of course, most medical interventions come with some risk factors, and as most medical researchers point out – taking hormonal contraception can also provide some benefits, including a decrease in the risks of ovarian and uterine cancers. But the concern that feminists like the ones above have with health risks related to artificial contraceptive use is that any risk, however small, in artificial contraception use is far disproportionately carried by women. (See, among others, Dion Farquar’s book The Other Machine: Sexual Politics and Reproductive Technologies; Test-Tube Women, Rita Arditti, Renate Duelli Klein, Shelly Minden. Several of the other authors mentioned in this post also deal with this question.)
These scholars ask, “Why should women primarily bear this burden?” By contrast, proponents of natural family planning methods argue that NFP is non-invasive and does not carry these kinds of risks. I should interject here that there are a variety of natural family planning methods that make use of different fertility signs. There is a range of choice that women have for natural methods; some are better for women with significant gynecological difficulties (Creighton, NaPro Technology), for example, some are better for women who travel a great deal or who work second and third shift (Billings, Marquette), and so on.
As for the risk of pregnancy as a health concern (because pregnancy can carry many health risks, which should be taken into account): most natural family planning methods carry the same perfect-use efficacy rate as the pill and other artificial contraceptives. Some methods of natural family planning also carry similar imperfect use rates as artificial contraceptives; for example, the Marquette method, a version of NFP that makes use of a fertility monitor. The burden of natural family planning methods is in their requirement for abstinence on certain days; however, on some feminists’ views this burden is shared by both sexual partners, so that the use of natural family planning is seen as a more equalizing method of spacing children than artificial contraception.
A second biologically-related argument raised by women concerned with artificial contraception is its affect on the environment. A large group of feminists are drawn to being concerned for care of the earth precisely because they also care about women’s bodies, and vice versa, and see connections between treatment of women and treatment of the earth (most famously, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Sally McFague – though to my knowledge neither of them has commented on artificial contraception as such). Other feminists have, however, and see a connection between care of the earth and use of contraception.
For example, farmer-writer Elizabeth Bahnson runs an organic free range farm in part because of her concern about the ways in which industrial farming practices misuse animals, especially by overstimulating hormone production in order to cause livestock to be more fertile, or give more milk,and so on. Bahnson was herself a pill user until the day that she saw a connection between industrial farming practices and her own use of hormones that continuously tricked her body into thinking it was pregnant via hormone use. Bahnson subsequently discovered the research of Conrad Volz and others studying the effects of even trace amounts of estrogen that make their way into the water supply, via industrial agriculture as well as people use. While the effects are still unknown, and industrial agriculture in fact leads to the highest rates of hormones in the water, for people like Bahnson, the connection between the health of the environment and human health has led to great concern for hormonal contraceptive use.
Economic and Political Concerns
Additionally, artificial contraception’s risk to women raises economic concerns. Marxist feminists in particular have been concerned generally about a relationship between technology and the commodification and control of women: that men create technology for women to use, and that moreover, the technology that is created for women’s use disproportionately benefits men, and the economic sector (One author discussing this is Adrian Forty in the book Objects of Desire: Design and Society since 1750, in relation to household objects; many scholars have discussed the impacts of technology in terms of both contraception and other technologies on women and children, though again, not necessarily with a view toward fully supporting natural birth control, but with a view of exposing concerns about technologies and their impacts on women – see, for example, Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Let the Children Come“ and articles like Sarah Franklin’s “Transbiology: A Feminist Cultural Account of Being After IVF“, which gives many, many wide-ranging references to literature on this topic.).
A view toward contraception as technology sees that this is a technology that controls women’s bodies, which enables men to exploit women’s bodies for sex because of the presumption that contraception prevents pregnancy. It further enables corporations to exploit women’s bodies because the presumption is that contraception provides a foolproof safeguard against pregnancy, and thereby permits corporations to avoid the expense of maternity leave, nursing rooms and other expenses that affect women disproportionately, because pregnancy can be blamed on women. Thus, the way to be employed as a woman is under the presumption that she operates exactly as a man does, and that she won’t cause any of the mess, bother and expense that corporations are so worried about relating to pregnancy and maternity leave.
A related concern expressed on this view is the social myth that contraception absolutely prevents pregnancy. The most recent Guttmacher Institute study still observes that 5% of perfect users of contraception, and 43% of imperfect users of contraception will have unintended pregnancies. This means that almost half of all unintended pregnancies in the US are related to contraception use. But when we allow the myth about absolute contraceptive effectiveness to remain in place, we also allow presumptions that we don’t need to work for better maternity leave, nursing rooms, flexible work arrangements and the like. Thus, the predominant social view that contraception is a positive thing for women becomes used against women and their aims toward better working conditions that honor their bodies.
One of the points that Humanae Vitae specifically mentions as a problem related to artificial contraception use is the misuse of contraceptive technology by the government – and that is a point that some feminist scholars have concerns with as well. One example of government interference is the way the US justice system has sometimes made use of requiring inmates and others brought up on charges to use contraceptive devices, or to be sterilized. Some scholars have noted the racial slant that this requirement has taken: more African American and Latina women, as well as disabled women, find themselves at the mercy of courts requiring them to control their sexuality by using artificial contraception ( See, for example, Dorothy Roberts’ book Killing the Black Body). This an image that conjures up early to mid twentieth century cases where the government forcibly sterilized women, but in fact, this remains a relevant question in 2013 (as in the recent case about female inmates being forcibly sterilized)
Objectification of Women Via Contraception
And finally, I will say a few words about the objectification of women, as one of the other key concerns mentioned in Humanae Vitae. Theologians Lisa Isherwood and Adrian Thatcher particularly raise important concerns about women’s objectification via contraception (Thatcher, who critiques both HV and mainstream feminist thought) and a sexualized culture (Isherwood, who is thinking particularly about celibacy as empowering). Their arguments suggest that women lose control of their bodies because of artificial contraceptive use; contrary to the idea that artificial contraception gives control, it gives women very little idea of what their own bodies can do. Moreover, it seems to make women’s bodies always available for sex and reinforces an overly-sexualized culture; Isherwood and Thatcher do queer theology and additionally see that artificial contraception reinforces especially a heterosexual culture.
But Thatcher also wonders about the effects of an intensification of this sexualized culture (the above link takes you to the PDF of Thatcher’s chapter in The Good News of the Body: Sexual Theology and Feminism, edited by Isherwood). For previous generations, the pill indeed seemed liberating; but in the current generation, where the pill is routine, Thatcher suggests women have fewer choices about sexual intercourse than they had before, exactly because sex has become routine, standardized and a socially demanded practice (147). Thus, the periodic abstinence of natural family planning, as an enforced celibacy for both women and men, is also an equalizer of sex roles because it gives women a bodily means of saying no. This is as opposed to making women’s bodies conform to our culture’s constant “yes” to sex, especially when women do not want to conform.
Alongside Thatcher’s concerns are those raised by critics of hook up culture. Here at CMT.com, Jason King especially has been discussing hook up culture and the studies done on hook up culture. And here is where I want to end my talk about contraception with a question in relation to the so-called easy sex of twenty-somethings. Hook up culture, such as that which we find on college campuses, seems to be exactly the kind of culture that thrives on the fact that artificial contraception exists – without ever calling its use into question – while also enabling women’s bodies to become objects.
The concern the church has about hooking up isn’t just about (or perhaps even mostly about) premarital sex. It’s about whether you’re really able to be yourself, body and soul. Here’s why I wonder whether it is the case that people are able to be truly fully themselves in a hook up culture. What I see when I’m around college campuses on the weekend are girls that are dressed up, high heels, make up, little dresses – presumably to impress, and hook up with, men who are, well, not that well dressed. And then I hear about CEO and Ho parties, Sports Pro and Ho parties. It makes me think that maybe women on college campuses feel they are expected to put out their bodies in ways that enable others not to treat them as real people (scholars have suggested the ways in which the presumption that everyone’s doing it is both a very common but very faulty presumption). That, combined with the further presumption that of course women are a) the ones responsible for protecting themselves and b) because women have protected themselves, sex will necessarily be free and easy creates a perfect storm in which women far disproportionately bear sex as a burden. Artificial contraception creates an environment in which men do not have to be as aware of the effects sex (and contraception) have on women – and in that way, promotes a view of women as primarily objects with which one has a good time (good “eye candy” and “booty”, hence the clothes stratification) but not as people who are affected by sex and sexualization. But the idea that women, on the whole, aren’t affected by sex and sexualization (and negatively so) of their bodies is likewise a myth that has been very well put to rest by scholars of hook up culture.
So, for these three main reasons, I think artificial contraceptive use deserves the kind of hard look that I imagine many people in this room give to their food use (organic, local) or their shopping habits (not Walmart) vis a vis the impact of those decisions individually and communally. The individual and collective impact of artificial contraception use is something that some feminists do, indeed, worry about too – in favor of not using it at all.