Father Michael Butler is the parish priest of St Thomas Becket Church, Lewisham, in the Archdiocese of Sydney. After presenting the Church's teaching on birth control to young Catholic engaged couples for many years, he realised that he was generally failing to convince most of them. Over the past ten years, Fr Butler has had more success in communicating the wisdom of the Church's teaching by first presenting the evidence of the many negative side-effects of the Pill and other contraceptive methods. The Catholic couples are then more receptive to what the Church teaches.
In this article, Fr Butler confines himself to the Pill question, although much could be written on the harmful effects of other cforms of ontraception.
Generally now, in my discussions with engaged Catholic couples, I do not start with the teachings of the Catholic Church on birth control, but rather refer to the side-effects of the contraceptive Pill. The reality is that many or most Catholic couples these days have not had a very deep experience of the Church, nor of Jesus Christ. They are very much the products of our culture and society, which take for granted the use of the Pill along with all the other modern 'conveniences.'
God's grace and commands need to connect with our human nature as it is, so I begin by confining myself to the Pill's side-effects and then when the couples realise what these can be, they are then more receptive to what the Catholic Church teaches in this area.
About ten years ago I had early undiagnosed pneumonia and was in hospital for two weeks. When I came out, I thought I should buy literature on how to avoid flu and other such illnesses, and so purchased two general health books at the local health food shop on ways of avoiding flu. To my surprise, in each of them, there was a chapter on the contraceptive Pill and, to my greater surprise, both health food books were devastating in their criticism of the use of the Pill. They were not, of course, written from a religious point of view, but simply from a natural health perspective.
Shortly afterwards, I contacted Dr Kevin Hume in Sydney, who is a leader in Natural Family Planning (NFP), and he sent me copies of the brochure which accompanies the sale in the United States of a very well-known contraceptive Pill, a low hormone one. If you buy this product in the United States, you receive this closely-typed sheet which indicates all the side-effects of the product.
ln Australia, if you buy the same brand of Pill you do not get this sheet of side-effects. The reason for this is that in the United States, women can, and often do, sue the drug company for the side-effect they suffer from the contraceptive Pill. On the other hand, as I understand it in Australia, the law does not provide this kind of opportunity of legal action. As part of the discussion I have with the engaged couples these days I show them a photocopy of a half page article from The Sydney Morning Herald, which begins by saying that the Catholic Church in America "failed over one hundred years to stop the production of new contraceptives. But the lawyers in America have achieved this in one year."
The Herald article describes various cases where women have sued the drug company making a particular pill for side-effects such as blood clots or strokes. It then details recent legal cases in the United States involving millions of dollars. Women can also sue - and have sued - for damages to the new baby when they eventually have gone off the Pill. The Herald article provides considerable detail of these kinds of legal actions. In the United States, to prevent this occurring, the manufacturers simply put inside each packet of Pills a list of these side-effects. There would be in the list of one particular drug company, about one hundred side-effects - including clots, strokes, sterility, etc.
The brochure, mentioned above, distributed in America by the manufacturer of a well known Pill, lists mainly physical side-effects. It does refer, however, a number of times, to such things as mental depression, but not in detail, the reason being that in the United States it is difficult to sue the drug company for mental depression, simply because this often derives from many factors and is a difficult thing to prove. Nevertheless, it is estimated that about fifty percent of women do suffer from some form of mental depression through use of the Pill.
As indicated, I present this kind of material to young couples, if they want to know about it. If they decline, I do not force the matter. If they are interested, I proceed, and the amazing thing is the feedback I then receive from couples. One man who, with his wife, had come for the Baptism of their third child, remarked "yes, that's right, my wife, whilst she was on the Pill, was so cranky I could not speak to her for two or three years. Now she's gone off the Pill, she has changed back to the nice girl I married." (I have often wondered what she said to him when they got home!)
In another instance, the wife said "Yes, so that's it. I used to get vomiting every night and I went over to New Zealand to try and find a naturopath who might be able to help me." Another women, an Anglican married to a Catholic, said "well I went on the Pill for a little while, but it used to send my blood pressure high and I didn't feel well and so I used the natural method."
On a few occasions I have had couples come for the Baptism of their small child and I have shown them this material if they wanted to see it. On a couple of occasions, the couple said, "I wish very much [a certain priest] had not told us it was okay to use the Pill. We used the Pill and now we are having all these side-effects."
Why are there all these side-effects?
The first reason is more philosophical, and is concerned with what is the purpose of the Pill. What is the purpose of any medication? The purpose of any medication in medical treatment is to bring the patient from sickness or lack of vitality, to full health or vitality. When the person being treated for whatever illness it may be, feels that health and vitality have returned, then the medication is stopped. A person stops antibiotics after the sickness or infection has gone. In a small baby, health and vitality are externally evident that it is growing at a normal rate. When a young girl reaches 14 or 15, another sign of health and vitality in her is that she becomes fertile, capable of having a child. This is a sign of vitality, a normal development of her health.
For a woman between the ages of 15 to 45 or so, a basic sign of health and vitality is that she is fertile. However, the contraceptive Pill has the effect of suppressing her fertility, in other words suppressing something which is connected to health and vitality. The Pill is the only medication in medical history whose purpose is to take away vitality, making a woman sick. That, at a philosophical level, is the reason why there are side-effects
A second reason, more from a biological point of view, is that the Pill is a very clever invention. It consists of a hormone which can occur naturally in the body when a woman becomes pregnant. When this occurs, a hormone is released which stops her from falling pregnant again for the duration of the initial pregnancy, otherwise, every month thereafter a woman might conceive another child, with disastrous consequences; so nature's remedy is very simple.
The inventor of the Pill was able to replicate this hormone, manufactured in the laboratory, for sale on a large scale to make women infertile. When a woman takes the Pill, this hormone put into her system tells the nerve centres in the brain and the whole nervous system that she is already pregnant.
But the trouble is that all the nerve endings and biological reactions from the womb are sending another and contrary signal to the brain and nervous system that she is not pregnant. Hence, within the woman there are two opposed biological signals being given, one from the uterus, the womb, that she is not pregnant and the other from the artificial Pill which is telling the nervous system "you are pregnant". There is a loss of biological unity and the side-effects are an expression of this.
An article in The Sydney Morning Herald of 29 October 1993 examined Natural Family Planning and included interviews with couples with no particular Christian belief. One of them, the executive of a somewhat pornographic magazine in Sydney, had visited a natural health and lifestyle weekend with her husband and discovered natural family planning. Natural family planning is becoming very popular with people who are into natural health and health foods. They are accepting it and practising it because they find it suits them, not through any religious motivation.
As Catholics, we sometimes have an inferiority complex about the Church's teaching, believing deep within ourselves that the teaching of the Church in this matter is unrealistic and impossible. Yet the above article speaks of people who are not Christians. One of them is quoted as saying: "There is no more boredom in our relationship, my libido has soared since stopping taking the Pill." Another said: "I feel I'm reaching my mid-thirties sexual peak" since coming off the Pill, while a third admitted: "I was tired of pumping my body with hormones, the Pill was making me into a manic depressive."
Around eleven years ago I was the celebrant for a young couple, 'Billy' and 'Betty' (not their real names). During the marriage preparation I mentioned, as usual, the Church's teaching on the Pill, but I could see that it made no impact on them. They had already paid off their home, but wanted to save for a six-month tour of Europe. At this stage, I was not aware of the side-effects.
After two years or so, on their return from Europe, I used to see them occasionally. I was surprised at the changes I saw in 'Betty': she carried a perpetual frown and seldom smiled, and she seemed to be ageing rapidly.
With some fear and trembling, I told her husband that 'Betty' was showing the negative side-effects of the Pill. 'Billy' asked why I had not told them of the side-effects in the marriage preparation, but I said I did not know of them at that time. I then put them in the picture. They now have two young children.
Not long ago, they said to me, "guess what - we are accredited teachers of natural family planning." They had learned the hard way and now, 'Betty' has lost her frown. She smiles readily, has slimmed, and the good looks she had on her marriage day have returned.