birth control

Thanks, Birth Control!

Image via  / Shutterstock.com

It’s still not quite socially acceptable for women to express the desire to use birth control. To do so is to run the risk of being labeled a ‘slut’ — or worse. Forget all the sexual exploitation and objectification of women that’s all over the Internet and the entertainment industry — what’s really offensive in some quarters is the idea that women desire to have sex without having babies.

For more than 25 years, the federal government has funded abstinence-only sex education programs that have mostly proven ineffective (and even misleading). The United States has a rate of teenage pregnancy that’s significantly higher than other developed countries, and roughly half of all American pregnancies are unplanned.

That figure soars to nearly 70 percent when we’re talking about unmarried women under the age of thirty — and these numbers, too, are significantly higher than those in other developed countries.

By some estimates, 40 percent of unintended pregnancies are ended with an abortion.

Obamacare's 'Contraceptive Mandate' Faces New Challenge in Supreme Court

Image via Adelle M. Banks / RNS 

Sixteen months after ruling narrowly that companies with religious objections cannot be forced to pay for employees’ contraceptives, the court faces a chorus of cries from religious charities, schools, and hospitals seeking to get out of the birth control business altogether.

The justices are scheduled to review several petitions Friday asking them to overturn federal appeals court decisions that would force the non-profit groups to opt out of the “contraceptive mandate” included in the Affordable Care Act, rather than receiving the blanket exclusion granted churches and other solely religious institutions.

If they agree to hear one or more of the cases, it will mark the fourth time in five years that President Obama’s prized health care law has come before the high court. And it will put the battle between religious freedom and reproductive rights front-and-center in next year’s presidential race.

On Rabbits and the Pill

trefalga / Shutterstock

trefalga / Shutterstock 

EARLIER THIS YEAR Pope Francis titillated the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics when he said we should not feel compelled to breed “like rabbits.” The Twitterverse resounded with commands to “hop to it.” The Italian press dubbed Francis’ speech the “Sermon of the Rabbit.”

In it, Pope Francis said, “Some think that—excuse the language—that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.”

Was the pope changing Catholic teaching on birth control? On the contrary, Francis went on to underscore that “responsible parenthood” requires that couples regulate the births of their children, as Vatican teaching allows, using natural family planning methods.

What we think of as “the Catholic position” on contraception—“‘Every action which ... proposes to render procreation impossible’ is intrinsically evil”—was actually codified as official teaching in 1930 under Pope Pius XI and was part of a larger conversation in Christendom. At the 1930 Lambeth Conference, for example, the Anglican bishops approved a resolution stating: “In those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, other methods [of contraception] may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.”

In 1951, Pope Pius XII overtly accepted natural family planning as a moral form of regulating births, in limited circumstances, within Christian marriage. He also emphasized the importance of a mature and informed conscience in moral reasoning. “It is correctly argued,” he wrote, “that the true meaning of adult independence is not to be led like a little child.”

As part of the process around the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI oversaw a commission to examine the use of oral contraceptives in light of church teaching. The commission’s report—titled “Responsible Parenthood”—argued for the use of artificial contraception within Christian marriage. In the end, Pope Paul VI rejected the commission’s recommendation, and his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the church’s teaching against artificial contraception.

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Colorado Offers Long-Term Birth Control, Sees Abortions Plummet

flocu / Shutterstock / RNS

An IUD. Photo via flocu / Shutterstock / RNS

A much-heralded Colorado effort credited with significantly reducing teen pregnancy and abortion rates is searching for new funding after GOP lawmakers declined to provide taxpayer dollars to keep it going.

Started in 2009 with an anonymous private grant, the state-run Colorado Family Planning Initiative gave free or reduced-price IUDs or implantable birth control to more than 30,000 women. During that period, births to teen mothers dropped by 40 percent and abortions dropped 35 percent, the state said. Armed with a national award for excellence, state health officials asked lawmakers this spring to provide $5 million to keep it going but were rebuffed.

Abortion Rates Declining Nationwide

Image via Steve Allen/shutterstock.com

Image via Steve Allen/shutterstock.com

The number of abortions nationwide has declined by about 12 percent in the last 5 years, according to the Associated Press. States with the strongest restrictions to abortion access and states with the least show a similar decline in rates. 

"Explanations vary," the Associated Press reports, with one factor being a decline in the teen pregnancy rate. Depending on which side of the abortion debate you lie, you can find advocates who attribute the overall decline in abortions to either better sex education and access to contracepton — or advanced technology and a new generation of women for whom there is "an increased awareness of the humanity of the baby before it is born."

From the AP: 

"Abortion-rights advocates attribute it to expanded access to effective contraceptives and a drop in unintended pregnancies. Some foes of abortion say there has been a shift in societal attitudes, with more women choosing to carry their pregnancies to term.

Several of the states that have been most aggressive in passing anti-abortion laws — including Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma — have seen their abortion numbers drop by more than 15 percent since 2010. But more liberal states such as New York, Washington and Oregon also had declines of that magnitude, even as they maintained unrestricted access to abortion."

Public Religion Research Institute, a public opinion research group in Washington, D.C., has created an interactive atlas of American values and hot-button social issues. See where your state lands on attitudes over the availability and legality of abortion here.

A Mama Knows Best, So Let’s Let Her Decide

Photo via Lucian Coman / Shutterstock.com / RNS

A mother holds her daughter in Mmankgodi village, Botswana. Photo via Lucian Coman / Shutterstock.com / RNS

There are more than 220 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant, but who lack access to family planning information and contraceptives. Every year, nearly 300,000 of them will die during pregnancy or from complications giving birth. Far too many mothers will bury their babies before they even get to know the sound of their laughter. More than 2.6 million babies will be stillborn, and another 2.9 million will die before they are a month old.

Giving women the opportunity to time their pregnancies and space out their children through effective, low-cost contraception is key to turning around these heartbreaking numbers.

Breeding 'Like Rabbits,' Sex by Rhythm Method, and Other Natural Family Planning Myths

Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

In discussing birth control and population issues when visiting the Philippines recently, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church promoted “responsible parenthood” that didn’t require good Catholics to be “like rabbits.” The frank imagery prompted a flurry of playfully creative headlines that ranged from mocking to woeful. And the byproduct of such reaction stories? The continued misinformation on what Catholics currently practice and what the Catholic Church actually teaches when it comes to family planning.

The pope’s remarks referenced Catholic teaching that prohibits artificial birth control. Family size, according to the Church, should be regulated by abstinence or a form of Natural Family Planning, sometimes characterized simply as trying really hard not to have sex when you’re “not supposed to,” which often fails and results in a ton of kids. Proponents of NFP say the method(s), and its practitioners, are too often misunderstood.

NFP for pregnancy prevention involves charting a woman’s cycles by testing for various biological markers — like basal temperature or cervical mucous — in order to assess fertile days and abstain from sex during that time. According to the World Health Organization, fertility awareness methods like NFP are 95-97 percent effective when used correctly and consistently (75 percent with typical use), and individual NFP models claim higher effectiveness.

Practicing NFP can certainly be complicated, especially when taking into account marriage and family dynamics that aren’t always conducive to the attention it requires.

But while it may be more difficult than, say, popping a daily pill or using an IUD, modern technology — like tracking apps and temperature-monitoting gadgets — is simplifying the process and coinciding with a resurgence in popularity. NFP practitioners say they appreciate the choice it offers — whether the motivation is following Church teaching or simply avoiding synthetic hormones.

Pope Paul VI Is Almost a Saint: Here Are 4 of His Biggest Legacies

Pope Paul VI, date unknown. Photo via RNS.

As he wraps up a Vatican meeting marked by sharp debates over sex and morality, Pope Francis on Oct. 19 will honor one of his most controversial predecessors by beatifying Pope Paul VI, who is most famous for reaffirming the Catholic Church’s ban on artificial contraception.

Beatification puts Paul one step shy of formal sainthood. The move might seem out of step with Francis’ pastoral approach given that Paul’s birth control ruling, in the 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” set the stage for the culture wars that overtook Catholicism after Paul died in 1978.

A wide swath of Catholics, especially in the U.S. and Europe, were furious over Paul’s decision. They were convinced that the ban would be lifted and that Paul was shutting down the reforms that had begun a few years earlier with momentous changes adopted by the Second Vatican Council.

Many conservatives, on the other hand, hailed “Humanae Vitae” for reasserting traditional doctrine, and the division foreshadowed the deep splits that have played out even in this month’s high-level synod in Rome — a polarization that Francis says he wants to overcome.

Yet Francis is trying to accomplish that goal by focusing not so much on “Humanae Vitae” but on Paul VI’s many other groundbreaking, though often overlooked, contributions:

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