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The Pill: Boon or Bane?

Was the invention of the birth control pill a good thing or a bad thing? Most people, I suspect, have never considered the options.

In a world of limited resources that continues to be threatened by overpopulation, there are good arguments for seeing the invention of the pill as a boon to humankind: the earth’s population stood at about three billion in 1960, but had doubled to six billion by 2000. By 2010, estimates suggest the population will reach about 9.2 billion. Many parts of the world already face severe food and resource shortages, fueling massive immigrations that leave other nations feeling threatened.

In an opinion piece in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, Carl Djerassi, a chemist who contributed to the formulation of synthetic hormones used in the birth control pill, complained that a declining population has led to a demographic catastrophe in Austria, an “impossible situation” in which there aren’t enough working people to support the retired people. Baptist Press picked up the story Feb. 5, asserting that Djerassi had connected the advent of the pill to Austria’s population decline and was “lamenting the way the pill has been used.”

BP apparently relied on secondary — and erroneous — reports about the article. As explained in this corrective column in The Guardian posted Jan. 26, Djerassi’s opinion piece made no mention of contraception in general or the pill in particular: Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schönborn cited Djerassi’s article as ammunition in lambasting the use of contraception, and confusion ensued (German readers can find the original article and a later effort to correct misperceptions by searching for “Carl Djerassi” on the Der Standard Web site).

Aside from the faulty reporting on several levels, what about Djerassi’s expressed concern about the declining population in his home country? Europe as a whole has been in a population decline for some time, with the birthrate dropping as low as 1.3 in some countries (2.1 is considered ideal for sustaining the same population).

In a much more comprehensive analysis of the issue written for the New York Times Magazine, Russell Shorto points to a number of factors for the decline: the pill isn’t one of them, though its availability certainly contributes to families having more options in family planning.

While the Catholic Church continues to oppose artificial birth control and some conservative Protestants such as Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have openly decried deliberate childlessness as a sin, some of the most socially conservative countries — such as Italy — have the lowest birthrates.

Shorto points to a variety of other factors impacting the decision to have more or fewer babies. He points, for example, to one statistic that seems counter-intuitive: in Europe, women who are part of the work force tend to have more babies than those who stay at home. A part of the equation, it seems, has to do with social customs and a husband’s willingness to contribute: Women who have to do all the childcare and housework are less likely to want multiple children. Another factor is the timing of births. The longer young adults remain in their parents’ home (a powerful contraceptive) and the older they are when the first child is born, the less likely they are to have additional children.

Shorto points out that European countries with the healthiest birthrates are Scandinavian countries in which the government provides financial and social support for families. Across the Atlantic, America maintains a healthy 2.1 birthrate while providing few economic incentives beyond an annual per-child tax credit, but generally offering greater flexibility for women to re-enter the job market. Arnstein Aassve, a Norwegian researcher working in Italy, told Shorto You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn’t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it’s not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.

Such arguments mean little to social conservatives who dislike the empowerment of women that comes with the availability of contraception, or those who argue (as Mohler does) that some versions of the pill actually constitute early abortion rather than contraception because they prevent fertilized eggs from becoming attached to the lining of the uterus.

Some who complain about lower birth rates, I’m convinced, are not as concerned about fewer babies being born, as they are about fewer white babies being born. And, the problem of there being too few people of working age to support the elderly is not a factor of population decline alone — health advances that add decades to our lifespans and trends toward early retirements (especially in Europe) compound that problem considerably.

The birth control pill, in itself, has no moral component. Like an automobile, a kitchen knife or most any scientific or technological development, it can be used in positive or negative ways. The world is in no danger of running out of people, and global overpopulation that overwhelms the world’s resources remains a present threat. Societies that, for whatever reason, shrink beyond sustainability may simply have to develop measured immigration policies that provide employment opportunities for people from underdeveloped nations, who in turn can pay the taxes necessary to support the aging but indigenous population.

I’m neither a social scientist nor an economist, and I recognize that there are unlikely to be any simplistic or universal answers to issues of population diversity.

What I do believe is that there’s more to having babies than maintaining population levels for either ethnic groups or countries. Whatever their social, cultural or political situation, babies should be wanted — and their parents should be able to care for them.

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today. This column appeared previously on his Baptists Today blog.