The Vindication of Humanae Vitae by Mary Eberstadt

A while back, I mentioned in this space my conclusion that the sexual revolution was an unmitigated disaster for the West, particularly for the poor among us. Now, this was something of a sore point with me, since I had been born and raised as a card-carrying member of the sexual revolution: all the scorn and smugness you can read in the pages of Robert Heinlein and Ayn Rand against the institution of marriage, and the impertinent dogma that any number of people in any combination of sexes can and should fornicate with each other, or with the family dog, in any way shape or form as they should see fit, provided only that all consent and that no one is harmed, used to dribble from my lips. I was in perfect lockstep with the other non-conformists, who all talked and spoke and thought the same way. Marriage and fatherhood eroded those juvenile notions from my head, and once the logic of Stoicism is followed to its logical conclusion, I found myself in a position almost indistinguishable from Christianity, the exact contrary of my former view.

Nonetheless, I am naive enough that I thought a condemnation of the sexual revolution was not a controversial position. I thought the evils that spring from the national and cultural habits of admiring vice and eschewing virtue were obvious, even to the oblivious. But no: strong contrary arguments are still being made.

Entering the lists is Mary Eberstadt’s article in FIRST THINGS. She has taken the time to list a number of empiric sources to support the conclusion that the sexual revolution was a disaster. While I do not place so very much stock in the findings of “sociologists”, I offer this here for the sake of those that do. Here are several paragraphs from this article:

Let’s begin by meditating upon what might be called the first of the secular ironies now evident: Humanae Vitae’s specific predictions about what the world would look like if artificial contraception became widespread. The encyclical warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.

In the years since Humanae Vitae’s appearance, numerous distinguished Catholic thinkers have argued, using a variety of evidence, that each of these predictions has been borne out by the social facts. One thinks, for example, of Monsignor George A. Kelly in his 1978 “Bitter Pill the Catholic Community Swallowed” and of the many contributions of Janet E. Smith, including Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the edited volume Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader.

And therein lies an irony within an irony. Although it is largely Catholic thinkers who have connected the latest empirical evidence to the defense of Humanae Vitae’s predictions, during those same forty years most of the experts actually producing the empirical evidence have been social scientists operating in the secular realm. As sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox emphasized in a 2005 essay: “The leading scholars who have tackled these topics are not Christians, and most of them are not political or social conservatives. They are, rather, honest social scientists willing to follow the data wherever it may lead.”

Consider, as Wilcox does, the Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof. In a well-known 1996 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Akerlof explained in the language of modern economics why the sexual revolution—contrary to common prediction, especially prediction by those in and out of the Church who wanted the teaching on birth control changed—had led to an increase in both illegitimacy and abortion. In another work published in the Economic Journal ten years ago, he traced the empirical connections between the decrease in marriage and married fatherhood for men—both clear consequences of the contraceptive revolution—and the simultaneous increase in behaviors to which single men appear more prone: substance abuse, incarceration, and arrests, to name just three.

Along the way, Akerlof found a strong connection between the diminishment of marriage on the one hand and the rise in poverty and social pathology on the other. He explained his findings in nontechnical terms in Slate magazine: “Although doubt will always remain about what causes a change in social custom, the technology-shock theory does fit the facts. The new reproductive technology was adopted quickly, and on a massive scale. Marital and fertility patterns changed with similar drama, at about the same time.”

To these examples of secular social science confirming what Catholic thinkers had predicted, one might add many more demonstrating the negative effects on children and society. The groundbreaking work that Daniel Patrick Moynihan did in 1965, on the black family, is an example—along with the critical research of psychologist Judith Wallerstein over several decades on the impact of divorce on children; Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s well-known work on the outcomes of single parenthood for children; Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur’s seminal book, Growing Up with a Single Parent; and David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America, another lengthy summarization of the bad empirical news about family breakup.

Numerous other books followed this path of analyzing the benefits of marriage, including James Q. Wilson’s The Marriage Problem, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage, Kay Hymowitz’s Marriage and Caste in America, and Elizabeth Marquardt’s recent Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. To this list could be added many more examples of how the data have grown and grown to support the proposition that the sexual revolution has been resulting in disaster for large swaths of the country—a proposition further honed by whole decades of examination of the relation between public welfare and family dysfunction (particularly in the pages of the decidedly not-Catholic Public Interest magazine). Still other seminal works have observed that private actions, notably post-revolution sexual habits, were having massive public consequences; Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and Francis Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption come especially to mind.

All this is to say that, beginning just before the appearance of Humanae Vitae, an academic and intellectual rethinking began that can no longer be ignored—one whose accumulation of empirical evidence points to the deleterious effects of the sexual revolution on many adults and children. And even in the occasional effort to draw a happy face on current trends, there is no glossing over what are still historically high rates of family breakup and unwed motherhood. For example, in “Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News,” a recent and somewhat contrarian article in Commentary, Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin applauded the fact that various measures of social disaster and dysfunction seem to be improving from previous lows, including, among others, violent crime and property crime, and teen alcohol and tobacco use. Even they had to note that “some of the most vital social indicators of all—those regarding the condition and strength of the American family—have so far refused to turn upward.”

In sum, although a few apologists such as Stephanie Coontz still insist otherwise, just about everyone else in possession of the evidence acknowledges that the sexual revolution has weakened family ties, and that family ties (the presence of a biologically related mother and father in the home) have turned out to be important indicators of child well-being—and more, that the broken home is not just a problem for individuals but also for society. Some scholars, moreover, further link these problems to the contraceptive revolution itself.

Consider the work of maverick sociobiologist Lionel Tiger. Hardly a cat’s-paw of the pope—he describes religion as “a toxic issue”—Tiger has repeatedly emphasized the centrality of the sexual revolution to today’s unique problems. The Decline of Males, his 1999 book, was particularly controversial among feminists for its argument that female contraceptives had altered the balance between the sexes in disturbing new ways (especially by taking from men any say in whether they could have children).

Equally eyebrow-raising is his linking of contraception to the breakdown of families, female impoverishment, trouble in the relationship between the sexes, and single motherhood. Tiger has further argued—as Humanae Vitae did not explicitly, though other works of Catholic theology have—for a causal link between contraception and abortion, stating outright that “with effective contraception controlled by women, there are still more abortions than ever. . . . Contraception causes abortion.”

Who could deny that the predictions of Humanae Vitae and, by extension, of Catholic moral theology have been ratified with data and arguments that did not even exist in 1968? But now comes the question that just keeps on giving. Has this dramatic reappraisal of the empirically known universe led to any secular reappraisals, however grudging, that Paul VI may have gotten something right after all? The answer is manifestly that it has not. And this is only the beginning of the dissonance that surrounds us in 2008.