The Complicated History of Catholics, Protestants, and Contraceptives

Today Christian leaders are united against Obama’s birth-control coverage rules. In the past, the Pill and condoms divided them.

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger

Courtesy the Library of Congress.

The GOP candidates are still deep in the ritual dance of podium-pounding and posturing to determine who among them will take on Obama. Yet an unexpected display of unity is upon us: The three most viable candidates have raised their voices in harmonious opposition to the federal law that will compel all private health insurance plans—including those administered by religious employers—to cover birth control, as well as the controversial emergency contraceptives. Mitt Romney accused the president of “using Obamacare to impose a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away.” Newt Gingrich decried the law on NBC’s Meet the Press, complaining that “every time you turn around, secular government is closing in on and shrinking the right of religious liberty in America.” Rick Santorum, a father of seven who has already declared that contraception is “not OK,” called the law an assault on freedom of conscience and free speech. Today the Catholic network EWTN sued the government over the mandate, and evangelical leaders have joined the chorus.

In a campaign riven by sectarianism, this appears to be an issue on which conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons can agree. However, the roots of this alliance are anything but ecumenical. The early battles over birth control pitted Protestants against Catholics and were “culture wars” in their own right, so inflamed by ethnic and religious bigotry that they make today’s partisan debates look like, well, a tea party.

To many American Protestants in the late 19th century, having legions of children was not the cultural norm. They believed that dragging around armloads of screaming tots was—like massive street parades for the Virgin and bloc voting for Mob politicians—an old-fashioned and vaguely threatening thing that only Catholic immigrants did. Protestant women volunteered with the temperance league and contented themselves with an heir and a spare, or maybe a couple of spares: Between 1800 and 1920, the birth rate among native-born white (read: Protestant) women declined from 7.04 to 3.13, while Catholic families were still averaging 6.6. While upstanding, Anglo-Saxon Protestant women were buying condoms made from sheep intestines, douching with dubious solutions like “Cullen’s Female Specific,” and having furtive abortions, those Catholic babes in arms were growing up into a veritable papist army. By the turn of the century they represented 13 percent of the national population.

Evangelical activists’ concern over rising Catholic census numbers was one factor in the cocktail of Victorian moralism and anxiety about sexuality that motivated states and the federal government to ban the dissemination of information about birth control and the sale of contraception devices, and to stiffen anti-abortion laws in the late 19th century. The laws were partly intended to prevent white Protestant women from shirking their duty as mothers of the fittest race. But ethnic prejudice fueled the other side of the birth control debate, too. Liberals in the eugenics movement applauded the potential of modern birth control and sterilization to purify humanity of “criminality” and “feeblemindedness,” traits that they usually found most often among poor Catholics and people of color.

A few decades later, Margaret Sanger and her colleagues maneuvered to win Protestant support—or at least silence their opposition—by capitalizing on anti-Catholic sentiment and casting Rome as the enemy of women, free thought, and progress. (She aimed her invective at the Vatican, not Catholic women themselves, for whom she had deep sympathy.) In 1921, she denounced Rome as “a dictatorship of celibates” and urged “all who resent this sinister Church Control of life and conduct … [to] choose between Church Control or Birth Control.” After the Anglican Communion moderated its position on contraception in 1930, the rest of liberal Protestantism soon fell into line. Initially evangelicals and fundamentalists fulminated against birth control, but soon their protests quieted.

In the years after World War II, experts haunted by neo-Malthusian nightmares of overpopulation urged more government support for contraception. While Planned Parenthood advocated the Pill as a matter of women’s rights, the Johnson administration viewed family planning as a way to lower the welfare costs of the Great Society. By the mid-1960s, the taboos of earlier years were a distant memory for most Americans—and in the afterglow of Vatican II’s reformist spirit, liberal Catholics had high hopes that their church might finally join the consensus.

But Pope Paul VI dashed these hopes in 1968 by roundly condemning birth control in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. This stubborn rebuff to a changing culture—long before Rome’s botched handling of the child abuse scandal—severely undermined the church’s authority in the West. Catholics had complained about their popes before, but this time the instant and public reaction was remarkable. Immediately after the encyclical’s publication, priests across North America announced their refusal to force parishioners to conform to the pope’s decree. Eighty-seven teachers of theology condemned Rome’s “almost total disregard for the dignity of millions of human beings brought into the world without the slightest possibility of being fed and educated decently.” Historian Patrick Allitt has written that although American Catholics criticized the Vatican’s ban on birth control before 1968, most of them obeyed—but once Rome failed to even meet their concerns halfway, they began flouting the Vatican’s teaching entirely.

Today, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women say they have used some form of contraception, as have the vast majority of evangelicals. A recent poll revealed that 58 percent of American Catholics approve of forcing private insurers to cover birth control. (Only among white evangelicals, with their sensitivity about “religious freedom” and newfound zest for “quiverfulls” of children, did a majority disapprove of the law.)

So, despite decades (centuries!) of religious strife, it turns out that conservative Christians do agree on something: Almost all of them use birth control. The GOP candidates’ display of unity in opposing this law has nothing to do with what their constituents actually do in their own homes. The law is a rhetorical opportunity, a chance to wave the banners of “family values” and “religious freedom” to rally the Red State troops (while the White House, worried that the president can’t afford to seem “anti-religion” in election season, is scrambling to soften the law’s impositions on religious institutions).

If the history of the battle over birth control has taught us anything, it’s that contraception has always been a powerful symbol, a weapon in the culture wars rather than a matter for dispassionate discussion—and legislation has proven a tool for protecting cultural power and policing boundaries between insiders and outsiders. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the boogeymen were overly fruitful Catholic immigrants. Now they are baby-killing, secular humanist “elites” who sit around smoking cigars rolled from pages of the Constitution—when they’re not gulping the Pill and fornicating like godless bunnies, that is.