Few people doubt the severity of the problem that overpopulation presents for this planet. Its consequences are poverty, famine, disease and death, sometimes on very large scales. Birth control and contraception are moral requirements for anyone who considers human suffering, the state of the world, and morbidity rates to be important humane issues. It is inconsistent, for example, to say that contraception or abortion is "murder" whilst ignoring the fact that poverty and overpopulation are far bigger killers. Venereal disease causes unimaginable suffering and can affect the purely innocent. Babies are frequently infected with the diseases of the parents; in this way, the prevention of disease with contraception is vital because once women in a local area are infected with a disease, children will also be directly infected. In the case of incurable diseases, such an event can lead to insurmountable suffering. Such a terrible state of affairs is prevented by the correct use of contraceptives such as condoms.
Despite the practical necessity of birth control and disease prevention, the moral responsibility we have towards (a) the future of our children and (b) our stewardship of the planet, many religions have opposed birth control for various superstitious reasons. All pioneers of contraception were freethinkers1. The most notable, powerful and active anti-birth-control body is the Roman Catholic Church, which has remained strictly opposed in both theory and practice despite the objections of many of its adherents and priesthood. Thankfully Most Catholics routinely ignore the Church on this issue, giving some hope that when the ridiculously anachronistic and immoral doctrines of the Church interfere with normal moral life, even self-proclaimed Catholic individuals will ignore the Church, and live life responsibly and morally. In "Why I am not a Christian" by Bertrand Russell (1957) the author takes a moral stance against the Church:
“I begin with contraception, because here the influence of superstition is particularly noteworthy. [...] If either of the parents has venereal disease, the child is likely to inherit it. If they already have too many children for the family income, there will be poverty, underfeeding, overcrowding, very likely incest. To please [the anti-contraception religious types] a life of torture is inflicted upon millions of human beings [...] merely because it is supposed that sexual intercourse is wicked unless accompanied by desire for offspring. [...] If they had even the smallest spark of love or pity for children they could not adhere to a moral code involving this fiendish cruelty. [...]
To be killed suddenly and then eaten, which was the fate of the Aztecs' victims, is a far less degree of suffering than is inflicted upon a child born in miserable surroundings and tainted with venereal disease. Yet it is the greater suffering which is deliberately inflicted by bishops and politicians in the name of morality.”
Simple contraceptive measures such as condoms can be used to prevent long-term suffering and control population growth, but also endows families with shorter term relief from suffering, and it is for these reasons that Bertrand Russell above states that Aztec cannibalism produced less suffering than anti-birth control lobbyists. The availability of methods to control family size is one of the biggest factors in being able to escape poverty.
“In the world as a whole, a stunning 135m people escaped dire poverty between 1999 and 2004. [...] More people, more quickly than at any other time in history. [...] Perhaps the biggest change affecting people's lives has little to do, at least directly, with development policy or public spending. People in poor countries are now able to exert more control over their own fertility, and hence over the size of their families.”
Condoms are scientifically proven to be superior methods of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and are effective methods of birth control. But, for superstitious reasons, some religions such as the Catholic Church have run long campaigns against their use. Their ideology not only prevents them from using effective anti-disease contraception, but it causes them to also (a) deny its effectiveness (b) emphasize problems with condoms and (c) actively campaign against others' use of it, and even to the extent of sabotaging the distribution of condoms. Catholic agencies in Africa have committed such horrors as instructing all condoms to be stapled (piercing them), and Christian leaders are regularly caught teaching that condoms don't work and recently, that Westerners are distributing HIV-ridden condoms that will give their users AIDS. (HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, but, neither survives outside the body so such stories are misinformed, let alone paranoid).
Christian mythology asserts that God prefers Homo Sapiens (but no other species) to have legal contracts with each other (marriage), conservative Christians often talk about "abstinence-only" education, and in many states in the USA have conducted battles to stop schools from educating children about safe sex. Instead, they teach, that in order to be responsible
Christians adults, you have to abstain from sex until marriage.
But, whether or not abstinence-only works can be tested and studied. "Studies have found that abstinence-only sex education programs actually increase the rates of pregnancy and STDs in the teenage population"3. "Kirsten Underhill and her colleagues at the University of Oxford have, over the past few months, been testing it"4. Their studies involved 16 000 young people in America and compared Christian abstinence-only education with no (or low key) education.
“Pregnancies were as numerous in both groups. Sexually transmitted diseases were as widespread. The number of sexual partners was equally high and unprotected sex just as common. [...] In contrast to the fears of the protagonists of abstinence-only-education, not one of the trials found that teenagers behaved in a riskier fashion in either the long or the short term after receiving [condom] instruction.”
However in 2009 new data revealed that in the USA at least, abstinence-only education was not only ineffectual, but was actually making things worse:
“To the surprise of few outside the rarefied world of the Religious Right, it has emerged that George W Bush's "abstinence only" policies led directly to a rise in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) says that after years of falling rates, teen pregnancies and STDs started rising after Bush was re-elected in 2005.
According to the CDC, birth rates among teenagers aged 15 or older had been in decline since 1991 but rose sharply in more than half of American states after 2005. The number of teenage girls with syphilis had risen by nearly half after a big decrease, while a 20-year fall in the gonorrhea infection rate was being reversed. AIDS cases in adolescent boys had nearly doubled. [...]
The number of teen pregnancies is double in areas where abstinence is the only method of birth control taught as opposed to areas where there is comprehensive sex education and condoms are handed out. [...] Religious proponents of the "abstinence-only" policies still insist that the reason for the rise is because their policies were not promoted hard enough.”
The Bible Belt is a swathe of Southern states in the USA famous for their embrace of tough Christianity. It was here, where abstinence-only programmes are popular, that the CDC reported the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs.
Condoms excel at preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and, educating people about safe sex and condom use does not lead to increased promiscuity.
Abstinence-only education does not work and has led to increased rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs.
The Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, embody a wide range of opinions and practices on contraception. In the 1920s, most Christian denominations, including both Protestants and Catholics, were against birth control and contraception6. According to a Catholic website, "At its 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican church, swayed by growing social pressure, announced that contraception would be allowed in some circumstances. Soon the Anglican church completely caved in, allowing contraception across the board. Since then, all other Protestant denominations have followed suit"7. In modern times it is the Catholic church that is most famously and strongly against the use of contraceptives, even for the use of disease prevention. But whilst the official doctrine as propounded from the pulpit is strict; condemnations of contraceptive use are widely ignored on the ground. Even in Poland, Europe's most Catholic country, "many are openly defying its rulings on contraceptions and abortion"8. Hindus are free to employ birth control methods as they see fit.
Any conscientious priest in the Catholic Church should consider openly declaring dissatisfaction with the Vatican's anti-human and anti-equality policies. Mother Theresa, one of the other "good guys" who has rabidly opposed condoms, spent millions flying to and fro in Europe and the USA on political campaigns against contraceptives. The Catholic Church, with all its money, could turn itself into a force for good and squarely put the dark ages behind itself, but, riddled with superstition and religious inhibitions, it is still a dangerous and dysfunctional failure, crippled by delusions about the real world.
The Catholic Church has heavily opposed all forms of birth control for all of known history. The current document is Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (1968)9, reflecting the opinion of Pope Piux XI in 1930 that the Catholic Church teaches absolute truth as passed down 'uninterruptedly from the beginning'10. Between 1816 and 1916 there were twelve separate condemnations of contraception issued by the Catholic Church's Sacred Penitentiary6. One thing is clear: For much of its history, the Catholic Church has strongly opposed contraception. In particular, it has opposed any method that intentionally prevents childbirth between a married man and woman.
Despite this clear, long-standing and impractical standing, things slightly changed in 1930. The eternal truth passed down and taught by Catholics "from the beginning", slightly changed for the better, and the Casti Connubii allowed, in extreme situations, couples to use the 'safe period' or 'rhythm' method. This inaccurate method hardly works and doesn't stop the spread of disease, but, nonetheless, the position of the Catholic Church changed a little. This change in absolute, eternal doctrine of the infallible Pope (get the sarcasm?) was confirmed twice by Pope John XXIII in 1951.
It is no wonder that Bryan Wilson, in his discussion of how Christian Churches have followed society, but lagged behind (therefore undermining their own claims of doctrinal moral truth), uses the history of birth control as his main example of the changes in society that have led to changes in Church doctrine11.
43% of Roman Catholic priests in England & Wales do not support the Church's ban on contraception (another 19% are unsure)
All of this so far would be merely an academic curiosity, another example of zany religious clerics making odd declarations based on ever odder historical precedents. But The Catholic Church is also a heavy activist, and has caused uncountable numbers of poor people in South America and Africa to become infected with HIV and other STDs, contributed to the dangerous population explosion, and undermined charity organisations that support birth control, such as when the Birmingham Catholic Church boycotted Comic Relief because money raised might go to a family planning clinic that gave access to contraceptions to street children12. The Catholic Church causes very real suffering amongst very poor people as a result of its impractical policies.
Africa suffers massively from HIV and AIDS, and is the continent that saw the first cases. 20 million people have died from AIDS in Africa and a further 22.5 million are infected with HIV. Many are born with it, as it often passes from mother to baby, and due to the nature of HIV, many people can have the virus but remain without symptoms, sometimes for decades.
The Catholic Church still strongly opposes the use of condoms in Africa, which is home to 135 million Catholics15. In Kenya, local Bishops have instead recommended that abstinence, "counseling" and "ethics" are used to prevent the spread of HIV, instead of condoms. The Catholic Church has run long-term campaigns against condoms. Dr Muga, Kenya, said that the government has reduced infection rate from 14% to 10% as a result of sex education and condom contraception, but still, the Catholic Church campaigns against sex education that teaches the value of contraception. Bishop Korir said that only the guilty were afraid and resorted to condoms, and that he wanted "no condom talk" (2003)14. Those who are born with it, or are infected with it because a partner unknowingly had it, are not exactly 'guilty'!
You might think that such crazy Bishops are a phenomenon peculiar to Africa. But the doctrine against condoms comes from the top, and the Vatican's official long-standing policy is propounded even in Europe and the USA. Pope Benedict, the German head of the Catholic Church since 2005, delivered speeches in Africa in 2009 and reiterated, in the 21st century, his stance against condoms:
“Asked about the use of condoms to help tackle the scourge of AIDS, the pope restated, in unusually explicit terms, the church's position that these are not useful to "overcome" the epidemic, indeed their use actually makes the problem worse. He suggested the disease could be beaten through chastity, abstinence and "correct behaviour". [...] His statement sounded otherworldly at best, and crass and uncaring at worst. Merely wishing away human sexual behaviour does nothing for the potential victims of AIDS, many of whom are innocent under even the most moralistic definition of that word.”
In countries where the authorities are weak, science is ill-established and there are mass social problems, it would help a lot if the Catholic Church, with its powerful social networks, joined in with the efforts to stop the decay of society due to disease and overpopulation (two things that go hand-in-hand). But governments in Africa and South America, not to mention the USA and European countries such as Poland, have to fight against the church on such simple measures as birth control and condom use, and this battle often politicizes the operations of charities and welfare groups.
The best ways to prevent abortion are increased education, increased (and more equal) chances in life for women, less poverty and less legal restrictions on abortion. In developed countries where abortion is legal, rates drop. Where it is illegal or heavily restricted, and where it goes against popular religion's beliefs, the rates of illegal abortions are high. Millions of women each year suffer from medical complications as the result of having to obtain illegal "back street" abortions; 70,000 of those women die as a result16.
“A new report by the Guttermacher Institute, a pro-choice think-tank [examines how] prohibitions on abortion are slowly easing, though poor countries remain much tougher than rich ones. Since 1997, 22 places have changed their abortion laws and in 19 of those cases the change was a liberalisation. [...] In Western Europe, which has among the most liberal laws in the world, abortion rates are the lowest. Places where abortion is in effect banned, such as Uganda, typically see the highest incidence of abortion.”
The Catholic Church campaigns heavily against abortion as it does against contraception, no matter how much suffering is caused. It does not just limit its interference to matters concerning its own staff or followers, but actively tries to impose its superstitions on any over whom it might have power or influence, such as governments of countries such as the USA, Poland and Italy, and charities. Even when a charity would help a poverty-stricken woman who was raped by a soldier, or when a genetic disease threatens the life of the mother or would render the child's life unliveable, the Catholic church will still lobby to prevent abortion. Fundamentalist Christian organisations in the USA are responsible for that country's strict laws on the matter in many states. The political researcher Andrew Heywood notes the Christian group Moral Majority founded by the famous bigot Jerry Falwell: "since the 1980s its principal energies have been devoted to the campaign against abortion [, ...] homosexuality, pornography, premarital sex and, in the USA at least, the teaching of Darwinian theories of evolution rather than Biblical 'creationism' have also been castigated"17. Other Christian "religious right" organisations follow similar agendas against abortion. In much of the rest of the world, it is the Catholic church that is the most prominent anti-abortion activist.
“The Catholic Church has been persecuting Amnesty since it was revealed that the human rights organisation had changed its policy on abortion to support women who were raped and impregnated by enemy soldiers. Catholic schools have been told not to raise funds for Amnesty and Catholic bishops have been advising their parishioners to withdraw their support.”
In the wake of a long series of serious of prolific sexual scandals across Christendom, many have come to suspect that there is something deeply wrong with Christian Biblical dogma on sexuality in general. One author who has published at length on the horrific sex abuses of the church notes that (thankfully) most ordinary Catholics do not subscribe to their own Church's stance on most issues of sexuality, which must server to reduce the effective influence of the church:
“More and more scholars see the official Catholic position on sexuality as both dangerous and false. [...] Large numbers of Catholics simply do not trust the authoritative teachings of the Vatican in matters of sexuality. Contraception, abortion, remarriage after divorce, homosexuality, and masturbation - all areas of strict prohibition according to Vatican teaching - are tolerated as acceptable behaviour by lay Catholics in roughly the same proportion as by members of other denominations.”
Liberal abortion laws have proven to be the best not only for the safety of women and the health of society in general, but are also associated with low rates of abortion. I think that once a society can openly and freely talk about family planning without such things as taboos or religious dogma getting in the way, responsible behaviour can be increased in general.
“The high child abuse and sexual abuse rates within the Christian priesthood highlight a problem that many religions face: We should not attempt to mould human sexuality around otherworldly religious ideals. Sexual dysfunction always results.Psychologists and sociologists have noted the association between extreme religious fervour and psycho-sexual problems (the former causing the latter), and the highly negative stance that many monotheistic religions take towards sexuality in general have contributed to a general malaise amongst their lay adherents, and a serious pandemic of abuse amongst professional religionists. The religious attitude towards religion is to behave like an ostrich and stick its head in the sand, hoping that theology can override biological truth, but merely making its victims unable to cope with adult sexuality. Witness the hateful and confusing statements that Christians and Muslims make about homosexuals, the anti-contraception stance that the Catholic church has in an over-crowded world ridden with disease, the harmful and simplistic rejection of abortion and the patriarchal dominance over women that has gone hand-in-hand with traditional religion on every continent.
In the modern world, many modern popular movements provide an alternative to traditional religions, and have enshrined normal sexuality. The secular world merely lets sexuality remain natural, and the New Age movement amongst many others, actively engage sexuality. The results have been much more positive and healthy than those of the classical monotheistic religions. This is one reason why countries that have liberal laws on abortion also have much lower rates of abortion than highly religious countries that restrict it heavily. An atmosphere of taboo and restriction serves limits responsible sexual behaviour. Rather than an ostrich, be a peacock!”
There are many who tie confused teachings on sexuality with sexual deviancy in society; the same logic applies to the suppression of women. In a recent talk at the Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom & Equality event, the invited speaker Naomi Phillips spoke on women's reproductive rights and said that although secularism doesn't guarantee fair rights for women, it is still a necessary prerequisite simply because of the limiting harm that religion has so far done; the biggest threat to such rights still come from strict religion-based lobby groups.20
"The OverPopulation of the Earth: Explosions, Pensions and Cultural War" (2006). Accessed 2013 Jan 17.
"The Peacock vs. the Ostrich - Religious Behaviour and Sexuality" (2008). Accessed 2013 Jan 17.
Political Ideologies (2003). 3rd edition. First edition 1992. Published by Palgrave MacMillan.
"Birth Control and Catholic Doctrine" in London Quarterly and Holborn Review (1965 Oct) pp.315-27. In Wilson (1966) p89.
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
Why I am not a Christian (1957). Quotes from Fourth Impression of 1967 edition, 1971, Unwin Books.
Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis (1995). Hardback. Published by BunnerMazel Inc., New York, USA. A.W. Richard Sipe is a retired Roman Catholic Priest. Lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Chair of the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institution, Minnesota, USA. (Biblio detail correct as of 1995). The Amazon link points to a modern book by Sipe on the same topic as the one referenced here.
Religion in Secular Society (1966). Penguin Books softback first edition.