Devon, PA. R.J. Snell offers this profound reflection on the fiftieth anniversary of the “conception” of the birth control pill.  Read the whole thing, but here’s a compelling excerpt:

Dr. Trussell, for instance, does not simply conclude that the Pill’s time is over but hopefully expresses that “the future lies instead with fool-proof contraceptives that require almost no thought or action.” He argues that “many women would be far better served by newer long-acting contraceptive methods that don’t require remembering to take a pill each day.”

No thought or action. No memory. These are the new hopes given the rather disappointing results of the Pill. Not self-control or cultural intelligence but newer, easier, more convenient techniques.

Contraception is thought of as something like shampoo or deodorant, a “necessity” that one picks up at the drug store when occasion arises or supplies are low. If we follow Aristotle in defining choice as deliberative desire—that is, that one chooses after deliberating on the means of action to some desired end—we might even say that many people do not even choose to use contraception but rather use it as an inherited and unexamined cultural norm. While Dr. Trussell is certainly correct that new devices and technologies can be invented or promoted thatt reduce or eliminate the need to think and to remember to take a pill, we’ve already reached the point of being thoughtless and forgetful when it comes to birth control.

In The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry states that “birth control is a serious matter, both culturally and biologically,” but what is really “horrifying is not that we are relying so exclusively on a technology of birth control that is still experimental, but that we are using it casually, in utter cultural nakedness, unceremoniously, without sufficient understanding, and as a substitute for cultural solutions . . . and to promote these means without cultural insight.” In other words, a serious matter requiring careful deliberation and sound judgment has been handled carelessly and thoughtlessly—we have been forgetful.

Two of Snell’s many smart suggestions stand out particularly.  First, the language of “choice” and autonomy (the woman as self-legislator who can make law for herself) conceals an actual reduction of the self to automaton; whether we gesture toward the language of Aristotle’s rational animal capable of deliberate choice or of Kant’s man as a moral being whose liberty to choose specifically constitutes him as moral, as human, we must confess such rhetoric a mere patina flaking off of a deliberately un-reflective drive simply not to have to “worry” about the nature and consequences of our actions.

Second, the only alternative to those technocratic solutions that, by definition, try to put decision outside the range of moral action and choice, is the alternative of cultivation: that tenuous self-government that requires a long memory, and an acceptance of our dependence on others and our fragility within the world of creation.  Contraception is not a consumer choice — it is certainly not a “lifestyle choice.”  It is, rather, an entire way of life, promising to the human being a second nature grafted technologically on top of (and repressing) one’s first nature.  As such, it involves not simply asking questions about what one should or should not do in order to attain to human happiness, but rather it transforms one’s conception of what happiness is — what the purpose and meaning of human life is.  And once one changes ends, one changes just about everything that lies on the path as well — including oneself.

It remains hard to get a clear vision of just how devastating and complete a cause modern contraception has been; even after one recognizes the evasions and self-deceptions of portraying contraception as a “personal” or “consumer” choice, one cannot hope to comprehend its full ramifications.  The reader may shrug, wishing to say the use of contraception is an isolated action, without consequences external to the act itself.  The ambivalent “celebration” of the Pill’s anniversary, as Snell notes at the top of his essay, belies this complacency.  I would suggest that far from being of little or no consequence, the Pill has been one of the decisive transformative causes of our society from one of memory and cultivation to one of increasingly listless and dehumanized automata and the disingenuous rhetoric of choice.  Those most likely to concede the scale of this transformation are usually those most likely to blurt the deluded language of “autonomy”; they admit the scope, but lie about its nature.  So let us peer through the screens of evasion and mendaciousness for just a moment: in one half century contraception has shown itself to be perhaps the most various, unpredictable, and significant public event imaginable; its effects easily outstrip those of the spewing oil in the Gulf; indeed, the Pill’s radius of effect, in terms of range and variability, exceeds even that of the atomic bomb.  Let us now return to the climate of our forgetting.

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James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. Well put… interesting thought: contraception changing the ends rather than the means.

    The entire discussion around contraception assumes it is an argument about means, which is why the arguments always seem so circular.

    Put in this context, and to paraphrase Chesterton, the argument is not really about prudentia, but about telos; if one cannot agree on the destination, arguing the route is meaningless.

  2. Some years ago, “60 Minutes” ran an interview with a young black man who had fathered five children with five different women, and contributed nothing to their support. The purpose of the segment was to express outrage over teenage pregnancies and “irresponsible” men, like the one being interviewed. On being asked why he did not feel obligated to support his children, he replied, “If a woman wants to have a child, that be on her, not me.” Of course, we are supposed to be indignant at his response, but if pregnancy is a “choice,” and a “woman’s choice” at that, can he really be wrong? How can something be a woman’s choice and a man’s responsibility? In the view of the young man, contraception and abortion are so freely available that the whole question really is on the woman. If we accept contraception and abortion, can we really dispute this man? I don’t see how.

    “The Pill” was the biggest technological change in my lifetime, perhaps in anyone’s lifetime. It changed the nature of the relationship between man and woman. Indeed, it changed what it meant to be a woman, and therefore what it meant to be a man. And the answer in both cases is, “not much.” We have effectively re-engineered the human person, a project which mostly falls on women, and which is mostly the fall of women. They have no right to motherhood in the context of a family or a community. It is now just another consumer choice, and no one need be concerned with somebody else’s shopping habits.

  3. Would it be possible to get an elucidation of this passage so as to render it something other than the unjustifiable hyperbole it appears to be:

    its effects easily outstrip those of the spewing oil in the Gulf; indeed, the Pill’s radius of effect, in terms of range and variability, exceeds even that of the atomic bomb. 

  4. “Let us now return to the climate of our forgetting.”

    Yes. My father, who was a “simple” country doctor, and who died very young just before the pill became commercially available, said to me many times that any chemical that has the ability to alter the most powerful force in the universe, the life force contained in women, will have nothing but disastrous effects on culture and morality. It will liberate men to be the predators that they are, he said, because it will lessen the fear that women have for their safety. Men’s lust will complement women’s desire to submit–after all, what could the consequences be? The logic leads directly to abortion, which is the greatest holocaust in world history. And of course the irony is that the pill has increased unplanned pregnancy, births outside of marriage, and abortion, because the logic is unassailable; “choice” is the only reasonable answer.

    Choice, of course, is available only to “mature” and well-heeled women who find children inconvenient. “Rational” societies like China find it inconvenient only to use state apparatus to slaughter the children they define as over the limit. Stupid and selfish societies (all of western Europe and most of North America, for example) think that pleasure and choice trump survival. The monster of the twentieth century was not Stalin or Hitler, it was Margaret Sanger and all her followers. The bomb is playing marbles compared with the moral monsters playing with chemical answers to life. Think about that the next time you take your Lipitor.

  5. I’m not defending the pill, but the Bomb will be with us for billions of years in the form of lethal radiation. The bomb spawned nuclear power, which yields uncontainable waste, again lethal for billions of years. Such unimaginable ramifications of disaster–ill-considered if at all by the boosters of the atom and also part of “the climate of our forgetting”–are not “playing marbles.” We can agree on the moral monstrosity of Margaret Sanger without resorting to trivializing the atrocities (whose catalogue is by no means complete) that stem from splitting atoms.

  6. I agree that the pill has harmed our society’s notion of self – perpetuating the concept that we are consumers rather than people and encouraging meaningless interactions, thoughtless choices and empty concepts of success.

    But, I always find it disappointing when someone who’s got it mostly right ignores complexity in favor of rhetorical flourish.

    First, while the Pill has played a role in our culture of excess and diminished responsibility, we were well on our way in that direction prior to its invention. Ford’s assembly line did more to put us on the track of consumer excess, advertising moguls did more to prioritize/commodify sex.

    Second, even though the argument ‘Double Standard!!’ is often tossed on a whim, and is probably one you’ve long learned to ignore – I’m still going to make it. Exaggerating the role of the pill (atom bomb!) reveals a disappointing view of women. Men have always had access to sex-without-consequence. Now women can, too. Yes, a change for both sexes. Yes, more people can behave irresponsibly. Yes, it contributes to our cultural excesses. But to ignore all the other forces aligned in that direction – and diminish the impact on our culture and world of everything ranging from mundane sitcoms to unregulated oil companies – shows just what terrible hyper-sexualized creatures you think the pill has unleashed.

    Third, the post completely ignores the many other roles of the Pill besides allowing co-eds to wantonly frolic. A few: less terrible cramping and more moderate mood swings; preventing pregnancy in women (married & unmarried) who cannot afford more children – this prevents abortions; there have been cases where the pill decreased child mortality in communities in the developing world – women could focus on the health and well being of their current children despite norms which permitted their husbands to treat them as property and keep them constantly pregnant.

    This isn’t to say I don’t generally agree that the pill has not been a good thing for our society. It’s just to muddy the waters a bit, encourage a more critical view of reality.

  7. Amy,
    So far the Bomb has killed a couple of hundred thousand. The pill has opened the door to fifty million dead, and that only in this country. The potential for nuclear destruction does not match the reality of chemical destruction.

    Sex without consequences? Abortions galore and galore, and births outside of marriage up by the hundreds of percent since 1973. I don’t know how old you are, but sex that produced pregnancy also produced marriage when I was young, and I never remember a guy getting off with less consequences than girls. I’m sure it was tilted to the man’s side historically, but then, it’s even more so now. Men can drop seed at will, and women can get my tax dollars to support either the abortion or the “single mother.”

    A critical view of reality: do you really believe that crap about husbands treating women as property? Do you, really?

  8. The pill is not the same as abortion (not talking RU486 here, but birth control). It also didn’t open the door for abortion, unless you want to make the leap to saying that the pill = the sexual revolution = Roe v Wade, which I’d contest.

    As far as sex-without-consequence for guys back in the day – yeah, it was tilted toward the man’s side. Men could have mistresses (how many president’s can we count with known mistresses? I can name at least a dozen), children out of wedlock – and plenty of young men got away with impregnating young women (I’ve read a good bit about where wealthier families would send them away, hiding their shame).

    As far as the now — I’ve never understood why people complain about their tax dollars supporting women struggling to keep the baby, yet are vehemently opposed to abortion in the same sentence. And, again, the pill prevents pregnancies and abortions.

    Finally, yes, men in other parts of the world (still) treat women and young girls as property. One recent example:,%20but%20not%20lashes&st=cse

  9. This is going to seem out of place, perhaps because it is, but Norman Mailer once gave an interview titled “Marriage”–it is reprinted in Pontifications–that is not altogether wrongheaded.

    “Marriage” is a misleading title. Much of the interview concerns the Pill, and not a little of what Mailer has to say is spot-on. Of course the piece is full of obscenities, but it ends with a fairly touching paeon to fidelity, virginity-before-marriage, and marriage.

    Mailer, of all people!

  10. That we are given Mailer as a reference to morality is, well, Mailer. I guess I can agree with him about some things, such as NYC separating from New York State. But to have presented to us on the subject of women as property an example from Afghanistan? As Walter Matthau would have said, “Holy Moly!”

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