Catholics Do What?,  Contraception,  Culture of Death,  Marriage,  Sex

What if Contraception Won’t Make You Happy?

I’ve written so many times about what contraception is (bad medicine, bad for the environment, bad for relationships, to name a few) and so I want to spend some time these next few days talking about what contraception isn’t. 

I’m giving a talk at our parish on Thursday night (come on down if you’re local – 6:30 pm at St. Mary’s in Littleton, beer and brats and free babysitting!) and while I’ve been preparing my notes I keep coming back to one primary thesis: everybody wants to be happy and to be loved.

That’s the basic motivation behind contraceptive use, I think. Aside from the fact that it’s just become kind of a cultural no-brainer that if you’re a woman of childbearing age of course you’re going to be “protecting” yourself against the possibility of pregnancy.

But I think almost everybody – childless-by-choicers aside – is looking for a temporary reprieve from what they perceive to be a life-alterning burden that they’ll probably take upon themselves willingly one day.

And so by investing in a little “protection,” they’re leveraging their youth against the possibility of unplanned or unanticipated deviations along the life and career and relationship path, namely ones which share half their DNA.

So I think it’s a kind of insurance policy that couples – women – take out in order to maximize happiness.

I don’t think there are a bunch of women willingly popping mind and body-altering hormones every morning just for the hell of it.

I’d bet nearly every single woman using contraception (and I’m speaking mostly to women here because in all honesty, we bear the brunt of the burden in terms of side effects and responsibility, don’t we?) is doing so under the impression that it will greatly maximize her happiness so long as she can prevent/indefinitely postpone pregnancy.

I don’t think people contracept because they don’t like children. I mean, maybe a handful, a single-digit demographic of the larger population, but I don’t think that’s true for most users.

The real reason?

I think they’re afraid. 

Afraid of what an unplanned pregnancy might mean for their marriages, or, if not married, for their social status and their economic wellbeing.

Afraid of what a toll pregnancy will take on their bodies, on their careers, on their lifestyles.

Afraid of what might happen if the man they’re sleeping with – either out of love or boredom or convenience – were to find them burdensome or inconvenient or overwhelming in their fertility and walk away as a result.

Obviously there are a myriad of other reasons, some more nuanced than others, and everybody has their own story, but I’m speaking here of the primary cultural motivation for an almost unquestioning and unanimous embrace of what was considered immoral and almost unspeakably wrong less than a hundred years ago, and for most of human history up until then.

And I think it’s the fear of being unhappy.

Somehow in the past century or so, we’ve conflated childbearing and stable, lasting romantic unions (aka marriages) with tedious life sentences of drudgery and toil, choosing instead to embrace the promise of casual, uncomplicated sex (as if such a thing could ever exist) and in turn surrendering our right to need and to be needed by our partners, by our spouses.

So if contraception promises happiness, and contraption’s primary purpose is to prevent (or destroy) new life, then what must the primary impediment to happiness be, to the modern mind?


Sex is how new life is created. The most secular biology text will corroborate with me on this one. It’s primary purpose is to continue the species. Is it also desirable and highly pleasurable? Yep. But those are incidentals, attached in order to encourage us along the path of rightness, much like the pleasure of eating and drinking. Can it be over done? Of course. But that doesn’t negate the real pleasure inherent in the practice, or strip away the importance of enjoying it.

But while eating to excess and then vomiting afterwards is considered (for now, at least) to be disordered to the point of illness, we’ve somehow lost our collective minds over the idea that sex was supposed to mean something, was always intended to be associated with at least the potential for bringing forth new life.

Because the consequences of sex are sometimes eternal. Immortal, even. With individual souls. And in our individualistic and, frankly, deeply selfish culture, what could be less sexy than the prospect of an unending commitment to love?

What indeed.

There’s a reason that the child has become increasingly more commoditized and devalued as contraception has become more available and widely embraced. When we separate the origins of a thing from its nature, it becomes increasingly more difficult to recognize the inherent value and meaning of it.

When kids become simply a lifestyle add-on or a relationship upgrade option, it’s difficult to reconcile the inherent value and dignity of every human person.

But the dignity remains, whether or not we choose to see it.

And the potential for happiness, for real, gritty, soul-stretching and life-altering happiness, is immense.

I’d be willing to bet that very few people who are routinely contracepting right now would be willing to continue doing so if they could become convinced of the antithetical relationship between the pseudo control it offers them and real, lasting happiness: the kind that hard work and lasting commitment and a profound gift of self can deliver.

So perhaps the perfect point of entry into the heart of a modern man or woman convinced of the irrefutable good and necessity of the Pill is to soften that heart to the reality that life outside the pharmacy walls is really pretty sweet.

It’s not perfect, by any means, but there is a profound dignity and satisfaction in the relationship between a man and a woman that is inherently ordered to and capable of bringing forth new life.

Far from hampering the relationship between the spouses, it enhances and heightens the experience of love, of belonging, and, ultimately, of happiness.

Clearly I’m speaking out of the belief that sex belongs rightly to marriage, but that’s nothing new. In fact, for more than 2,000 years it was increasingly, and eventually, widey accepted. If you think about why it is we no longer associate sex with marriage, well, I’m going to pin that one on contraception, too.


  • Anna

    I think the one thing I’m struggling with this article is around the responsibility that comes with having a family. For example, isn’t contraceptive a good choice for a married couple who cannot afford to start/expand their family?

    • Jenny Uebbing

      I think a lot of couples go down that path intending to be “responsible” or good stewards, but the fact is it’s either damaging to the couple’s relationship and contrary to God’s plan for marriage, or it isn’t. It (contraception, that is) can’t be good for some people but sinful for others. It’s either wrong and harmful, or the Church is crazy and it’s perfectly fine to sever the connection between sex and babies. Does that make sense, that it can’t be a case-by-case basis? That’s like okaying certain percentages of the population to ingest poison but warning others off of it.

      Thankfully for couples who are trying to postpone or avoid pregnancy there is Natural Family Planning, which can help a family who really can’t welcome a(nother) child with spacing and avoiding. And, NFP rightly recognizes that abstinence during times of fertility is the *only* surefire guarantee against an unplanned pregnancy.

      Contraception, even the most effective methods, still involves doing the thing which causes babies and then being shocked when it “fails” or malfunctions. I’ve met plenty of mothers with children who were conceived on the pill or while using an IUD who are still angry/confused/resentful about it, even though they love their kids.

      NFP can be tricky too, and it’s not a guarantee against pregnancy even when used perfectly, because we’re not perfect and sex, no matter what our particular desires and dispositions may be in any given act, was intended to create life. But the one thing it can never be is contraceptive, because there’s no separation between the sexual act and the couple’s intrinsic openness to life – you aren’t tampering with or shutting down or sterilizing anything, you’re simply making use of infertile days to have sex.

      Even then, life can (and sometimes does) find a way, but even then, when a couple enters into the sexual act, they ought to do so with the knowledge that a baby could result. That’s what our culture has become so confused about, that sex = babies.

    • Cassie

      I agree… Not to mention the fact that we use two and a half earths worth of resources already. It’s only going to get worse if we just keep having children because it creates “happiness” in a contraceptive free Union. My husband and I chose to have one child, and we’ve never been happier. Happiness to each individual is their own personal choice. For my husband and I, having one child means more sleep, and eating organic because we can afford too. It means we can both exercise, and travel and have quality conversations with one another. We both enjoy working, I’m not in a good frame of mind when I’ve tried staying home. Most of our friends that have 3-4 kids are exhausted and stressed and time with their spouses are limited. Exercise is hard for them and travel is just a distant dream. Most of my girlfriends stay home because child care cost is expensive. Everyone is blessed in their own way, and I’m beyond happy with my copper IUD (hormone free) and the life my husband and I have chosen to create. We get to experience having a child, which has been great, but choosing not to add anymore onto our plate. We can say for us, we are living a highly passionate, driven, loving, life with each other and our one daughter.

      • Jenny Uebbing

        But are you aware that you can still control/plan for the size of your family using NFP, which has zero side effects, isn’t an abortifacient (like the copper IUD you mention is) and enriches your relationship with your husband rather than damages it?

        The point of this piece isn’t to stress that having kids is easy (of course it’s not – you have one, you know) or that everybody should have as many as physically possible, but that children aren’t the enemy of happiness that you make them out to be, and that contraception isn’t the panacea to all the woes of women (and men.)

        p.s. we still work out most days of the week, have great conversations, and eat organic. It’s not a pipe dream 😉

      • Guest

        “…experience having a child…”? If I may say so, your approach to children sounds sterile (no double meaning intended). A wife/mother gives birth to, and with the husband/father, *raises* a child. “Experiencing” is what you do when you bring a puppy home from the pet shop and decide whether or not having a dog is going to work out.

      • Marie

        Cassie, it sounds like one of your concerns is that you believe the world is overpopulated and that there aren’t enough resources on the planet to support a population of humans that even replaced itself, let alone doubled or tripled or quadrupled at each generation. I can see why that would be very concerning to you. It also sounds like, especially from your last sentence that you feel very happy and that your life is full of love. I can imagine that you would feel frustrated and perhaps affronted at reading an article that appears to assume without asking you that you are a) unhappy, or worse still to assume that you are b) lacking love in your life. Am I right so far?

        I’d like to try and respond to these things if I may, in a way that may possibly make some of Jenny’s points about Catholic teaching on contraception at least a *bit* more understandable to you, and hopefully less frustrating. It may be that you still disagree, but hopefully it will at least sound a) less like planet-dooming nonsense and b) less like a personal judgment on your happiness or level of love. With me so far? Here goes!

        First, about the overpopulation. It is very interesting to learn is the actual facts related to human population growth and its impact on available resources – they aren’t what most people believe. One real quick tidbit that helps to set things in perspective is that even at current population levels (which are about as high as they’ve ever been in recorded history), every person on this planet could live comfortably in an area smaller than the size of the state of Texas, leaving all the entire rest of the planet to be used to produce food and other needed materials (which is many times more space than needed for either task). That tidbit only just scratches the surface of the relevant facts, but it is reassuring and the rest of the evidence is even more reassuring that the world is not overpopulated and in fact could comfortably sustain a much, much larger human population than it does now.

        However, with that said, the overpopulation problem is still worth considering from a theoretical perspective. Because, even if it won’t be soon, there could still come a point in the future where we were close to the maximum point of what the earth could sustain. What then? If everyone followed Catholic teaching would we all just have to starve to death? (Not allowed to contracept, not allowed to euthanize any of the living, not allowed to fight wars over the dwindling food and water resources…Catholic options would appear pretty limited, huh? :))

        The answer is no, not at all. For one thing, parents could and would limit family size via Natural Family Planning. For another, the Catholic choices of vocation open up options not available to secular minded individuals. A sizable percentage of Catholics each year currently choose to devote their lives to service as clergy or religious brothers or sisters; they live lives of complete chastity (equals no children) and loving service and find great fulfillment and happiness in doing so. In our hypothetical scenario, it’s not unreasonable to imagine the percentage going up a good bit based simply on the fact that the entire hypothetical population is Catholic and these types of vocations are much more common in locales where the whole culture is likeminded. There are other reasons to think the percentage would go up, as well, one very obvious one being that it’s already a choice that is regarded as a generous response to the needs of humanity. In the hypothetical scenario, a very great need of humanity would be for population growth to not exceed replacement, so all the more reason for generous individuals to serve that need by voluntarily embracing a vocation involving chastity.

        The final part of my response deals with the happiness / love aspect, which I realize can be a very personal one. The first thing I’d like to do is turn the situation around and suggest that the Catholic point of view related to sex and happiness is more expansive than the usual secular point of view, not narrower as many would claim.

        For the Catholic viewpoint acknowledges that people can be perfectly happy who never engage in sexual activity, while the usual secular viewpoint does not seem to acknowledge this. In the Catholic worldview you have two broad categories of very happy, fulfilled, loving people: those who at some point in their lives will marry and engage in sexual activity, and those who choose to permanently renounce this. In the secular worldview, you only have one category of happy people, those who at some point manage to achieve “a good sex life”. It’s assumed by secular people that anyone who doesn’t have sex is doomed to unhappiness. Hence we have the push for kids to be made sexually aware at younger and younger ages, etc etc. Catholics question that underlying assumption that sexual activity is required for a happy life and thus end up with an entire second category for “highly passionate, driven, loving” lives (to use the words you chose :)) that is almost entirely absent from the secular mindset (I say *almost* because there may possibly be an outlier somewhere who has chosen lifelong chastity without a religious motive, but such a case is unknown to me).

        The second thing I would offer for consideration regarding happiness / love is that it is possible that the working definitions of the words are not the same the way you are using them and the way Catholic teaching uses them. Meaning that if a Catholic says that “happiness” or “love” is lacking, they perhaps don’t mean you are lacking the thing that you are thinking of when you hear the word. Make sense?

        To be more specific, while there are a variety of ways to define the word “happiness,” in one definition the meaning would be “being in a state where suffering is minimal and pleasure maximal.” The word “happiness” can also be used in another definition that means “being in a state where neither the absence of pleasure nor even the presence of outright suffering diminishes the abiding peace and joy that the individual experiences.” It’s the latter definition that most closely approximates what Catholics would be referring to when they talk about a moral choice leading to happiness (or unhappiness if the immoral choice is made). Regarding love, there are of course myriad ways the word is used but to take two examples, one popular definition would be something like “the feeling one has when in a relationship with someone whose happiness makes you happy and who feels the same way about you”. But a different definition would be “the act of the will that chooses to put another person’s happiness ahead of one’s own even when that means a great sacrifice and regardless of the other’s response.” The second definition is usually what is meant in Catholic teaching regarding love. Is it possible that your definitions are more closely aligned with the first of each pair than the second, meaning that you and Jenny were possibly talking about entirely different things but just happened to be using the same words?

      • Guest

        Cassie, one thing to consider. If eating organic, exercising and treating your body whole and healthy is very import to you, then why would you introduce something to your body that causes toxicity in some form? Jason Evert has a superb talk called Green Sex. I bet you might find the information very intriguing. God bless you and your family.

  • Angelina

    I have been an avid reader of your blog for awhile now, but never commented. You absolutely make my day with your well thought out, charitable, articulate, and beautiful posts! Thank you for your evangelization here! You are a gem and a joy.

  • Ellen

    I’ve been reading the community board on my pregnancy tracker app and marveling to my husband how many stumblingly good women are out there, and how afraid they are of so many things, and how much they are trying to love well, to do right, and live good lives with almost no direction.

  • Ellen

    Oh, and the point of that reflection, that almost all of them assume they need to use contraception and they hate it.

  • Erika

    My husband and I were just talking at dinner last night about how unfortunate it is that we are considered “abnormal” because we chose abstinence through our courtship and engagement and because we are consciously and prayerfully practicing NFP in our marriage. Most people truly don’t understand the negative emotional effects of contraceptives, but this post was so clearly and poignantly written that I’m excited to share it with friends that question me in the future. Thank you!

    • Cami

      Hubby and I got some doubtful looks too when we were saving the good stuff for marriage. But it was the best way to begin our lives together and I know continues to bless us, now 5 years into marriage and 3 kids later. NFP is our method of planning and we are firm about that, again being met with raised eyebrows. Just wanted to reach out and give you a virtual high five! It takes courage and faith to choose the road less traveled.

  • Kristina Howard

    I think that your interpretation of people’s use of contraception is backward. I don’t think that people delay or reduce the number of children they have in order to be happy, but to be slightly less unhappy. My mother is a generally unhappy person and having four children made her slightly moreso. I am a generally happy person, but having been pregnant at an inconvenient time (once), I would have been slightly less happy if the pregnancy hadn’t failed – the unhappiness mainly due to not being able to afford (financially, physically and emotionally) another baby so soon after the previous one.
    Now I presume you’re speaking to Catholic people specifically with regards to the directive against the use of artificial contraception, and fair enough. And you’re right that you’d have to ‘soften hearts’ to convince even married Catholic women to give up contraception and to embrace NFP, because clearly they are not wholly convinced that it’s a good idea to be ‘iffy’ about family planning. The fact is that most of the people you’re speaking about are really prepared to have their hearts opened to life-long commitment and immense happiness (etc), but not, perhaps, so many times. It is, in fact, true that sex causes babies, and in spite of efforts to the contrary, might result in pregnancy. There are, however, real physical, emotional and financial costs to having a large number of children (however wonderful each of those kids might be), and most people chose rationally to focus their best efforts on fewer offspring than to spread their resources more thinly over a larger group. It’s not actually more selfish, nor more materialistic because the parents are still giving their all, just to a smaller number of loved ones.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      Great point that many people contracept believing it to be a loving, responsible choice (I think I mentioned that in my piece.) My challenge to you is that no matter what your religious belief (or unbelief) may be, there is an essential nature to contraception that is fundamentally anti-life and damaging to the human person and to the relationships within which is it employed. That has little to do with religious practices and lots to do with the fundamental design of the human person and sex itself: what we were created for, what will serve our ultimate good, and what violates or destroys our nature.

  • Jim Anderson

    Great post, Jenny.

    A huge consequence of the contraceptive mentality is broken families. I can see this at my workplace. I might add, that if there are couples with fertility issues, or women that have some other reproductive health issues, they should check out the Pope Paul VI Institute, Dr. Thomas Hilgers. They do amazing work! My oldest stepdaughter is proof of this, as she is carrying her third child.

    Thanks be to God!

  • Becky

    I’m not sure this will come off as especially coherent, but this post didn’t really resonate with me. I’m a recent-ish convert, and we use NFP (which hasn’t posed huge challenges so far–I have two kids, and we’re trying to avoid for the time being, but we’ll re-evaluate if the toddler ever sleeps through the night and quits nursing, which seems to render me infertile for the time being.

    Anyway, I was raised protestant fundamentalist (SDA–kind of a niche thing like Mormonism, but less well-known), and after deciding that Adventists were … probably incorrect, I wasn’t especially religious in college. I lived with my boyfriend and was on the pill because I was in college, and a baby at that point would have made it difficult to finish my education. I’m kind of fanatical about taking my medicine every day, so I never had any pregnancy scares on the pill. Gradually, I kind of “outgrew” my college boyfriend (who was smart but not especially ambitious), and I was the one who ended things. I was never contracepting because I was scared he wouldn’t love me or honor my fertility or whatever. I was contracepting because I didn’t believe there was anything very wrong about premarital sex, and I didn’t want a baby. Toward the end of our relationship–let me just ‘fess up that I stayed in it longer than I would have because he was a cheap roommate–I really didn’t want *his* baby, because I’d decided he was kind of a loser.

    I was not an especially good person in college. Probably, I’m still not a very good person, though I hope the Lord is working on my headstrong spirit. But I suspect that secular people reading this are mostly going to scratch their heads and just not relate, because contraception is just something you *do*, without thinking about it, because for whatever reason you don’t want a baby–but you do want to have sex. And I wasn’t super concerned about a birth control failure because I knew that I took the pill religiously (ha!) every day.

    Not long before I converted, I had a good acquaintance who was devoutly Catholic. She was a single woman about my age, very highly educated, hoping to meet the right guy, and when I found out she was opposed to birth control, I pitied her. I thought, “where on earth is she going to find a similarly devout, educated man who accepts her medieval stance on birth control?!? We’ve since moved across the country, so I don’t know if she’s still single. But it took a religious experience on my part for me to even begin to consider Catholic teachings on sexuality and the body, and there are still days that I just kind of argue with God all day long and ask, “but what about this situation???” I suppose I am still hard of heart and need prayer, but having been raised in a protestant culture that was okay with birth control, and having just taken its okay-ness for granted for over 30 years, it was just a really tough thing for me to accept.

    But I can honestly say that in my life, using birth control wasn’t about fear. My husband and I married in our mid-20s, and he entered a doctoral program right after we married. We agreed when we married that we weren’t going to try to have kids until he was done with his PhD. Now, we were aware of the possibility of pregnancy, and I wasn’t even super freaked out by it. My husband is a great guy, and I knew we would have managed somehow if I had gotten pregnant. It just would have been inconvenient. I mean, if I had been Catholic at the time, I probably would have been using NFP to try to avoid, but I still would have wanted to avoid. Given the culture we live in, and the fact that we were both raised protestant, it never occurred to us that there was any reason *not* to use birth control. We weren’t scared as much as we were pragmatic. We were just looking at things through an entirely different cultural lens.

    I’m not sure that any of this is helpful. As I said, it took a full-blown religious experience for me to begin to consider Catholicism, and even then, it took me a couple of years to accept some of the harder teachings involving sexuality. I’m still not sure I totally accept them, but I’ve accepted that you do have to take some things on faith. So I do. But there’s fear in that, too.

  • Jake in Pittsburgh

    I think, too, that people tend to overlook the nexus of our vocations and our relationships. Three of the four vocational paths (single life, religious life, or the priesthood) REQUIRE voluntary celibacy. Conjugal love is reserved only for the fourth– married life (with a member of the opposite sex…sigh…now we need that qualifier, and soon “opposite sex” will need it’s own qualifier…sigh again…). Married life IS centered on conjugal love and openness to life– go forth and multiply! What a precious calling from the Lord, and thrown away so casually by those blessed with its permission. The flip side is that contraception for those in single life– those called to voluntary chastity– is, well, it’s the door to dishonoring your vocation. A priest or religious who has an affair? “Doesn’t he/she know how WRONG that is?!?…tsk, tsk, God won’t like that at all.” But my use of contraception so I can get it on with my girlfriend? “Oh, well, that’s a “lifestyle choice” you see, totally different situation.” Priests who sleep around? “Yuck.” My condom, her IUD, the Pill? “We totally understand” ( with empathetic eyes and knowing nods). We are called– voca– and God has us on our path, each with its duties, obligations, and blessings. Yet the way is hard and the gate narrow, is it not?

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