Birth Control: An Open Letter

To Clare Gruening Stillman,
Secretary Birth Control League.

My Dear Madam:--A careful searching of memory and an anxious examination of conscience have not enabled me to discover any act or utterance of mine which would justify you in expecting that I should consider favorably your invitation, which I have received, to become a member of the Birth Control League. I regard the practice which your organization desires to promote as immoral, degrading and stupid. The so-called contraceptive devices are intrinsically immoral because they involve the unnatural use, the perversion, of a human faculty. One of the most important human faculties is used in such a way as to frustrate its natural end. Such conduct is quite as immoral as self-mutilation, or the practice of solitary vice. Any person who rejects this fundamental moral principle concerning the wrongfulness of perverting a faculty, must logically hold that there is no such thing as intrinsic immorality, that moral badness is always identical with individual disutility, and that anything is right which any individual thinks is useful for him.

The practice in question is degrading because it perverts conjugal intercourse from cooperation (potential if not actual) with the Creator into a mere means of sensual gratification. It brings husbands and wives down to the level of mutual instruments of indulgence. The disgusting calculation and repulsive artifice which characterize the various contraceptive devices, tend inevitably to diminish conjugal reverence, self-respect and mutual respect. It is doubtful whether any normal man or woman ever began such practices without suffering a severe moral shock, or continued them without serious moral degeneration. It is not surprising that men and women who thus pervert one of the highest functions of life, and the most intimate relation of marriage, should grow obtuse in their perceptions of the sacredness and exclusiveness of wedlock, and of the binding character of conjugal obligation. It is not a mere coincidence that childless marriages, and one or two-child marriages should form such a large proportion of the cases in which divorce is sought on "statutory grounds." Incidentally I would observe that, so far as I know, physicians are practically unanimous in declaring that all the contraceptive practices are in some degree injurious to health.

These practices are stupid because they are so evidently subversive of the end which the Birth Control League profess to promote; namely, human welfare. And the advocates thereof are short-sighted and superficial. They have not learned the obvious lessons of human history, nor grasped the fundamental facts of human psychology. They fail to realize the inevitable by-products of the practice. It is probably true that if the poorest laborers could restrict the size of their families, they could raise their standard of living, and increase to some degree their material welfare. But this is only one of the consequences. When we take a comprehensive view of the situation, we find that any group, class, or nation that once becomes addicted to the use of contraceptives does not give it up after the immediate material ends have been attained. They are not content to take advantage of these devices merely until they have reached a level of reasonable comfort. They continue them in the interest of ease and luxury. This is what has happened and is happening in those sections of the middle and upper classes that have adopted the abominable vice, and there is no good reason to hope that the poorer classes would fail to follow their example.

Now, the restriction of the number of children to one, two or three for the sake of ease and material satisfaction, inevitably produces a disinclination to endure hardship, an inability to put forth painful effort, and a general weakening of moral fiber. This means a decline in every sort of efficiency; for the capacity to endure and the ability to do without, will forever remain the essential conditions of achievement. Talk as we will about "the joy of work," the sober fact is that every kind of labor involves painful exertion if it is carried on continuously, effectively, and up to the limit of one's capacity. There are few if any active persons who would not find it more pleasant to diminish considerably the amount of time and effort that they spend at their tasks. Now, a social practice, like the use of contraceptives, which aims at a life of ease and a shirking of unpleasant duties, reduces fatally the power of endurance, and the ability to carry on sustained and effective labor. It affects the few children that are born even more than the parents; for it deprives them of the necessary training in endurance, and keeps before them the bad example of their luxury-loving elders. They are not only small in quantity, but poor in quality; that is, in moral quality, which is the supreme human quality. The social group that has thus weakened its moral fiber inevitably declines in social power and importance. Witness the decadence of the New England strain in our own population; the condition of the French nation, as described and deplored by such authorities as the great economist, P. Leroy-Beaulieu; and the imminent degeneration that threatens certain sections of the English-speaking peoples in more than one country, as set forth in detail by Mr. Beale in his "Racial Decay."

I have no intention of denying that large sections of the laboring class have only too much opportunity to cultivate their capacity for endurance. They would be not only more comfortable but more efficient if this opportunity were considerably diminished. But the only safe way to bring about this result is by bettering their condition economically. The remedy advocated by the Birth Control League is futile and disastrous, inasmuch as, in the long run, and sometimes in the "short run," it impels its votaries to the other extreme, to the pursuit of ease and luxury, and to the adoption of ideals and practices which inevitably produce moral deterioration and a serious decline in efficiency. Wherever the small family cult is practiced, it is both the effect and the cause of a conception of life which regards an indefinite increase of material satisfaction and sensations as the highest good. It involves the most far-reaching exemplification that the world has ever known of what Carlyle called "pig-philosophy." Why should we be in haste to fasten this curse upon the laboring classes? Until such time as the poorest laborers are put in possession of living wages, they have within their power an entirely innocent means of keeping down the number of their offspring, namely, conjugal abstinence. Those parents who have sufficient moral strength to adopt this means will be in no danger of character-degeneration through the presence of a small instead of a large family. Those who do not feel equal to this sacrifice can not afford to run the risk of the moral deterioration which follows the use of contraceptives. They need that natural and compulsory form of self-denial which a large family involves. I am well aware that it is easy to find exceptions to the dire consequences that I have attributed to the practice of the small family cult; but my statements apply to large social groups, and assume that the practice is maintained through two or three generations. In these conditions experience has shown, and continues to show, that the thing is socially disastrous.

Were I a believer in the doctrine that "the end justifies the means," I should, as a Catholic, rejoice in every extension of the nefarious practices advocated by the Birth Control League. For I should feel assured that every such extension was hastening the day when Catholics would become the predominant element in our population. Already the tendency in this direction has been considerably accelerated through the prevalence of the small-family cult among non-Catholics. Unfortunately many Catholics have been, to some extent, contaminated by the bad example set in this matter by their separated brethren. Nevertheless, the extent to which Catholics will become addicted to this vice will always remain relatively insignificant. For the Church will forever oppose it as something intrinsically and eternally immoral, and will deprive those who persist in it of access to the Sacraments. In the struggle for existence which the use of contraceptives has created, the Catholic element in our population will survive because it is the fittest to survive; that is, because the Catholic element will retain and sustain those moral qualities that are the chief factor in fitness for survival among human beings. The mass of Catholics will continue to cultivate those qualities which are the only safeguard against the development of rotten hearts and flabby intellects. Catholics will have not only the quantity, the numbers, but the quality as well; for in the nurture of human beings quality can not be maintained without quantity. The clearest proof of this statement is the fact that, as between, say, one hundred large families of the poor and an equal number of middle-class families who represent the second generation of votaries of the small-family cult, a larger number of efficient and achieving persons will arise out of the former group than out of the latter.

I am invited to send two dollars for membership in the Birth Control League. I must respectfully decline, with the observation that I would much rather give the money to an organization for the training of prize fighters. It would aid in the development of at least some manly and human qualities.

Yours, "more in sorrow than in anger," St. Paul.
JOHN A. RYAN, D.D.

This article was originally printed in The Catholic Mind, June 22, 1915,
and is reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc. Copyright © 1915.
All Rights Reserved. http://www.americamagazine.org



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