To Life and Good Health, Part 2

In my last post, I concluded with the suggestion that Malta has had the benefit of hindsight and vicarious learning when it came to the application of certain policies and changes to culture, and that through observing the progress of other countries before jumping on any bandwagon, it was able to inform prudent decisions.

One such issue was recently brought into the spotlight by the successful Stand up for Life! March in Valletta (though it has been “on stage” for much longer): that of the morning-after pill (MAP). The question has been looked at from a number of angles (scientific, social, political, religious…) and it comes out looking grim – both a priori, and on an observation of its consequences to society.

Although the questions of abortion and contraception are separate (in that one can be legal, or practised, distinctly from the other), the questions of their acceptability in society go hand in hand, and have never been more linked than in the issue of MAPs, whose supporters often claim that they are “just a contraceptive”. The warning of possible abortive effects is written on the pill’s packaging.

With the MAP remains the risk of (unwittingly) advancing the consequences associated with “direct” abortion; in larger countries, with more diverse populations, the largest consumers of abortion are ethnic minorities (see: Rev. Dr. Clenard H Childress Jr.) and those in lower income brackets, resulting in disproportionately fewer children being born to these groups. Of course, there is a statistical bias here, in that those in lower income brackets are more likely to be ethnic minorities, but this isn’t exactly a redeeming factor – if anything it highlights inequality. The side-effects of contraceptives on women are also well-documented (see: Prof. Helen Alvaré, Women Speak for Themselves), these being effects on health as well as social standing. Abortifacent or not, the MAP leads to these consequences as well.

Indeed, contraception as a whole is not without controversy. On one memorable occasion at one of my teaching posts, I approached a student who seemed to be having some trouble with the assignment: she was doubled-over in pain over her paper. Concerned, I asked if I should notify the building’s first aider. “Oh no, don’t worry,” she breathed, “it’s just my IUD. I was told it could hurt for some time after I got it, but it seems to be taking longer than it should to settle down”. Then, with a cheeky smile, she added, “It’s easy for men, isn’t it? No pain at all. I’ll be glad when we can share the burden.”

She might have been happy in summer this year, when a study of male birth control injections reported a probable 96% effectiveness of the new drug. However, the excitement would have been short-lived, as the study had to be halted on the recommendation of an external safety committee; a large number of participants dropped out reporting unbearable adverse effects from the drug including mood changes/depression, nausea, acne and irregular heartbeats – in other words, the common side-effects of taking the female contraceptive pill. When given the chance to “share the burden”, men (predictably) said, “No, thanks!”

So, do women just have to accept the fact that this is on them, side effects and all? Hardly. Who is the pill serving? Contraception evidently shifts the balance of power and responsibility firmly in favour of men (in that men get all of the former and none of the latter) – a shift that is both undeserved, and unnecessary, particularly when methods like Natural Family Planning are available. The catch of NFP, of course, is that it demands a greater appreciation and understanding of the body, particularly the female body. This is seen as subversive where a simple suppression of (female) function is the norm.

That can be changed, of course. Chesterton reminds us that, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” A living thing… or a whole culture of life.

I leave you with a thought from Blessed Paul VI. About 50 years ago, Bl. Paul VI made three predictions for a future – our present – where artificial contraception is the accepted norm, recorded in Humanae Vitae (Article 17). These are: i) the prevalence (and acceptance) of infidelity and family breakdown; ii) the degradation and objectification of women; and iii) governments and other “public authorities” using these new methods and technologies for eugenic ends.

The resemblance between this prediction and the world we now live in is striking. But not the whole world… yet. With the foresight of Paul VI, and the hindsight from our time, our next steps can be better informed.

Benjamin Portelli is a PhD student researching Visual Perception at the University of St Andrews. He has lived in a few countries (Malta, Scotland, the UAE and Bahrain) and visited a few more. When he isn't in the lab, Benjamin can be found reading articles or planning his next escape (usually back to Malta).Benjamin has held positions of responsibility in youth/student organisations. More recently, this has included President of the Aberdeen University Catholic Society, Treasurer of the Aberdeen University Scottish Dance Society and Treasurer of the St Vincent de Paul Society (Dundee Students' Conference).

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