Close Mobile Menu

The Pope and The Pill: Why Berkeley Health Professor Sees Visit as a Missed Moment

September 28, 2015
by Krissy Eliot

As Pope Francis ended his widely hailed U.S. visit yesterday and flew home, he left behind at least one disappointed American: UC Berkeley professor of public health Malcolm Potts.

Once again the Pope ignored the urging of family planning advocates such as Potts, who has repeatedly—and most recently in a letter to the editor of The New York Times—called on the Pope to resolve turmoil in the Catholic Church over its opposition to married priests and its condemnation of contraception. And he said the Pope could do so by making one simple statement: “I reject the teaching of St. Augustine that sexual intercourse transmits original sin.”

A millennium and half ago, St. Augustine—who wrote of his struggles with lust—declared that the primary purpose of sex and marriage was the procreation of children. Such thinking has permeated church doctrine ever since. By 1968, after the introduction of The Pill and other artificial methods of contraception, most U.S. Catholics believed that the church would drop its ban on contraception. But Pope Paul VI instead reiterated Augustine’s beliefs with the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Potts suggests that the requirement that priests be celibate explains why it’s so difficult to recruit priests today, and that the prohibition against artificial birth control helps explain why so many U.S. parishioners have left the church. The most recent Gallup Survey on the subject found that not only do 89 percent of Americans say they believe birth control to be morally acceptable, but so do 82 percent of U.S. Catholics.

Professor Potts in one of his "condom ties."

Noting that he is “known around campus as the professor with the condom ties, ” Potts also contends that refusing contraceptive options unfairly robs a woman of her autonomy. “The definition of a slave is someone who can’t control their body,” he says. “If you can’t separate sex from childbirth, you can’t control what happens in your life.”

The Pope’s critics saw irony in his speech to Congress earlier this September, in which he said that we shouldn’t “repeat the sins and the errors of the past,” particularly in regards to war and violence, and that we should fight the “cycle of poverty … on many fronts, especially in its causes.” He also said that if we want security, life, and opportunities for ourselves, then we must give them to others—citing the Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

As birth control advocates see it, artificial contraception provides women with opportunities, life and security at all times—unlike natural family planning (the only contraception the church supports), which requires women to abstain from sex during their fertile periods and puts them at risk of having unwanted pregnancies. Potts also cites what he sees as a fallacy of the Pope’s Golden Rule logic, contending that it is unlikely that any female would want to have that choice taken from her. Access to family planning has also proven to be effective in decreasing war and poverty in many nations that have readily available birth control.

In Potts’s book, Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, he explains how rapid population growth directly correlates with violence and civil unrest in society, and how populations with low median ages usually experience more conflict than those with higher median ages. Young men between 15 and 29 possess high testosterone levels, and when there is a “youth bulge” of young men, violence increases. In Liberia, which has been badly damaged by war, the mean age is 17, and in Pakistan and Afghanistan, nearly half of all adults are in the volatile age bracket, which Potts notes in an article “The Pill Is Mightier Than the Sword.” Essentially, by providing women with the choice to control how many children they birth, the youth bulge could be avoided, which could result in a decrease in violence in war-torn societies.

Aside from statistical evidence that access to family planning can solve other societal problems, Potts notes that sex is not just about babies. “Most humans have sex because they love each other. And to suggest that that transmits original sin … is really a horrible teaching,” he says.

Asked why, given his arguments about female autonomy, he has not included an appeal to the pontiff for the Catholic Church to abandon its moral prohibition of abortion, Potts draws a distinction. “Abortion is a different set of decisions. As a person who has performed abortions, I respect people who have a different opinion on that,” he says. “I don’t respect people who have a different opinion on contraception. That’s crazy.”

And although he is not Catholic, he nonetheless says he knows enough about Catholicism to understand that acceptance of abortion probably won’t change in the next 50 years, if ever. The prospects seem greater for swaying official church views on birth control—eventually.

But no change appears imminent, given that during his U.S. visit, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop to call on the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose members filed an unsuccessful lawsuit contesting the Obamacare mandate that employers provide insurance coverage for birth control (or, in a later accommodation, that they submit waivers so that insurers will provide such coverage without their direct involvement). Either way, the sisters argued, they would be in effect supporting birth control—and thus compelled to violate their own consciences.

The special papal visit “was, obviously, a sign of support for them,” said Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, who was quoted by the Catholic News Agency. And many Catholics seem to share his sympathies: The Gallup poll also found 56 percent of them “sympathized with the views of religious leaders” who object to providing contraceptive coverage.

Share this article