Astonishing Things Freud, Teddy Roosevelt, Gandhi and T.S. Eliot Said About Contraception

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195. Astonishing Things Freud, Teddy Roosevelt, Gandhi and T.S. Eliot Said About Contraception

It was contraception that caused me to leave the Church as a teenager and it was contraception that brought me back into the Church in my 20s. I shared some of that story in my last blog. Here I want to share how discovering the predictions of some very prominent thinkers of the early 20th century helped open my eyes to what’s at stake.

I remember how surprised I was to learn that, until 1930, all Christian denominations were unanimous in their firm opposition to any attempt to sterilize sexual intercourse. That year, when the Anglican Church opened the door to contraception at its Lambeth Conference, it was the first Christian body to break with the continuous teaching of the early Church, the spiritual masters throughout the ages, and all the Reformers from Luther to Calvin and beyond. By the time the Pill debuted in the early 1960s, the historical Christian teaching, once universally held, had come to be seen by most of the modern world as archaic and absurd.

Only a few decades earlier, when Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger first started her global campaigns for contraception, there was no shortage of predictions that embracing contraception would lead to the societal chaos in which we’re now immersed. You might be just as surprised as I was to read what the following prominent thinkers of the early 20th century had to say about contraception and what they predicted would happen if we embraced it.

Sigmund Freud, for example, while he was clearly no friend of religion, understood that the “abandonment of the reproductive function is the common feature of all perversions. We actually describe a sexual activity as perverse,” he said, “if it has given up the aim of reproduction and pursues the attainment of pleasure as an aim independent of it” (Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis, W. W. Norton and Company, 1966, p. 392).

Theodore Roosevelt condemned contraception as a serious threat against the welfare of the nation, describing it as “the one sin for which the penalty is national death, race death; a sin for which there is no atonement.”  The “men and women guilty thereof,” he believed, exhibited a “dreadful” lack of character (State Papers as Governor and President, in Works XVII).

Mahatma Gandhi insisted that “there can be no two opinions about the necessity of birth-control. But the only [appropriate] method … is self-control,” which he described as “an infallibly sovereign remedy doing good to those who practice it.” On the other hand, “to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts” with contraception is a remedy that “will prove to be worse than the disease.” Why? Because contraceptive methods are “like putting a premium on vice,” he said. “They make men and women reckless … Nature is relentless and will have full revenge for any such violation of her laws,” he predicted. “Moral results can only be produced by moral restraints.” Hence, if contraceptive methods “become the order of the day, nothing but moral degradation can be the result … As it is, man has sufficiently degraded woman for his lust, and [contraception], no matter how well meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her” (India of My Dreams, Mahatma Gandhi, Rajpal & Sons, edition: 2009, pp. 219-220).

When a committee of the Federal Council of Churches in America issued a report suggesting it follow the Anglican acceptance of contraception, The Washington Post published a stinging editorial with the following prophetic statement: “Carried to its logical conclusions, the committee’s report if carried into effect would sound the death knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be ‘careful and restrained’ is preposterous” (“Forgetting Religion,” The Washington Post, March 22, 1931).

Also in response to the Anglican break with Christian moral teaching, T.S. Eliot insisted that the church “is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized, but non-Christian, mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in waiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization and save the world from suicide” (T. S. Eliot, Thoughts After Lambeth, Faber and Faber, 1931).

Perversity? National death? Moral degradation? The death of marriage as a holy institution? World suicide? Isn’t that a bit much to pin on contraception? It would certainly seem so, if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what these forecasters predicted has, indeed, come to pass. What did they understand that we have forgotten?

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